Brenda Gourley: Education is as vital as heat and light

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The Independent Online

This month The Open University launches a major new advertising and marketing campaign. Called Powering People, it is a reminder of how essential lifelong learning is in our knowledge society.

This month The Open University launches a major new advertising and marketing campaign. Called Powering People, it is a reminder of how essential lifelong learning is in our knowledge society.

With the ever-increasing pace of technological change, the tidal wave of new information and publications and the evolving world of work, it is not possible to ensure that the first phase of our education from ages 5-21 is going to be enough to sustain us for the rest of our lives. Our needs will evolve and our careers and livelihoods - extended over far longer a period than at any time in the past - will critically depend on updating and changing our knowledge and skills.

Education is also one of the great determinants of the haves and the have-nots in our society. Access to education is, for the most part, access to careers and higher earnings, increased mobility and greater opportunity. Included among those who do not excel at school, college or university are many people who do not mature and reach their educational potential at the same time as others. Many find the motivation to learn and to do so with dedication and real pleasure later in life.

The prevailing culture in this country favours the school-to-university transfer - that initial inoculation of education against the needs of life. Full-time campus-based learning is favoured with additional funding through so-called top-up fees - one significant effect of which is to increase debt.

The world of adult education and lifelong learning is an extraordinary landscape of opportunities ranging from informal community and work-based learning to research degrees. It depends crucially on part-time study - people who don't want to, or who are not able to, stop what they are doing to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. Enabling this provision is the critical issue. If our economy is to remain strong then education provision is every bit as essential a requirement in our society as heat or light. We need a system that makes it easier, not more difficult, to dip in and out of education to meet the demands of a changing life.

We also need to value part-time study in the same way as we do full-time study. Indeed in many ways it should be more valued. People who study in this way with all the alternative claims on their time have demonstrated a whole range of admirable attributes which are highly valued in the traditional workplace: motivation, determination, focus, to name but some. In this era of "portfolio careers", "hot-desking" and "work-life balance", such skills are equally important. A system forged in the medieval cloisters of a monastic clerical system is not entirely attuned to the flexible, changing, e-enabled and informed consumerism of today's education marketplace. In favouring the traditional, government funding does not provide an incentive for the lifelong learning so vital to our economy and to individual wellbeing. That needs to change.

The Powering People campaign is a reminder of the value of part-time study, and is launched with the hope that the present imbalance in government support for part-time study will soon be redressed.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-Chancellor of The Open University

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