PLANS for all students to pay for education through individual lifelong learning accounts are under government scrutiny.
Advisers working closely with the Department for Education and Employment and the commercial banking sector are preparing the case for student savings, loans, employer and state contributions to course costs to go into education savings accounts.
Their model, which is expected to feature in the forthcoming Lifelong Learning white paper, goes far beyond Labour's manifesto commitment to opening a million accounts worth Pounds 150 each to pay for adult training.
It is based on ideas in the Dearing higher education report and a consultation paper published by consultants Bamford Taggs earlier this year. The former predicts up to 20 million accounts might open in ten years, while the latter suggests that all the accounts' functions could be loaded on a swipe card.
Ministers and civil servants are believed to be keen on prospective students and their parents saving for learning costs, and employers making contributions.
The learning accounts are seen as the keystone to lifelong learning. They would bring about a culture change with a greater emphasis on individual responsibility. The accounts will form part of a three-pronged approach, along with the University for Industry and Welfare to Work.
But advisers have warned that incentives such as state contributions and tax breaks will be essential to attract investment.
David Robertson, director of public policy and education at Liverpool John Moores University and author of the Dearing report appendix on learning accounts, has suggested that an element of the institutions' recurrent grant could also be loaded on to the accounts, forcing universities and colleges to give students' needs and choices a higher priority.
"The introduction of learning accounts for higher education is all there and ready to go following Dearing, if the government is prepared to let it," he said.
Bob Fryer, principal of Northern College and chairman of the national advisory group for the Lifelong Learning white paper, said there was a strong move towards creating a sense of personal ownership for learning.
"Individual learning accounts are a very good example of how that might shape the funding mechanism," he said.
Brian Stevens, director of the consultancy group Finance and Education Services Ltd, which has been contracted by the DFEE to help develop learning accounts, predicted: "If individual lifelong learning accounts come in as a trial within the world of work, with a model that is quickly extendable, they may sweep up all student support."
Ruth Gee, the former Association for Colleges chief executive who acted as an adviser on learning accounts to education and employment minister Stephen Byers before the election, suggested that save-to-learn "skills accounts" run by Gloucestershire Training and Enterprise Council were a possible model.
The accounts, which include state contributions to learning costs through the TEC, had made a positive impact on individuals' and employers' attitudes.
* Banking on learning, page 8