Widening access to higher education is not the only goal of higher education (see letters opposite), but it is a good one for a government concerned with economic performance and social cohesion. Qualifications improve life chances - and the further back people start the greater the boost in the advantage stakes. As Baroness Blackstone said last week, everyone who can benefit should have the chance.
But such heart-warming sentiments, as in Prime Minister Tony Blair's speech at the Labour party conference on Tuesday, raise hard questions. Who decides who can benefit? Who pays to provide all who think they can benefit with what the Quality Assurance Agency will judge to be an acceptable learning environment? Ever-widening doors can mean less well-prepared students. Remedial programmes are expensive.
Improving schools and putting resources into further education, so that achieving wider social participation becomes the responsibility of those preparing students, is everyone's favourite solution. This means more and better teachers right across the school system. But too few want to be teachers. The salaries offered by members of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (page 11) are one reason. The job, especially in the schools most in need of improvement, is another. Men are deterred from teaching young children by the paedophile paranoia gripping parents. Graduates want and can get higher-status, more congenial jobs with better career prospects.
And now teacher trainers, fed up with being criticised and dictated to by government agencies, are acting on threats to pull out (front page). The situation is dangerous. It requires urgent review and tactful handling if the government is not to find its efforts to improve schools thwarted. It needs the universities and colleges on side. Education accounts for Pounds 300 million of higher education spending (about 4 per cent of the total government grant) and employs 5,000 full-time staff. Those staff are pulled between demands for research output and for ready-made teachers. Too many agencies are involved and there will be more with the arrival of the General Teaching Council.
But the council's establishment provides an opportunity to streamline arrangements. The Teacher Training Agency has performed a valuable role in asking hard questions and shaking up complacencies. Ofsted's abrasive approach has forced re-examination of training programmes but has made enemies with its often ill-informed approach to research. It may now be time for both to carry away the odium, leaving others to develop new relationships.
Quality assurance and funding are rightly being split apart in the rest of higher education as compromises are hammered out between the QAA, universities and colleges and funding councils. The same should now be urgently considered for teacher training.
The government, as surrogate employer of teachers, has a role in paying for the people it needs. This could once again be handled through the funding councils. As paymasters, both government and potential students have a right to expect information on the quality of what is provided. This could be provided in due course by the QAA or the GTC. The education department has its own research budget to commission the sort of research it wants.
Such changes could alter the resentful mood in time to take advantage of the recession, which many believe is now inevitable. One of the few benefits of a recession is its transforming effect on teacher supply and educational participation. Economic factors, which may threaten welfare to work programmes, may conversely help in education both with teacher supply and student participation.