A lesson for all of us?

Labour wants Britain's adults to return to learning and improve their work skills. If they do so, who will pay for it?
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This autumn will see a burst of initiatives from Government on universities and on that Cinderella sector, further education. In early November the White Paper on lifelong learning will be published, urging people to carry on with education for the whole of their lives; and around the same time a raft of documents will issue forth from the Department for Education and Employment, taking forward aspects of Sir Ron Dearing's report on higher education.

A working group chaired by Professor Bob Fryer, principal of Northern College in Barnsley, has been set up to advise the Government on what to put in the White Paper. Another group chaired by David Brown, chairman of Motorola, is advising on how the University for Industry should be set up. And the centre-left think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, has been commissioned to do preliminary work on what the University should look like.

It is launching a pilot project on September 22 with the University of Sunderland and a host of companies, TECs, local authorities, voluntary organisations and educational institutions. The aim is to entice local people who have one of the lowest post-16 participation rates in the country to take part in updating their work skills.

Last week, Tony Blair said he wanted the United Kingdom to be the best-educated country in the world. That means making sure everyone has the opportunity to improve their minds and their skills, not just schoolchildren. It will take organization, commitment and money. Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College in south London, says: "I would like the Government to stop the speeches and open the purses."

One of the problems with "lifelong learning" is that it is a portmanteau description for adult education (badminton lessons and holiday French) as well as for vocational training (anything from HNDs to MBAs). Professor Alan Smithers, of Brunel University, says it's become a cliche. "You need to think about what you want people to be learning," he says. The word "learning" is being used to qualify nouns such as "organization", "nation" and - by Sir Ron Dearing - "society". His report is called "Higher Education in the learning society".

It is therefore in danger of becoming a junk phrase, so it will be important for the White Paper to spell out what is meant by lifelong learning - particularly if it is going to involve taxpayers' money. For Professor Smithers it is about enabling people to meet their aspirations. "We need to create opportunities and the best way of doing that is to give everyone a voucher for the equivalent of, say, pounds 200, which is what the City of London does. We should ask people what they want to learn and give them the means to do it."

Dick Evans, principal of Southport College says: "I want to see a clear statement of what they think lifelong learning is about. I hope it will be about raising the qualification level within the world of work as well as helping people who are re-entering education today."

The haziness surrounding definitions is one reason why the University for Industry - an idea beloved by Chancellor Gordon Brown and Education Secretary David Blunkett - is such an important symbol of the Government's seriousness in this area. It will be at the heart of the White Paper.

A university without walls, the UfI will act as a focus for what the department calls a national multiple media learning network. It will serve as a medium for what exists as well as pointing out where new courses are needed. The idea is to bring learning into the home, the workplace and the community. Gordon Brown has given the University pounds 5m in start- up costs. But it will have to raise a lot more to make much of an impression.

Money will be the key issue in the White Paper. Some college principals are not expecting further education to get any more money. The White Paper will spell out the principles that underline state investment in learning - in further and higher education as well as in the workplace. But how much new money, if any, will be going to further education depends on the outcome of the Government's expenditure reviews.

The White Paper is expected to be a response to many of the recommendations in the Dearing and Kennedy (reform of further education) reports - though not a comprehensive one. As mentioned above, some important issues will be dealt with in separate documents. Much of the Dearing report anyway was aimed at universities rather than Government.

The further education funding council is consulting colleges about the Kennedy report and its recommendation that money should be redistributed in favour of further education, notably the radical suggestion that colleges should get paid more for teaching a disadvantaged student with a poor academic background than the normal rate. It will then give advice to David Blunkett in the autumn. Any redistribution of funds in favour of further education is expected to be made concrete in changes to the way the funding council distributes money to colleges.

The Government wants a sea-change in attitudes. It is keen to include the 40 per cent of the population who have been non-learners since leaving school at 16. If redistributing the way colleges earn their money is a way of achieving that, then the FEFC and the Government will look at ways of doing that.

Other topics to be addressed in the White Paper are individual learning accounts and a general entitlement for individuals to have such accounts. The Government has promised a contribution of pounds 150 to each of around one million accounts held by individuals to fund their learning and this will be contained in the White Paper.

Whether it will endorse Sir Ron Dearing's desire to see an expansion of higher education - mainly at the HND level in further education colleges - is uncertain. But you can expect a big promotional campaign to try to engage more people in updating their skills. Many adults remember their learning at school as a bad experience. The aim will be to show that education can make a difference to their livesn

Building a better future together

Fazul and Nurjahan Rajput, who have just celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary, are a fairly soft touch when it comes to lifelong learning. As East African Asians they came from cultures in which education and qualifications were highly valued. But they are good examples of the kind of people the Government is trying to reach in its campaign to raise the educational levels of the people.

Fazul, 41, is unemployed. He was made redundant three years ago from an electronics company. His wife Nurjahan, 39, has never worked. Together they have four children, aged six to 14, and a burning desire to become architects. But, until now, Fazul's sights have been circumscribed by his three O-level passes.

This summer, the Rajputs did a fast-track six week mathematics course at South Bank University - and passed. As a result they have their feet on the education ladder. Fazul will begin a BSc in architectural technology this autumn and his wife is progressing to an architecture foundation year at South Bank. "Maths was my weak subject," says Fazul. "It wasn't an easy course. In fact it was a bit daunting at first, but I conquered my fears."

The course was the first free six week programme put on by South Bank to encourage people with few formal qualifications to gain the maths skill needed for university courses in science and technology. The university received 280 applicants and chose 63. Of those, 49 successfully completed the course