Hasty Labour plans are 'flops'

April 5, 2002

A government education adviser has warned that Labour's lifelong learning policy is destined to hit the buffers as almost every initiative has flopped.

John Field, a professor of education who helped draft the government's lifelong learning blueprint in 1997, warned that the sector had suffered from "initiative-itus", with too many policies rushed out with headlines in mind before they had been properly thought out.

"It is hard to see a single one which has been a success story," he said. "There have been fundamental design flaws with policies. There has been government by press release."

Professor Field, professor of lifelong learning at Stirling University, said that the target of getting 50 per cent of under 30s through higher education by 2010 had become a source of serious embarrassment.

Speaking to The THES in advance of a speech to the Universities Association for Continuing Education in Scarborough this week, he said: "I get the very strong impression that Estelle Morris is not terribly enthusiastic about the 50 per cent target which she inherited. I would be surprised if she regarded it as achievable and if she could offer a cogent defence of the policy."

He said the participation rate had remained static over the past two or three years and that excitement over an increase in part-time student numbers had been misguided. Part-time numbers may have increased as a result of the re-classification of existing students on non-award bearing extramural courses, a practice that will now be clamped down on.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is concerned that mature students on short courses who do not sit final exams should not be classified as part-time students.

Professor Field also said that foundation degrees, while attracting mature students, had failed to engage 18 to 30-year-olds.

The University for Industry had failed to live up to expectations and individual learning accounts had collapsed after allegations of fraud, he said.

There was a clear acknowledgement that the student funding system was in trouble, he said.

"However, lifelong learning will not go away... and universities have to invent their own futures in a context where lifelong learning poses unavoidable challenges."

He said ministers should learn from the success of premium funding in concentrating vice-chancellors' minds on taking lifelong learning and widening participation seriously.

In an keynote address to the Scottish Further Education Unit's conference on teaching and learning, Professor Field called for a "new deal" for research into learning in further education colleges. He said that the United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular, were lagging behind Europe.

He said researchers ignored further education. "There's no intellectual rationale for it," he said.

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