Massive expansion in further and higher education has failed to produce a significant widening of participation among non-traditional learners, according to a new discussion paper.
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education calls for a radical rethink on how to encourage people, particularly from low income groups but also the disabled and older people, to take part in education, initially in the further education sector.
The paper, Widening Participation Routes to a Learning Society, suggests a number of potential changes in policy to help widen access including funding changes which would allow more cash for targeting non-traditional learners, particularly those from the lower socio-economic groups.
It also suggests that funding mechanisms might be readjusted to make it less financially punitive for colleges to take on students from non-traditional backgrounds. It says this is necessary because colleges are not only required to make a greater initial investment in people in these categories - due to factors like poorer literacy - but may be taking more of a longer term risk because such students are more likely to drop out of courses.
The institute blames cuts in local authority finance, efficiency gains in FE, capital and other reductions in HE, and the ending of the mature student allowance. It also points the finger at the cut of the 21-hour rule to 16 hours, under which students can study before losing state benefit, for "squeezing out" those who need to be brought into education.
There is also firm backing in the paper for the Liberal Democrats' Learning Bank idea, seen as replacing the system of student grants, loans and fees. This would include an element of loan repayable when the student borrower starts earning an agreed amount.
The starting point for the paper, written by NIACE's Tony Uden, is a statistic-laden argument which shows that while there was a doubling in the numbers of university, polytechnic and college students between 1982 and 1992, there was no commensurate widening of access. It says that most adults in education and training are still from the higher socio-economic groups.
NIACE hopes that the paper will not only prompt discussion among all education-related bodies but will be of specific relevance to the deliberations of the Further Education Funding Council's review committee chaired by Helena Kennedy QC.