Opportunities to live and learn

February 27, 1998

David Blunkett calls for a national debate aimed at creating a renaissance in adult learning

The Green paper on lifelong learning, The Learning Age, published this week, recognises that in the 21st century learning at different stages in life will be essential as human capital becomes to the information revolution what fixed capital was to the industrial revolution of the last century. Building a learning society means that everyone, regardless of background, should have the opportunity to learn throughout life. Learning must therefore be accessible, valued and enjoyed - an everyday feature of life. I am after all a living example of how lifelong learning can bring about success whatever the background of the individual.

The ability to manage and use information is becoming key to the competitive strength of advanced economies. With increasing globalisation, the best way of getting and keeping a job will be to have the skills needed by employers, the flexibility to adapt and, above all, the confidence that comes with these attributes. From computer-designed engineering to electronic banking, from primary healthcare to satellite-aided oil exploration, the United Kingdom will need a myriad of skills underpinned by rigorous grounding in numeracy, literacy and communications.

For individuals who want security in employment and a nation that must compete worldwide, learning is the key. Yet in too many workplaces and communities continuing learning is seen as irrelevant, boring and time-consuming. Some see it as the privilege of the few. This presents a significant social and economic challenge.

Britain is still a country divided when it comes to education. Seven million adults have no formal qualifications. Nearly two-thirds of adults of working age lack a level-3 qualification -Jthe minimum to which Baroness Kennedy's report, Learning Works, believes people should aspire in future. One in five finds it difficult to read, write and deal with numbers, putting the UK ninth in a recent survey of 12 industrial countries qualified to a given level.

Our proposals to address this shortfall and make learning more accessible to those in work include the creation of the University for Industry, a technological learning network that will bring vocational education closer to the workplace, to people's homes and to where they spend their leisure time. We plan to publish the full prospectus next month and to launch it in late 1999.

Individual learning accounts are intended to encourage people to save to learn. We will kickstart our proposals next year by allocating Pounds 150 million to support investment in learning accounts for a million people. They will have the potential to transform attitudes to learning and give people a foothold on the ladder of learning through further to higher education as well as giving the individual more say and greater responsibility over their own skills development.

Our green paper also includes our investing in young people programme to encourage many more young people to study beyond 16. It contains plans to increase support for basic literacy and numeracy skills among adults, to improve access to adult and community education and to improve the training standards being provided by training and enterprise councils. We are launching Learning Direct as a new one-stop-shop hotline for those interested in advice on post-16 education and learning.

Alongside the green paper, the government has published its response to the Dearing report. In doing so we have welcomed and accepted most of the committee's recommendations. In particular, the government is committed to the principle that anyone who is capable of benefiting from higher education should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. We want to see participation increasing and widening, particularly from groups who are under-represented in higher education, including people with disabilities and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We have strongly welcomed the committee's emphasis on driving up quality and standards. This becomes increasingly important as individuals make a greater contribution as graduates to the cost of their education. The Quality Assurance Agency will have an important role in taking that drive forward.

So too will the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. I am particularly keen that the institute, which we expect to see established later this year, becomes the route by which we professionalise lecturers' skills. Accrediting good teaching practice will ensure that teaching is no longer seen as the poor relation of research, as regrettably it has too often been in the past. Students must be able to enjoy the benefits of both.

We want to see higher education increase its contribution to the economy and its responsiveness to the needs of business. There is much to be valued and applauded in what is already taking place, and our task is to celebrate and build on this at local and regional level as part of the closer relationship between research and practical application. Higher education is one of the greatest success stories of Britain, and we are determined to capitalise on this, making available the best in new and imaginative forms, while protecting quality and diversity. And in the new learning age, we want higher education to exploit technology and flexible delivery so as to make itself more accessible and to ensure that maximum use is made of its facilities.

In short, the National Committee of Inquiry has helped to point the way forward for higher education in the learning society, with universities and colleges becoming beacons of advanced learning and understanding for the benefit of individuals and society. The government has already delivered Pounds 165 million worth of extra funding to higher education in 1998-99 to help realise this vision. The new, fairer arrangements for supporting maintenance costs and for income-related contributions to tuition will serve to ensure that there is more cash available for universities in the future.

The Learning Age embraced these reforms for higher education just as it did important changes to lifelong learning and further education. It reinforced our commitment to an expansion in further and higher education to provide for an extra 500,000 people by 2002.

Learning does not end with school, college or university; it does not have to be confined to particular institutions and buildings. The Learning Age is designed to start a debate about how we can together bring about a renaissance in adult learning in Britain. We welcome your views on the objectives we have set.

David Blunkett is secretary of state for education and employment. For a copy of or information about The Learning Age, telephone 0345 47 47 47.

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