Leading article: Education doesn't end with a university degree

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Figures this week confirmed the recent amazing performance of the United States economy - prices are stable, unemployment is dropping and productivity climbs ever upwards. It has the feel, at least temporarily, of a virtuous circle. Productivity depends on people's skilfulness in their jobs, their attitudes and capacity and these in turn are related to public education. It's important to understand that phrase correctly. It is not just college degrees or modular courses. Education is also measured by attitude, willingness to master new techniques, new machines, new ways of doing things. In the American case it seems that "school" is most often companies themselves. American employees go to work to learn and by learning improve corporate output.

Education is of course about a lot more than employees helping make their companies more profit (even if some of that enhanced profitability translates into more material prosperity all round). The point is that the contexts for learning are many and various and only a few of them resemble ivy- clad academic halls or even down-at-heel inner-city former polytechnics. British employers do not, unhappily, have much of a reputation for taking the improvement of their staff seriously, yet the office and the shop floor are necessarily sites for knowledge acquisition. Much fun was had this week when the Plain English Society - a smug bunch - yet again chortled over the supermarket shelf-stacker who gets called an ambient replenishment operative or some such, yet that circumlocution points to the fact that even this menial task nowadays involves a command of systems and technologies undreamt-of even five years ago - to do the job even a lowly part-timer has to be prepared to master skills and new knowledge. We don't, either here or in the United States, know a great deal about the often informal processes by which employees learn, outside, that is, of the course of instruction their employers lay on; but learn they do, often sitting with Nelly or following informal leaders - the kind of person (every office has one) who has mastered the IT system and gives of their knowledge to colleagues.

To buy a book or a tape or a CD-Rom is, potentially, to engage in self- education; to watch a TV programme or a film or a video ditto. Once we listened with mother. Then and now we also listen to friends, colleagues and bosses and learn from them. This is - portentous phrase for a process often unconscious - lifelong learning. A recent voluminous study by the Economic and Social Research Council found that, despite a plethora of reports on the "learning society", we still know very little about how people, whether in classrooms or informally, do actually learn - to be in the same room as a lectern, white board and professor is no guarantee at all. Despite that, all the weight of policy and spending falls on formal institutions of teaching and learning. We will spend the next week earnestly debating Sir Ron Dearing's report on the future of higher education - rightly, since, one way or another, his work touches all our futures. Yet it is hard to escape a sense of imbalance between his unassailable proposition that the only stable source of comparative advantage for modern Britain is the quality of our people and his focus on the universities.

Of course there is a case for continued expansion of higher education. The American example above helps make it. Wherever it is Americans learn in order to become more productive, it surely does them no harm that so large a proportion of the young age group enters higher education and that so large a proportion of other ages return to learn. But we have to note how fragile the evidence remains that pursuing three years of study for an undergraduate produces identifiable results, either in terms of values imparted or knowledge imbibed, let alone skills acquired. It is not philistine to wonder whether an arts degree is indeed an adequate preparation for a commercial career. For too long higher education planners have fobbed us off with generalisations about the qualities of mind which studying the humanities imbues. Three years of history or Spanish may well be a "good education" but that proposition needs to be specified a lot more tightly than the Dearing Committee has done. Are universities "learning institutions"? The evidence is more inference than deduction.

Which is not to surrender to the old argument by Ivan Illich and such Sixties types that institutional learning is somehow malign. On the contrary there does seem to be a positive relationship between the learning habit inculcated early and matured in universities and both further education and educability. The phrase you hear this time of year from final-year undergraduates about never having to read another book turns out, thankfully, to be an untrue prediction. Dearing envisions a student's relationship with their university lasting "for decades", popping back for short courses, advanced degrees and so on. It's an attractive picture, with the added advantage of further justifying the Dearing argument that there needs to be a fairer division of the cost of higher education between those receiving and the employed population at large. But it must not masquerade as life-long learning. In that, universities and lecturers are a part, an important part, but nothing like the whole story.