Ensuring access to education is crucial to a lifelong learning strategy so it is time for joined-up thinking says Chris Hughes.
The education world is buzzing in anticipation of an extra 500,000 students. Further education has been quick to recognise that it needs to rethink how it operates.
Perhaps it is time for some joined-up thinking to redefine access to all areas of post-16 education?
Alarm bells are starting to ring. The 2 per cent fall in the number of mature students is one hiccup that creative thinking about access could help alleviate. When the government proposed that university students make a Pounds 1,000 contribution to tuition fees, we were reassured that the decision would not affect numbers. The government was quick to point out that graduates earn more than non-graduates and potential students would have their eyes firmly fixed on larger incomes. So what is happening to the access agenda?
Despite an increase in the number of students, many social groups remain under-represented. People outside education might find this surprising in the light of recent proposals. It is early days for the policies that have grown from Dearing, Kennedy and the green paper on lifelong learning.
Access is fundamental to lifelong learning, to the expansion in student numbers and to ensuring that people in education represent the whole population.
The new imperative is standards. Access alone is not sufficient. The education world is ready to achieve access and excellence. Further education colleges and universities provide world-class education and training courses. Students and graduates are confident that their qualifications will be the stepping stones they hoped for, and the increase in student numbers should not be an excuse for a drop in standards in either further or higher education.
This means a quality improvement push, not a new concept. The Department for Education and Employment has more than 100 members of staff ensuring that schoolchildren get a good education. We are all familiar with reports of Ofsted "hit squads" going into failing schools to ensure that the standard of education they provide is up to scratch, while the swift intervention of the Quality Assurance Agency at Thames Valley University demonstrates that higher education is equally concerned with standards.
Further education colleges have a tremendous record of opening up education and training to all sections of the community. They would argue that it would be a great shame if they were to be judged by retention and achievement rates alone. One of the challenges for the government is to improve retention and achievement without restricting access to education and training.
An important part of redefining access is considering how people will use education and training. Most workers will need retraining from time to time. Continuing education while working might mean studying for an MBA, or a professional qualification or training on a practical level. People must be confident that their qualifications give them the accreditation they need to get back into education in five or ten years.
In a technology-led world of work 20 years from now, people will want to update their skills regularly and all post-16 education providers should be ready to respond to this.
Barriers between further and higher education will become blurred and people should be able to go to the institute that most meets their needs at a particular time without being restricted by outdated traditions.
Redefining access will not include initiatives that have the potential to exclude and restrict people's educational freedom of choice. Initiatives such as the Russell Group's plans to set up a postgraduate degree system that allows students to move freely between selected universities, and excludes others, are directly against the spirit of inclusion. Access in the future will mean people moving freely between further and higher education institutions and being judged on their merits.
A system of credit-based and unitised qualifications would help learners get recognition for all the bits of learning and achievement.
In the past, access has meant access to opportunities. In the future it will mean access to achievement. In the past the measure of the success of access has been participation; in the future success will equal achievement. The bridges are under construction. Lifelong learning is now an act of faith and most people in education are signed up. We have got to turn that into people who are hungry to learn. Once we have hungry learners there are going to be new pressures on education structures and redefining access could be just the right strategy to take the strain.
Chris Hughes is chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency.