My passion for adult learning

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The Independent Online
For all of us continuing to learn is the life-blood of personal fulfilment and renewed opportunity. I am passionate about this because I was - and still am - an adult learner.

Lifelong learning can offer enormous benefits, for those in work as well as the unemployed. I want to develop a series of opportunities that will appeal to the widest range of people. Everyone should be able to use lifelong learning to develop their careers.

Work is changing and time is increasingly at a premium. The skills and knowledge of our workforce are this country's greatest assets. We need to offer people the opportunities to build on these skills and so help business and encourage people back to learning.

That is why the Government plans to increase the number of places in further and higher education by 500,000 by 2002. We also want to be able to offer basic skills courses to a further 500,000 more men and women to help them improve their English and maths.

I am also working to make lifelong learning much more accessible at work. The innovative University for Industry will allow people to learn in their workplace, at home or through a national network of learning centres.

Learning at work - using a personal computer linked to a college course through an intranet - has already been piloted through a number of successful schemes. Major companies like Ford and Motorola have set up excellent "universities" within their own businesses. These allow employees to learn, including using their own computers to access material, provided as part of the specially designed programme through the UfI.

Pilot schemes have already been set up around the country to test ideas which could be used in the UfI. These trials are being expanded this year through pounds 60m of European money available to fund new ways of making more learning accessible and user-friendly.

Everyone in the country will have a return-to-learning centre in their area by the time the UfI is launched in the year 2000. People will benefit from gaining confidence and skills. This will include busy people who cannot attend a formal course on the same day each week. It will help them to use their computer to access training from the UfI through the Internet.

There are a range of other groups we aim to reach, such as people who are long-term unemployed and women returners. One project in Sunderland has offered courses at Sunderland Football Club's ground and in facilities at the Metro Shopping Centre in Gateshead.

We are examining this pilot and are considering whether these exciting ideas could be used to attract more people across the country. We have also set up a new scheme to support trade unions in developing innovative approaches to encouraging learning in the workplace in partnership with employers.

Our plans for learning accounts - encouraging people to invest in their own learning - will help people to take control of their own careers. They will help people learn who are not currently doing so, and encourage those who have done some learning to do more.

The first million account-holders will each get pounds 150 to spend on learning, provided they make a commitment to save a minimum amount of their own money. The Local Government Association has joined us in a thorough review of discretionary support for the forgotten band of students who do not qualify for a mandatory grant.

My goal is to transform the attitude of people to learning at work. It can make a real difference to their lives and help business to flourish. We can make no better investment in our future.

The writer is the Secretary of State for Education and Employment.