Education: Time to shift money from universities to colleges

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The Independent Online
A full-time university course should no longer be regarded as the only route to higher education, says Andrew Brown. There are other ways to educate people for work and make the best use of resources.

There was a time when you were not receiving a "proper" education unless you learned Latin, Greek and ancient history. The world changed and eventually the education system caught up, but not fast enough.

Like many people of my generation, I was forced to learn Latin to "train my mind", only to discover that my mind was completely untrained in skills such as computing and personnel management, which I now use every day.

It therefore seems wise to continually question the validity of our existing assumptions about what kind of education is appropriate for today's societies. That is what has been done by two excellent recent studies into education, the Dearing report and the Kennedy report.

Both have raised questions about the validity of putting so many of our resources into a full-time higher education system which effectively raises the school leaving age for successful students to 21.

As soon as you start to look at it with fresh eyes, it becomes exceptionally difficult to defend the existing system. We are living in an age of rapidly changing technology and fluid multi-skilled job roles. We take it for granted that most of us will need to learn new skills and take on new roles throughout our lives.

Our way of preparing young people for entering this world of lifelong learning and flexibility is full-time study of GCSEs, followed by full- time study of A-levels followed by full-time study for a degree.

This is an excellent method of producing well-educated graduates, and it is certainly the easiest set-up for academics. It is, however, a very expensive and narrowly focused approach to educating people.

Keeping our most talented people away from the job market until they are over 21 means they earn nothing and are limited in the linkages they can make between what they learn and what is happening outside education. Despite the growth of work experience, this leaves all too many graduates significantly under-skilled.

At the college where I work we run a scheme for unemployed graduates. Again and again we encounter highly talented young people who have no real idea of what will be expected of them in the work place, and surprisingly limited talents for completing an application form or an interview.

They can perform with skill in a tutorial and write an effective essay, but we have to provide work experience, business skills training and job seeking skills before they stand a chance of finding work at the level they deserve.

Surely there have to be alternatives to our current strategy of spending a frightening proportion of our limited education budget on assisting people to undertake full-time courses, and then discovering that there is nothing left over to support them when they need to retrain. And, of course, there are.

The alternative patterns of education being developed have genuine flexibility as their core principle. They depend on the idea that you study for units of qualifications at many levels and accumulate them throughout your life. When you have enough for a particular qualification, you claim it via a process of credit accumulation. If you only want to study one area to gain a new skill then you need not take a full course.

Qualifications can be gained by many different study patterns. Full-time education is one, but others include single-day courses, short intensive programmes, evening study, distance learning, custom-designed training packages, and the Internet.

At my own, fairly typical, further education college, only 12 per cent of the students study full time and only 64 per cent of my students start their courses in September.

It is in this light that recent proposals to open up higher education should be viewed. The agenda goes way beyond the current debate about where HND courses are best located. The ambition is to give a major new impetus to part-time, unit-based degrees, HNCs and lower-level courses, and to ask us to think again about our allocation of resources.

If you want to spend three years doing a full-time degree then, even under the new regime, the Government will pay most of your tuition fees and help you with your living expenses. If you do a short, part-time course to update your skills, you will have to pay for it yourself and there will be no financial support for any days you need to take off work to get your qualification. This is hardly the way to encourage lifelong learning.

Would it not be better to hold back a proportion of the resources that are currently bestowed on full-time degree programmes, and start to use it to encourage all post-16 educational institutions to promote short lifetime learning courses?

The higher education sector is in danger of insisting on a "proper" degree education for all long after it ceases to be the best way of educating people. It is time for a fundamental shift in financial allocations to open some minds to fresh alternatives.

The writer teaches business and general education at Keighley College, West Yorkshire.