Education: Welcome to a lifetime of learning

So lifelong learning has been downgraded, according to headlines heralding the news that the long-awaited White Paper has gone green. Just under a week to go now, before we discover the significance of the change in status, with the publication of what the Government now calls its "consultation", rather than White, paper on lifelong learning.

But any suggestion that lifelong learning itself has somehow been elbowed out is mistaken. A buzz phrase maybe, but lifelong learning is here to stay, lasting well beyond the set of skills you learnt on your last training seminar. That's the point. There's no alternative in today's fast-moving hi-tech world, where skills need updating and people upskilling. If you're a car worker you get to grips with automation, travel agents keep abreast with databases, and if you're a vice-chancellor who started life as a linguist you retrain in financial and human resource management.

In the world of higher education we know all about lifelong learning - and we're good at it. For an academic, lifelong learning has never been just a desirable add-on; it is the foundation of your professional reputation and career. Whether through research, keeping up with the latest technological developments, progressing arguments through to publication, constantly coming to terms with new findings or even attending conferences in Tuscany, lifelong learning is the academic's stock-in-trade.

And as teachers we've got the message, too. The sector's new Institute for Learning and Teaching will encourage lecturers to develop their skills and exploit information technology to best effect.

It's worth remembering our own first-hand expertise in lifelong learning. We can even afford to get evangelical about it - we may have to. In the debate so far on lifelong learning the views of the "punters" - the lifelong learners themselves - have been strangely absent. Being upskilled isn't necessarily seen as a desirable option. People get tired; they work hard, bring up families. So as well as creating the necessary structures and providing the funding, there's also a selling job required.

That's where the evangelism comes in. For lifelong learning to succeed, people will have to believe that it benefits them individually, as well as society.

Of course, the opportunities have to be in place, not just the goodwill - and they have to be user-friendly, easy to locate and identify. Here the Government's University for Industry could play an invaluable role as a match-maker, bringing together individual learners with relevant courses and locating gaps where new programmes are required.

Lifelong learning should focus on two main groups of learners: those who secured their first round of qualifications, but now have to upgrade to survive in the job market, and those who missed out on getting qualified in the first place.

Our emphasis must always be on the learner. We can go on about the importance of high-level skills to global competitiveness, but if employers don't give employees time to upgrade their skills, we can forget it. Similarly, universities must be flexible, providing courses at the right time of day, and in places convenient for the learners.

At our lifelong learning conference next month we'll thrash out these issues. We'll look at widening participation by lower socio-economic groups, our partnerships with further education, work-based opportunities for learning and links with small and medium-sized companies.

In the run-up to the consultation paper much debate has focused on exactly where in the education sector lifelong learning should be located; or, to be more specific, who is going to get any funding that goes with it. But the crucial issue rests with the students. Will lifelong learning be worth their while? Universities and colleges must help to make it so.

Professor Martin Harris is vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester and Chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

`The Independent' is sponsoring CVCP's conference, `Lifelong Learning: the Role of Universities', on Thursday 5 March at the Grosvenor House Hotel, London W1. For details, call Neil Stewart Associates (0171-222 1280).