Society is undergoing fundamental change, Edith Cresson, European commissioner, and former French socialist education minister and prime minister, explained to the 500 or so delegates attending the United Kingdom launch of the European Year of Lifelong Learning, at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre last Thursday.
Conservative politicians seemed happy to breathe an atmosphere pumped straight from Europe's socialist think tanks.
Mme Cresson explained that three major changes are occurring, namely: enormous and increasingly rapid technological progress; the globalisation of trade and the globalisation of information technology.
This, she said, is driving the need to alter the way we view education, to create a society that broadens the access to education for all, including groups such as the young and unskilled, mothers, the over-45s and minority groups, who are presently excluded; and in which people can continue to update their skills and knowledge throughout their lives.
Lifelong learning is necessary in order that Europe retains, even expands, its competitiveness in the increasingly technology-dominated global market, she said.
Conservative education minister James Paice (and later Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth) was eager to ally the Government with EYLL in a fine speech which pledged support for lifetime learning while recognising the "struggle ahead" to convince "ordinary people" that learning is for them and that funding would be crucial to the whole initiative.
Funding is also uppermost in the minds of those in further education. The sector already caters for tmost of continuing education and comes closest to a concept outlined in the White Paper Teaching and Learning Towards the Learning Society of second chance schools where adults who failed to do well in school go to improve their qualifications.
Stephen Crowne, chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency, said: "I would definitely agree that lifelong learning is a good idea and is already very much a part of the missions of the vast majority of UK further education colleges. However, it is increasingly difficult for FE colleges to respond to the lifelong learning agenda within available Government funding."
Others such as Colin Bell, vice chancellor of Edinburgh University, criticised the White Paper for putting too much emphasis on education as a narrow means to creating an efficient workforce. He also said that the initiative was probably more applicable to the school and further education sectors where learning habits were formed, though he said that universities were ideally placed to carry out associated research on lifelong learning.
Professor Bell said: "It is disappointing. I see the White Paper as a missed opportunity. It is narrowly utilitarian. I do not think that the higher education sector is going to be the location for this great flowering of lifelong learning."
However, perhaps the commissioners may be forgiven for producing a less than perfect document given the scale of such a pan-European initiative and anyway that the Year of Lifelong Learning is designed to stimulate debate among and encourage participation by as wide a range of companies, groups and organisations as possible.
As Mme Cresson said: "The commission is not presenting some sort of fixed dogma. We want to know what people think about the ideas and views in the White Paper; and the Year of Lifelong Learning offers opportunitiess for wide public debate."
Teaching and Learning Towards the Learning Society. HMSO.