Is it time for the many not the few?

November 14, 1997

Ministers have placed the Fryer group looking into lifelong learning into virtual purdah, but Phil Baty identifies the problems it is seeking to address

The long-awaited lifelong learning white paper was to be published this month. Now education secretary David Blunkett has said it will come "in a few months". Lifelong learning minister Kim Howells told The THES he wants to wait until the new year. "We don't want to publish it until we are absolutely certain of exactly what we want to put in it," he said. "If that is not until after Christmas, then so be it."

Dr Howells insists, with little real conviction, that the white paper will not be "contentious". "Everyone has agreed which big issues need to be addressed. One of them is the future of higher education. Another is the future of further education," he said, with barely a hint of humour. The issues may be clear, but it would seem that there is little consensus about the answers.

Bob Fryer, chair of the national advisory group for the white paper, said his terms of reference were "quite astonishing in their inclusivity and scope". Yet he admitted that the group's 17 members have been "in purdah", shielded by ministers from floating ideas with the outside world. Professor Fryer, principal of Northern College, has likened his group to a fox pursued to its death through the countryside by the hounds, unable to reach the safety of utopia in the next valley.

It is no wonder that ministers have already received four different drafts of the Fryer report, as Dr Howells confirmed. AndProfessor Fryer himself has been called back, again and again, for "last minute" meetings with Mr Blunkett. As The THES went to press, civil servants drafting the white paper still did not have the definitive Fryer report, nor did they have Motorola chief David Brown's report on the University for Industry, which ProfessorFryer said would be fundamental to the big picture.

Professor Fryer has made clear where his priorities lie, as his group's choice of four "task groups" illustrate - family and community learning/learning for citizenship; learning in the workplace; information technology for learning; and, of course, finance and funding. He is forthcoming on the broad principles of his advice: he wants a "movement" - "not a phrase people are comfortable to use these days" - and a culture change. "There is not a culture of lifelong learning in this country," Professor Fryer said.

He talks of "inclusiveness and equity", "partnership" and of tackling "disaffection and alienation". He repeats the new Labour mantra of education "for the many and not the few". He wants to smash down the barriers between higher and further education, schools and local authority adult education.

He has made it clear that government faces some tough choices about colleges and universities, and acknowledges that the way forward will be difficult. On policy initiatives Professor Fryer and his advisers remain coy about what they want to see in the white paper. However, signs are emerging.

The education community, and reportedly education ministers, were taken by surprise when Tony Blair announced at the Labour Party conference this year that there would be an extra half a million students in "higher and further education by 2002. It had all the hallmarks of policy-making on the hoof, and civil servants had no flesh to put on the bones. Answers, we are told, will come in the white paper.

Education minister Tessa Blackstone said she hoped that some new students would come from the one third of adults who had never had a day of education or training since leaving school. Dr Howells said that he did not want a "severe delineation between higher and further education in the debate about what constitutes new students", but that the vast bulk of the extra students would go into further education.

Dr Howells said that finding half a million would be "some achievement", but that it could be done. "Remember that there is a huge further education sector out there with massive potential which is under-utilised. If we are to train these numbers in the skills that we are very short of at the moment, for example in IT and for the construction industry and engineering, I have no doubt that we can get 500,000 people more into further education."

Where the money will come from is a different matter, but one thing is clear. In the turf war between the influence of Helena Kennedy's report into widening access to further education, and Sir Ron Dearing's higher education report, Ms Kennedy has won the ear of the lifelong learning team. Dearing, said Professor Fryer, "was not visionary. He did not take seriously the challenge of a learning society". Although Kennedy softened her original recommendation of a Robin Hood-style redistribution of resources from higher to further education, many of the lifelong learning advisers appear keen on the idea.

The facts of the current system are contrary to the principle of learning for all: young people from the wealthiest backgrounds are five times more likely to go to university than those from the poorest backgrounds. While only a quarter of post-16 learners in England attend university, two-thirds of the post-school education budget is spent on universities. Dr Howells said that was a "shameful iniquity".

Professor Fryer said that redressing the imbalance was a key priority, but he remains cautious about an out-and-out redistribution of cash. "The government needs to move towards a system informed by equity," he said. "And they need to apply it to funding. But I would be very cautious about reallocation and redistribution of money."

Ministers have made no promises that higher education tuition fees money will not be redistributed, and an internal Department for Education and Employment memo leaked to The THES showed that money would indeed be redistributed. Dr Howells made no apologies: "Fees money will go to the Treasury, and the prime minister will decide how to spend it. I do not believe that just because money is raised through one sector, it strictly should be spent in that sector."

In his guise as the head of adult learners' organisation NIACE, Alan Tuckett has let it be known that one way of getting more money into further education, would be to make tuition fees for wealthier students more than Pounds 1,000 a year. He is less comfortable to associate these views with his role as vice chair of the national advisory group and head of its funding task force, but the idea has won approval from at least some of his colleagues in the group.

Group member John Field, professor of continuing education at Ulster University, said the idea would be consistent with government policy. But Dr Howells sounded the warning bell: "This is not an idea that has come from my department," he said. "I welcome the debate, but we've just got no time at all for differential tuition fees, top-up fees, call them what you will."

One idea with more credence is the creation of individual learning accounts. Plans for all students to pay for their education through such accounts are being considered by government, and have been high on the Fryer group's agenda. Contributions to the accounts would be made by employers, government and individuals, and would include student loans. They would be stored on a swipe card, and used throughout life.

Proposals to extend student loans to part-time students seem likely to be in the white paper.A report by London Economics, commissioned by the Open University, found that extending loans to part-timers would increase the short-term cost of higher education by only 0.5 per cent, allaying fears expressed by Dearing that part-time students' loans would stem the flow of private money from business into higher education.

Dr Howells specifically asked the Fryer group to take the new findings on board, and said that "we've got to get our act together" to help part-time students. "I am keen on exploiting all ways to help part-time learners. More and more of our degrees, and sub-degrees will be done part-time. Any way we can helpthem is welcomed. It concernsme a great deal."

The proposals would also fit neatly with Bob Fryer's statement that "if we can't get lifelong learning for employees, the idea of a learning culture will be a pipe-dream". "If you work and you want access to learning," he said, "your best chance is to volunteer for first aid."

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