The View From Here: Lifelong learning is an issue for all, not just an elite

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The Independent Culture
IN THE swarm of corporate lobbyists, influence panderers, think- tankies and media people buzzing round the Labour Party conference in Blackpool this week, both old-style politics and new-style "issues" have been driven to the fringe.

Higher education's presence at the conference illustrated this perfectly. In new "corporate" mode, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals hosted a reception at the Stakis Hotel. It was left to the New Statesman to sponsor an old-fashioned fringe meeting on lifelong learning at the Imperial.

For higher education, lifelong learning is a tricky issue. Of course, university leaders can assert their commitment to the ideal of a learning society and smother any dissenters with selective statistics. But they have an uneasy feeling that, for ministers, lifelong learning is an agenda for further education colleges, not universities.

Universities should make bolder claims to lifelong learning. They are, more than ever, the apex of our public education system. Their values, and attitudes, do trickle down - directly through their role in teacher training and indirectly through their stake in intellectual, and political, culture.

Universities cannot be put in one box, labelled scientific and industrial competitiveness, and further education in another box, labelled widening participation. Neo-binary thinking about the separate missions of FE and universities needs to be replaced by, in one of the Government's phrases, "joined-up policy" concentrating on opportunity, access and progression, rather than institutions and sectors.

The Knowledge Society and a lifelong learning culture are not the same thing. We certainly live in a Knowledge Society, a society suffused with the technologies of data transmission and image production.

But do we possess a learning culture? A third of young people go on to higher education - but two-thirds do not. There have been improvements in examination performance and a massive expansion of places in further education - but, some would argue, Britain is a less learned society than it was a generation ago.

There are two obstacles to creating a lifelong learning culture. The first is, quite simply, "Middle England".

The people who operate at the cutting-edge of the new global economy, or who embrace the new global cultures, do not need to be switched on to lifelong learning. People who have been pushed to the fringes of our society by unemployment, by family disorder, by racial and class discrimination, by educational underachievement - for them, too, lifelong learning ultimately makes sense (although how to reach out to these groups is not easy - or cheap).

But what about the people in the middle, the majority of people in employment, but not part of some global elite nor threatened by industrial restructuring? Many work in small or medium-sized companies without elaborate training infrastructures or are self- employed. Middle England sets the tone of much else apart from electoral politics - attitudes to education and training certainly. How can we talk about "family learning", "learning communities" or "community universities" if this group is not persuaded to embrace lifelong learning?

There is a risk that lifelong learning will be targeted on elites, who can always be relied on to look after their interests and have largely benefited from the expansion of higher education, and the excluded, for whom further education is a lifeline.

But the people in the middle will be missed out. The Knowledge Society, as shaped by Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates, is not making that mistake. They know the mass market is the middle market.

Here the United States is a shining example. Middle America is switched on to learning - and switched on through the public education system.

The community college, low-fee or even no-fee, is the engine of lifelong learning, not the high school, for Middle America as much as for "Minority America". And the community college is the entry point into the wider higher education system that, potentially at any rate, goes all the way up to Harvard or Berkeley. FE colleges have some way to go before they take on that role; and certainly we have a long way to go before we can produce that American sense of open progression.

The second obstacle, which New Labour has done surprisingly little to remove, is the erosion of the idea of "public" education during the Thatcher- Major years.

"Public" education does not need to be 100 per cent tax- supported. It is the ethos that matters, not the exact source of funding. Education has to be a "public" project, in which individual aspirations and collective goals come together. It is not primarily concerned with the calculus of public and private goods, or social and individual benefits.

To realise and articulate this, we need the language of William Blake far more than that of, say, KPMG.

The writer is vice chancellor of Kingston University