Policy framework missing

March 6, 1998

The shadow secretary for education and the Lib Dem spokesman on education respond to the green paper

Even his best friend must concede that on his policy for lifelong learning David Blunkett has laboured mightily and brought forth a mouse.

The Whitehall rumour mill has been in overdrive for weeks. It is said that the document went through ten drafts before the Treasury and No 10 were satisfied. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were widely reported to be concerned that Mr Blunkett's draft was embarrassingly thin.

It is not hard to see why the prime minister and the chancellor were sceptical - indeed one of the few interesting questions raised by the green paper is what the original draft looked like if the published document represents a beefed up version of the original.

It is all a far cry from the halcyon days last summer when Mr Blunkett was promising a landmark document that would transform the opportunities for learning and training beyond school.

The theme is vitally important - that much is common ground. One of the few convincing passages is the description at the beginning of the document of the importance of the issues it raises.

The people who live in Britain will only be able to continue to enjoy a premium standard of living when compared with the standards enjoyed by the majority of the world's population if the goods and services they produce represent higher value than the equivalents produced elsewhere in the world.

That value will not be derived from the latest gizmo - they can be bought and installed anywhere in the world. The value produced by the British economy will be determined by the quality of the investment in learning and training which is made by the people who work here. This is an important argument and it is well set out in Mr Blunkett's paper.

Unfortunately, however, the document tells us very little about what the government believes should be done about it.

It introduces Mr Blunkett's ideas for a University for Industry (UfI), but those who look to this document for a clearer idea of what this catch-phrase will look like when it starts to recruit studentswill find it extraordinarily thin.

It is unclear what type of teaching or training needs will be met by this new university. Indeed it is very unclear whether it will be a "university" in any meaningful sense of the term at all. We are told that "the UfI will connect those who want to learn with ways of doing so. It will act as the hub of a brand new learning network".

The next paragraph tells us, slightly breathlessly, that we shall be able to contact the UfI "by telephone, letter, fax, email (through the UfI's website), or by calling at a UfI enquiry desk in, for example, a supermarket, high street shop, college, TEC or Business Link".

So it will clearly be easy to contact. But what will it offer? On that question Mr Blunkett is much more coy. We are told simply that it will "explore with learners and suppliers gaps in provision and then commission courses to fill them".

All its courses will be commissioned from other institutions. It will be - in Mr Blunkett's words - a "virtual university" which, it seems, will employ no academics, but whose purpose will be to recruit new students to existing institutions, both public and private.

It is, undoubtedly, an interesting idea, but the Treasury clearly remains substantially unconvinced. The passage on resources can only be described as mealy-mouthed: "The government will provide funding to support the UfI in a public-private partnership." Not much bankability there.

The next chapter offers little more on individual learning accounts which are the other commitment that the government is seeking to deliver in this green paper.

It sets out some preliminary thoughts about the type of training need that should be targeted by the public purse and immediately recognises that targeting specific need with limited resources is wholly at variance with the idea of universally available individual learning accounts so fondly described by Labour spokesmen in recent years.

The green paper avoids the need to resolve this conflict by announcing that the government will pilot the targeted and the universal approach. That is a neat fudge which gets the government through this green paper, but also undermines any claim the government may make that it has thought about these issues seriously.

A government which announces that it wishes to strengthen its commitment to learning and training, but which goes on to make it clear that it has not yet decided why, is not a government that deserves to have its ideas taken seriously.

As so often with this government, Mr Blunkett's latest green paper is "all hors d'oeuvre and no main course". He is clearly the master of all the latest technical wizardry that his schemes will need to use, but he has not thought through the framework of policy that will be necessary to make them successful.

Until he does so, the rhetoric of the green paper will amount to very little. Even the Pounds 150 million promised to Individual Learning Accounts will be diverted from existing TEC programmes and will be spread over time.

Until the logic for the policy is much more firmly founded it is hard to see Mr Blunkett's future encounters with the Treasury on behalf of lifelong learning being any more successful - or deserving to be - than this one.

Stephen Dorrell is shadowsecretary of state for education and employment.

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