THE government has downgraded its master plan for lifelong learning from a white paper to a green consultation paper.
The move, confirmed this week by the Department for Education and Employment, follows hasty redrafting and rescheduling of the paper after lobbying from higher education for a bigger share.
Kim Howells, the lifelong learning minister, announced during a visit to Brighton University on Wednesday that the government would publish the consultation paper, together with its responses to the Dearing and Kennedy reports, on February 25. Until Monday Mr Howells was still referring to the paper as a white paper.
Publication was originally planned for before Christmas, followed swiftly by the Dearing and Kennedy responses. That timetable slipped as the paper, a central plank of Labour's election manifesto, was redrafted around ten times.
Recent versions of the paper, entitled The Learning Age: Towards a Learning Revolution for the 21st Century, have drawn criticism from higher education advisers who describe it as a "minimalist approach to lifelong learning". Most of it will concentrate on broad principles of lifelong learning, such as "the removal of barriers" to learning.
Universities and higher education colleges can expect to be involved in only about a quarter of 20 key steps spelled out in the paper. Most of the central recommendations will be aimed at raising demand for basic skills training and further education.
Flagship proposals such as a University for Industry focusing primarily on training, individual learning accounts, a Skills Task Force, a basic skills strategy, and an Adult and Community Education Fund, leave higher education largely in the cold.
Those involving universities, including the piloting of graduate apprenticeships, measures to widen access, expanding subdegree work and raising standards in adult education, are expected to demand a relatively low level of commitment.
Other "steps" include:
* smart cards to carry student records of achievement and learning account entitlements
* a courses information hotline
* a commitment to fund an extra 500,000 further and higher education places by 2002
* expansion of modern apprenticeships
* a more coherent post-school credit accumulation system.
Lord Dearing, chairman of the national committee of inquiry into higher education, warned that the government was making a "serious error" if the paper appeared to marginalise higher education.
He said: "Lifelong learning is for all, and that includes those who can benefit from higher education. Any vision of lifelong learning must see higher education as an integral part of it."
The much-trumpeted University for Industry is expected to be more concerned with training and basic skills than higher education. It will not provide courses but will perform a largely coordinating, marketing and kite-marking role, badging approved courses and qualifications and encouraging training providers to create flexible learning programmes backed by information technology. It will receive a Pounds 5 million start-up budget to become self-funding by charging for kite-marking. It may also commission providers to fill identified gaps in the training market.
Plans for individual learning accounts have not been developed beyond Labour's manifesto pledge for a million accounts worth Pounds 150 each to cover training costs.
Responses are expected by the beginning of May.