It's the same 'old' story in HE

March 16, 2001

More work is required to make lifelong learning available for life, argues Brian Groombridge.

Last month, when the government refuelled controversy over state-school students and elite universities, all sides in the widening participation argument seemed to assume it was about school leavers studying full time. But this is just the kind of assumption that the concept of lifelong learning is meant to challenge.

Higher education, like all post-school sectors, needs to be planned to enable adults of all ages to study -part time as well as full time - including those over pension age. Fortunately, progress is being made and politicians seem to be saying the right things.

Malcolm Wicks, minister of lifelong learning, speaking to the University of the Third Age in London, listed various government-backed pilot projects exploring the learning needs of older people, including research into U3A members and a Birkbeck College/Institute of Education project to investigate the wider benefits of learning (such as improved health) in later life.

Social security secretary Alastair Darling, opening at a conference guaranteeing a future for Better Government for Older People (BGOP), said that demographic change means that "opportunity for all" means young and old.

BGOP, a two-year research programme, challenges the capacity of central and local government and health authorities to work together for the benefit of older people by, among other things, listening to older people and treating them as fellow citizens, not clients or poor old things.

More than 180 partners are taking part in 28 pilot areas, and local authorities and others are exchanging experiences and learning from the pilots. The programme seems to be making a difference, but pilot schemes in this country are notorious for going nowhere -the money runs out and there is no follow-up.

The conference, however, confirmed that BGOP had generated political momentum and would continue, having shown possible improvements in housing, health, learning and other sectors.

So the climate has improved and government policy sharpened since Labour's early days, when David Blunkett's forewords tended to be more enlightened than the Department for Education and Employment papers they introduced. He claimed The Learning Age , for example, was for all generations and as much about the arts, spirituality and citizenship as economic progress, when it was actually limited to employability and the young.

The Local Government Centre at Warwick University has played a significant part in preparing the soil for BGOP. Its director, John Benington, a BGOP steering committee member, believes universities have an important role in informing policy -in this case through research on demographic trends that show "remedial responses are not enough" -and in suggesting ways forward. Warwick also led the formative evaluation of the pilots, identifying what worked and what did not.

Alan Walker, director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Growing Older Programme, hopes to make its findings "user friendly". He said: "The prize of longevity must not be an empty one, without quality."

But, despite hopes for the future, there is much to do, particularly on widening participation in higher education. Apart from the Open University, extra-mural provision and a few other HE institutions, the story for students over 50 is not good. Jim Soulsby, development officer of the Older and Bolder Programme at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said the recent ad hoc pilot scheme was not followed up and that "recruitment to full-time, mainstream HE is low -a situation exacerbated by loans being offered only to people aged 50-55."

That, too, must change.

Brian Groombridge is emeritus professor of adult education at the University of London.

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