The Scottish Executive is to merge the higher and further education funding councils, relaunch individual learning accounts and develop new approaches to quality assurance in an ambitious five-year strategy to boost lifelong learning.
The changes intend to promote lifelong learning not only through educational institutions but also through work, and will include pilot business learning accounts to let small businesses meet training needs.
Iain Gray, Scotland's minister for enterprise, transport and lifelong learning, said: "This strategy recognises the crucially important role learning plays in the future economic prosperity of Scotland. I want people in Scotland to develop a passion for learning."
The strategy follows the report of the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee, whose tone was arguably more visionary and focused on learners. The executive's report is largely aimed at organisations' role, but committee convener Alex Neil said: "They have accepted the bulk of our recommendations to a greater or lesser extent. I am very happy and so is the committee."
There has been a general welcome for the strategy, although reservations have been voiced about the merger of the funding councils, which could take place in 2005-06. The strategy says this will make it easier to compare the way different types of institutions and levels of courses are funded.
The Association of University Teachers Scotland warned that it was important for the merger not to compromise universities' mission in teaching and research. "Nor should any new models of funding and articulation threaten the distinctive nature of the honour's degree and the value of higher national diploma and vocational courses in their own right."
The Association of Scottish Colleges is disappointed by the executive's failure to back the key committee recommendation of a lifelong learning entitlement for everyone. Tom Kelly, ASC chief executive, said Scotland invested least in those learners who had least, and an entitlement would have helped support part-time learners, adult learners and those with no or few qualifications.
Mr Gray has pledged a review of learners' funding, and is extending educational maintenance allowances to encourage young people to stay on at school or college.
John Field, director of academic innovation and continuing education at Stirling University, said: "It concentrates on the areas where the need is greatest, and sets clear targets in areas such as numeracy, literacy, IT and skills. (But) for higher education, the message is bound to be disappointing to many who had hoped for a vision of growth and investment."
Professor Field said the decision to reintroduce ILAs was particularly bold. "Some might even call it foolhardy, but I am sure that the new scheme will take account of the dreadful lessons to be learnt from the mayhem that resulted last time."
Mr Gray said the new ILAs would be carefully targeted at IT skills and low-income families, and would be administered by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. He said a new quality assurance scheme would not affect the higher education sector, but would draw on it to develop quality assurance for the rest of lifelong learning.
Scottish education strategy aims to open doors
Erica Simpson , aged 33, left school with no formal qualifications, and five years ago was newly divorced, living on benefits and bringing up a child. Now she is flourishing as project administrator for Nisus, formerly the Edinburgh Women's Training Centre, thanks to extensive on-the-job training.
She went on a free IT training course for unemployed women at the EWTC, with support from the European Social Fund for childcare and travel costs.
After she gained a Scottish Qualifications Authority award, the EWTC asked her to talk about her experience to trainees, which led to a temporary job.
"I thought it was good experience for my CV, and it extended into full-time work," Ms Simpson said. She is determined to continue lifelong learning, branching into web design.
Brian Brooking , aged , left school with no formal qualifications. He spent six years as a sheet-metal apprentice, but felt his prospects were bleak.
Supported by a bursary, he took a national certificate in engineering at Edinburgh's Telford College, which gave him direct entry to a higher national diploma at Napier University. He went on to a mechanical engineering degree at Strathclyde University but found the different teaching style difficult.
But with the help of student support services he transferred to a Napier engineering degree, which he expects to complete in 2004.
"Doors are opening for me," he said. Mr Brooking is a volunteer with the Lothian Equal Access Programme for Schools, encouraging pupils from non-traditional backgrounds to consider tertiary education.