FE revolution for universities

October 10, 1997

UNIVERSITIES should model themselves on further education colleges as they prepare for the lifelong learning revolution, Bob Fryer, chairman of the Government's National Advisory Group for the forthcoming lifelong learning white paper, told The THES in an exclusive interview this week.

Professor Fryer, principal of Northern College, trod carefully on the issue of finance, warning that any redistribution of cash from higher to further education was a highly sensitive matter. But he did not rule it out.

"The government needs to move towards a system informed by equity. And they need to apply it to funding as well as other measures," he said. "There has to be a better balance. But I'd not rush in to reallocation and redistribution of money. We have to be very cautious if we are not to end up severely damaging what is good about present practice."

Professor Fryer, who reports to the Department for Education and Employment at the end of this month, sees the university in the future as a hub of wider activity in the community, home and local businesses. "In many ways similar to what good FE colleges already do," he said.

He insisted that it was a crucial, "knife-edge", task to ensure that when the government publishes its white paper at the end of November, the policy programme will not "dilute" diversity in the higher education system.

"It is a shift of emphasis," he said. "I do not see us dismantling the university system at all. We still need the concentration of expertise and physical resources universities provide."

But universities would have to rethink and sign up to the collective ambition. This ambition, Professor Fryer said, would be to end the social exclusion in formal education where young people from the wealthiest backgrounds were five times more likely to go to university than those from the poorest backgrounds.

Professor Fryer's views echo those of Helena Kennedy QC in her report into widening access to further education. The final version of Ms Kennedy's report toned down earlier statements that extra money for colleges should come from universities.

Professor Fryer said: "Both the Dearing and Kennedy reports focus our attention on the problem of the social composition of post-school education. If we want to shift to lifelong learning for all, for the many and not the few, as Labour says, we have to correct the problem of the skewed population in colleges and universities."

This would mean huge increases in part-time provision, and distance learning. And it would have major implications for funding, he said.

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