What price lifelong learning?

February 27, 1998

We have superb universities and colleges that help maintain our position as a world leader in technology, finance, design, manufacturing and creative industries." The government's consultative document The Learning Age has high praise for universities.

"A great strength is our universities, which educate to degree and postgraduate level and set world-class standards... Our weakness lies in our performance in basic and intermediate skills." The problem: 30 per cent of 19-year-olds without National Vocational Qualification level 2, seven million adults with no formal qualifications, one in five who can barely read.

Given this analysis, the higher education paper, Higher Education for the 21st Century, responding to the Dearing committee, has an oddly grudging tone. Instead of celebrating success, there is talk of "driving up quality and standards" and demands that universities collaborate more closely with the world of work, open longer hours, and spread good teaching practice more widely. They are to be closely monitored to see that suitable progress is made towards a national qualifications framework, a teaching qualification for academic staff, a credit accumulation and transfer scheme, wider access.

Bizarrely, this outcome is a success for the universities. They have lobbied since Dearing was published both to be included in the lifelong learning party (where the money is) and to be left free of Whitehall intervention. Their hope is for a "compact" whereby they agree to deliver all these good things in return for more money. The tactic will be deemed a success if the comprehensive spending review produces the cash.

But is it success if the price of inclusion in the lifelong learning project is that universities must be meshed into a unified system of credit transfer, across-the-board standards and national qualifications? To judge from these papers any extra money will be closely geared to the lifelong learning agenda. "Our priority is to reach out and include those under-represented in higher education..." Growth is to be "at sub-degree level, mainly in further education colleges". Money for extra places will go to "institutions that can demonstrate a commitment to widening access".

These priorities are fine as mechanisms whereby higher education can help pull through new cohorts of people inspired to remain in or return to education. But universities are about more than social inclusion. They are also about research and scholarship, new ideas and inventions, critical and divergent thinking and excellence. These receive scant attention in this week's papers. It does not seem to have been part of the government's thinking, nor the universities' case, that they have achieved their acknowledged excellence without the measures now being demanded of them. Greater uniformity may not provide the hoped-for stimulus to national creativity.

Universities, for all their wish to be included, are not, however, central to the lifelong learning project because there is no real problem with continued learning at this level. Graduates are six times as likely as other employees to get additional training at work. If they do not get it at work, they will get it themselves, paying for a course, reading a book, or asking a friend.

What is really needed is a major push to include those who have failed so far. Unskilled and unemployable, they cause trouble and cost money. Furthermore, they are needed in the labour market - if they can learn enough to cope with today's jobs.

The most important of this week's papers is Further Education for the Millennium, the response to Helena Kennedy's report. Kennedy correctly identified where priority should be placed if the social and economic consequences of educational failure are to be averted. She also correctly pointed out the cost.

Putting Pounds 150 million into Individual Learning Accounts sounds a lot - even if it is money simply moved from one pot (the TECs) to another. But Pounds 150 million will do little to help an unemployed father or a single mother get qualified. Fees are only to be waived at basic skills level despite Kennedy's plea that tuition be free up to level 3.

The hotline for course advice is an excellent idea. The University for Industry should help build up training for those with jobs. But neither addresses the unmotivated. There is talk of "rebalancing" education investment but little sign that the really important, difficult and expensive part of the package will have the necessary force behind it. Will the Treasury produce the serious money needed without stripping others? Will the government force companies to invest more? Above all, will support for unqualified students be sufficient to encourage them to risk exposing their ignorance and give learning another go?

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