Millennium magic

February 27, 1998

This week the government published its plans for lifelong learning and its responses to both the Kennedy and the Dearing reports. Below, The THES examines reaction to the first two, while on the opposite page and overleaf we look at which of Dearing's recommendations the government has accepted and, importantly, what higher education thinks of its choices

THE LEARNING AGE: THE GOVERNMENT'S PLANS FOR LIFELING LEARNING

The Learning Age green paper boasts five main purposes and ten principles for action but does not provide the hoped-for blueprint for building Britain's learning society.

In his introduction, prime minister Tony Blair lists why the country needs a new strategy for lifelong learning, what is meant by it, who is involved in it and how they intend to promote it. He states that the government wants to stimulate responses to all the above.

The government proposes the following: * Expanding further and higher education to provide for an extra 500,000 people by 2002

* Setting up the University for Industry and individual learning accounts

* Investing to encourage study beyond age 16

* A doubling of the help for basic literacy and numeracy for adults

* Widening participation in further, higher, adult and community education and through the UFI

* Raising teaching and learning standards for post-16 education

* Setting and publishing clear skills and qualification targets

* Working with business, employees and trade unions to develop workplace skills

* Building a qualifications system that gives equal value to academic and vocational learning.

But Mr Blair says: "We recognise that the uncertainty of change means that we cannot set out an unchanging blueprint in advance. The university, college or learning centre of the next century will look very different to that of the last. One of the aims of this paper, therefore, is to ask what shape these institutions will need to take in the years ahead to deliver our aims."

The UFI is described as the "hub of a brand new learning network" and is touted as a sort of Open University for the new millennium. It will use modern communications technology to link businesses and people to "cost-effective, accessible and flexible education and training".

Initially, UFI will focus on improving basic skills, information technology skills, the management of small and medium-sized business and skill needs in specific industries and services.

Gaps in provision will be identified and courses commissioned to fill them. The green paper says these will be supplied by further and higher education colleges and universities, among others. It promises government funding to support UFI in a public-private partnership. A Learning Direct freephone helpline has been set up (0800 100 900)and a Learning Age helpline (0345 474747).

Helping to open access to the UFI will be individual learning accounts, described as "a catalyst for the learning revolution" and enabling "people to take control of this (career development) investment in their own future".

The paper proposes setting up a million learning accounts with Pounds 150 million from Training and Enterprise Council resources and possibly with extra resources from colleges and employers.

A proportion of the accounts will be offered to any employees who wish to learn. They will receive a maximum state contribution to their new accounts of Pounds 150 each. Most of the remainder will be used to support particular learning or skill needs. A small portion will be used to encourage employees to take up higher education at sub-degree level.

From September, employers will have to pay an extra Pounds 20 million in fees to colleges providing courses that meet businesses' skill needs directly. The government is also proposing to combine "effective pressure" with an "effective legislative framework" to turn workplaces into centres of learning. The government is also putting Pounds 15 million next year towards an Adult and Community Learning Fund to promote local schemes that give people access to education.

New learning targets for the young, adults and employers will be set, backed by a National Skills Task Force and Skills Unit in the Department for Education and Employment. The paper calls on further education colleges, the UFI and TECs to prioritise the education and training of technicians. Graduate apprenticeships are also on the agenda with pilot studies under way.

Credit Accumulation and Transfer schemes will also be considered for further and higher education. These would allow learners to build up units of achievement leading potentially to nationally recognised qualifications. A CAT scheme could underpin a national framework for higher education qualifications as proposed by the Dearing report and backed by the government.

A redistribution of funding to FE, possibly from universities but more likely from schools, also looks possible. The green paper notes that colleges educate more 16 and 17-year-olds than do schools.

Both FE and HE will be allowed to recruit more students as the cap on numbers is lifted. The government expects that more than half the additional higher education places will be taken by mature students, including those with no A levels. It is considering extending loans to students in their early 50s.

High standards are to be a priority. Colleges will be expected to adopt rigorous systematic assessment and to ensure all new lecturers hold, or have begun, a recognised initial teaching qualification within two years. The government is to consult on proposals for detailed changes to the statutory framework for college governing bodies.

The green paper reveals the government wants a more direct link between institutions' funding and the standards of teaching and learning. It says teaching deserves a higher profile in relation to research than it has had in the past.

* Scottish education minister Brian Wilson this week announced plans for a distinct Scottish University for Industry. "Our next steps are to identify a suitable agency to manage and coordinate a series of pilot projects. We are working closely with colleagues in other parts of the UK to ensure the UFI will be operational by 2000."

REACTIONS

"Two cheers" for the lifelong learning green paper, said John Field, professor of lifelong learning and advisor to the Government. "I'll give it a pass, but not a first."

A key member of Bob Fryer's National Advisory Group for lifelong learning, which advised the government on what it should put in the paper, Professor Field said the paper was a mixed blessing.

"There is a lot of exciting stuff in it - the adult and community learning fund is tremendous, and I'm excited about the University for Industry," he said. "But it does not go nearly far enough."

The government, he said, had "caved in" to the employers' lobby, by doing "little more than politely suggesting that employers ought to train because it's good for them". He was also annoyed that the government had "not tackled the funding inequality between part-time and full-time students."

"But what really worries me is the funding," he said. "The Fryer agenda is very ambitious and requires a lot of money, but I do not have the sense that the government is really ready for the expense."

Waiting for the Comprehensive Spending Review was the key worry. Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said there was much to be welcomed in the government's vision.

"The green paper recognises that universities have a key role in lifelong learning, but it is silent on the issue of money," she said. "Without clear spending commitments, it all could look rather hollow."

Geoff Copland, head of the coalition of modern universities, echoed this. "Universities come out better than I expected and I'm pleased," he said, "but it is disappointing that we will have to wait another year to find out about funding."

Lecturers' union Natfhe, in a joint statement with the Association of Colleges, said it was disappointed that all the welcome developments - the University for Industry and Individual Learning Accounts - were not "matched by resources for colleges".

But Alan Tuckett, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education, was almost exclusively upbeat. "David Blunkett's vision was inspiring," he said. "They have got the vision right, and a this stage the direction is more important than the policy details. AsBlunkett said: 'you can't turn around an oil tanker without knowing which wayit's going'."

THE GOVERNMENT'S RESPONSE TO THE KENNEDY REPORT, LEARNING WORKS

The Government has given its strongest hint yet that it will redistribute cash from universities to colleges after its Comprehensive Spending Review.

In the Department for Education and Employment's response to the Kennedy report, published this week, ministers promised the review, in which "all government departments are undertaking to review priorities and spending across their budgets", would be kind to further education.

"Through its Comprehensive Spending Review, the government is taking into account the need to widen participation," it said in the report, Further Education for the New Millennium.

This could mean a redistribution of cash. "Ministers are considering options for creating greater equity in post-16 funding," it said.

In her report into widening participation last summer, Learning Works, Helena Kennedy toned down calls in early drafts for a major redistribution of wealth from universities to colleges.

But she stressed the iniquities in a system "where only a quarter of the five million post-16 learners in England attend universities, yet two-thirds of the post-school education budget is spent on the universities". The "Cinderella service" of further education was best placed to widen participation.

"We commend and endorse the powerful message in Learning Works," education secretary David Blunkett said at the launch of his response. But major funding decisions must wait for the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The report says: "The government's commitment to provide an extra 500,000 people in further and higher education by 2002 is being taken forward within the comprehensive spending review."

Decisions on most of Kennedy's more radical funding plans, including proposals for a national framework for the funding of post-16 learning, were also deferred until the results of the CSR.

But the government did make some announcements: * It will consult on an Adult Community Learning Fund

* It stressed its "belief" that employers should be "meeting at least 50 per cent of the costs of Further Education Funding Council-funded provision"

* It said the "excessive emphasis" on market competition between colleges would be replaced by a system of "strong partnerships", with a new Further Education Collaboration Fund

* It will publish a consultation document "setting out a range of proposals designed to improve accountability and conduct in the FE sector"

* The FEFC and the Local Government Association will be encouraged to collaborate to plan post-16 provision

* The government conceded that "current funding arrangements are not well integrated and are unevenly administered" and said it was reviewing student support systems to look for "ways of targeting support on those from low income households". Arrangements would be in place by 1999/2000

* Job Seekers' Allowance rules will be changed so that over-25s who have been unemployed for more than two years can study full time for up to a year

* The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is proposing to undertake to develop a unit-based credit framework for post-16 qualifications.

* Post-16 inspection arrangements will be "harmonised" across schools, colleges and training providers

A number of Kennedy's key proposals met with a cold response. Her call for a "Learning Nation Fund" from the National Lottery to support "a quantum leap in participation" was spurned for the short term. "It is too early to make firm decisions on the post-Millennium Lottery funding stream," the government said. "Other proposals" were under consideration.

Kennedy's proposed "Charter for Learning", which would include an entitlement to guidance, would "not be appropriate at this stage".

REACTIONS

High hopes for additional cash for further education have been sparked by the government's response to the Kennedy report.

David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, said the paper positioned colleges at the front of the queue for any new money the government finds after its Comprehensive Spending Review.

"The government has not ducked its pledge of an extra 500,000 students, and we expect the majority to come to further education," he said. "This number of students simply cannot be funded within the existing further education budget. It clearly requires very significant additional commitments."

He said that although he expects the review to be kind to the college sector, he did not think this would drain cash from universities. "I have never seen it as a competition between the sectors," he said. "So far the government has found Pounds 110 million extra for FE and Pounds 140 million extra for HE for next year. These are impressive first steps for both sectors, but the government has recognised that FE is core to its lifelong learning strategy, and there is a need to focus more resources there."

He also welcomed moves to close the funding gap between school sixth-forms and colleges, and to improve the governance of colleges, with more local authority representation.

The Association of Colleges said it was "disappointed the government has not risen to the challenge by committing itself to the resources to make the lifelong learning dream a reality".

The response from the Confederation of British Industry was also muted. Tony Webb, director of education and training, welcomed the package of measures and the "close commonality between the business agenda and the government's agenda". But he expressed fears that the move to make employers contribute more to the costs of further education could discourage business. "Some colleges will be concerned that the raised charges will mean that businesses will go elsewhere. Any business, when prices go up, will look at alternative ways and alternative suppliers."

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