Fancy nipping to Sainsbury's to learn how to send an email? Welcome to learning for all, says John Harwood.
About 65,000 students are studying higher education courses at further education colleges in England, and this number is set to grow as these two branches of education increasingly entwine.
The government's commitment to the expansion of higher education to encompass 50 per cent of the population under 30 years of age dovetails nicely with the remit of the Learning and Skills Council, which was established in April 2001 to plan and fund all education and training outside universities for the over-16s.
For the LSC, it has meant working with colleagues in the Higher Education Funding Council for England through the Partnerships for Progression programme. Later this year, the LSC and Hefce will publish a plan outlining how we will work together to reach the 50 per cent involvement target.
In addition to these activities aimed at widening student access and raising aspirations, the LSC wants to see the promotion of higher standards of education and training. We also want to ensure that employers' needs are better met.
This involves narrowing the skills gap between people and jobs. This will not only aid the UK economy but will also improve the lives and prospects of people who sometimes lack the basic skills, such as numeracy and literacy, needed to progress and to build a career.
Millions of people in this country cannot communicate successfully because of basic gaps in their knowledge. Employers need basic skills improvements to work more effectively alongside the higher-level skills that will allow them to prosper.
Past education policy created a divide between academic learning and vocational training. The LSC aim is to establish a parity of esteem. We want as many people as possible to be included in a more knowledgeable and prosperous economy.
With increased knowledge comes greater personal power, choice and opportunity. We are working hard to spread this message, putting it together with our belief that learning is useful and enjoyable in its own right.
The results of our first National Learner Survey were released this week. They make good reading for further education colleges and providers of work-based learning and adult and community learning.
People like learning. Most are happy with the quality of learning they receive. Nine out of ten people who left school with a negative attitude towards learning are now positive about their abilities, according to the survey.
The LSC wants to attract into learning people with little previous experience of it. We want people who might have allowed fear or a lack of confidence, time or resources to loom larger than the opportunities associated with learning a new skill.
And to prove we mean business, the LSC is pushing into new territory - by enabling trainers and training courses to travel to the students. We are also unveiling all sorts of innovations to make learning more accessible. This means working with existing partners, such as colleges and the University for Industry, and finding new ones.
The I.T.Now@Sainsbury's project, soon to be extended to four supermarkets in London, Reading and the Midlands, is a good illustration. Shoppers in these areas can pick up IT skills with as much ease as they buy their milk or ready meals. Our message is that there is something to learn for everybody.
This summer, one of our campaigns demonstrated that you are never too old to learn. In a quest for England's oldest learner, we discovered 108-year-old Janet Thorpe, who had recently undertaken an IT course and sent her first email.
Qualifications are vital. Industry needs them and they increase earning potential and instil confidence in those who gain them. This in turn leads to a greater involvement with other forms of learning. Here we have a virtuous circle.
The LSC can help colleges provide 16 to 19-year-olds with the encouragement they need to enter - and succeed at - university. We have a thriving relationship with the higher education sector. Many of our appointments go to people with a strong interest in and experience of higher education.
The LSC has set ambitious targets to meet the goal of ensuring that this country's learning and training match the best to be found anywhere in the world. We are committed to widening access to all forms of learning.
The LSC does not underestimate the size of its task. Raising participation in education and training is a challenge and a great opportunity to strengthen our society and our economy. We relish working with our partners to achieve this goal.
John Harwood is chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council.
Statistics: The shape of further education 2001