Long on vision, short on cash

November 14, 1997

So further education is to get only an additional Pounds 83 million next year to tide it over while the government completes its spending review and hones plans to rebalance post-16 education to achieve greater participation.

The extra, while welcome, is far too little for a sector twice the size of higher education and twice as broke. Worse, some of the cash seems to come from accounting fiddles rather than being new money and some is to come from employers.

This week's announcement may buy a bit of time. Sorting out long-term arrangements across further and higher education to sustain the government's vision of a learning society will take a little longer - as ministers are discovering belatedly (see Further into the Future pages FE1-12.) The policy is laudable and radical. It involves an openness and inclusiveness that departs dramatically from this country's long tradition in education of selecting the best and rejecting the rest. But it is also threatening to powerful vested interests - institutions and individuals. It involves, for example, shifting people's spending priorities from holidays and consumer goods to education and skills acquisition.

If it is to work without doing damage, it will require reform of welfare, work training and loan arrangements so that people can call on resources when they need them and pay when they can afford to. This can be done only by government. It means post-16 education policy has to be considered alongside reform of public accounting, individual and company taxation, welfare benefits and private pension provision.

Without such reform "lifelong learning" risks being little more than rhetoric: an attempt to persuade potential students to take shorter and cheaper subdegree courses after school and then come back later at their own or their employers' expense.

But if reform can be achieved, not only will study become possible for those now excluded, but public money now going into loans will be released for investment in universities and colleges. This may mean investing in new technology, building up libraries and providing teaching at suitable hours and locations - whatever is necessary to realise Helena Kennedy's vision of drawing people in and helping them to progress. It would also make damaging turf wars between higher and further education avoidable.

Exponents of the virtues of the California plan, where different levels of work are reserved for distinct tiers of institutions, dislike the messiness of the present British system. They see the risk of academic drift. They worry about the inspection mechanisms needed if each course has to be checked for standards instead of whole institutions being validated to provide a given level of qualifications.

But the tidy-minded lost that battle when the last government issued research degree-awarding powers to new institutions and encouraged franchising to further education. There is no going back now, indeed the minister for lifelong learning wants to break the barriers down further (FE page 3).

Such a heterogenous system requires clear and robust systems for accreditation and accountability. Accreditation will involve, as Julian Gravatt says (FE page 11) getting on with Dearing's framework for qualifications. Standards will increasingly be exogenous to institutions - something already familiar to further education but harder for higher education to accept since it will allow in newcomers (page 4).

Accountability is both easier and harder. Harder because it is a term so widely abused by those whose real motive is not probity but control. Easier because the mechanisms whereby institutions can account openly and honestly for the use they make of public money are all available. The machinery in need of overhaul is governing bodies.

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