Wicks way on lifelong brief

October 1, 1999

Alan Thomson reports from the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth this week

Malcolm Wicks could not have put it better. Just hours after Tony Blair's love-it-or-loathe-it speech, the newest recruit to the education team confirmed his place on the prime minister's crusade against privilege and for social justice.

"I am in politics because I want to see Britain become a far more equal society. My ambition is to say I have had an influence on that agenda," he said.

As a former academic, Mr Wicks joins Baroness Blackstone in adding intellectual clout to the post-16 education team. His background in social policy has given him an understanding of the causes and symptoms of social dysfunction.

"My focus until a year ago was on social security and the best social security is falling unemployment. How we achieve that is through education and training," he said. His promotion to minister for lifelong learning, from chairmanship of the education select committee, was timely.

After two-and-a-half years of piecemeal, although significant, further and higher education reform by the Labour government, it is now possible to glimpse the bigger picture.

Mr Blair's conference speech set a 50 per cent higher education participation target for those up to 30. As target-setting behoves caution, this figure will probably be exceeded early in the next decade.

"The expansion represents a revolution. It is the final charging through the barriers to higher education," Mr Wicks said.

The word "revolution" sits uneasily in new Labour mouths. But Mr Wicks is quick to temper his definition. "Quality and quantity must go hand in hand. We want people to continue to enjoy the kind of university education we enjoyed as students," he said.

"With more and more young people paying part of their tuition fees and supporting themselves, they are consumers and I think they are going to be major watchdogs of quality." Much of Mr Wicks's focus will be on further education.

"We want to shine a very bright torch on the further education sector. It has been the Cinderella sector for too long, possibly because politicians had no understanding of what it was about.

"The sector has many strengths but one criticism is that it has been too interested in supplying rather than answering the needs of local communities. We are also challenging the sector to improve efficiency, drive up quality and improve retention rates."

Mr Wicks said that the new learning and skills councils, proposed in the recent white paper Learning to Succeed, would ensure that colleges are "rooted very firmly" in their communities.

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