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After the health kick, let's try the learning habit;Commentary;FE Focus;Opinion

It is amazing what we put up with when we don't know any better. Or, to put it another way, why does invention so often tend to lag behind its alleged mother, necessity? Long-suffering motorists, for example, struggle through the rain dependent on a crude device of two strips of perishable rubber for scraping drops of water off the windscreen. The only improvement in umpteen years is that now you can vary the frequency with which the rubber is dragged across the screen. Where is the inventor who will come up with a water-repellent coating for the glass, or perhaps a stream of air so directed as to prevent rainwater ever reaching it?

And while we are on the road, why has nobody developed a chemical compound which could be added to the tarmac and which would heat up when in contact with ice and snow? We could have automatic, permanent thawing, with no need for primitive grit-spreading, low technology ploughing and risky journeys.

Which is where lifelong learning comes in. Not because there will be a host of new courses in creative thinking for engineers or inventions for the terrified, but because the way colleagues currently operate simply won't allow them to respond to the ideas of potential customers or even of their own staff. Colleges are still organised like schools for grown-ups, with all the assumptions borrowed from schools about the primacy of courses, about three clearly defined terms per year with holidays in between, about teacher-student relationships and about the necessity of large and expensive premises. Lecturers compare their salaries and their conditions with those of school teachers. Institutionally, we are still in the age of the windscreen wiper.

We receive most of our money from the Further Education Funding Council who apply a formula of extreme complexity or beautiful sophistication. Which one you think it is will depend on where you are in the system. Either way, it is a formula which is institution driven, which requires so much information - some of it quite intrusive - from and about each student for whom we wish to claim funding, that it can be justified only if the student is going to spend significant time at the college.

But if lifelong learning means anything at all it means engaging in education and training the very people who have made little or no use of colleges up to now. Giving them an individual learning account and a smart card will not suddenly turn their apathy into enthusiasm. Nor will dangling the prospect of a computer link which would enable them to study without moving away from their fireside or from the comfort of their own office. I am all for ILAs and modems but they will only confirm the already persuaded, not convert the non-believer.

One of the curious things about setting and achieving targets for funding is how wildly disparate are the returns on your investment in resources. If you take Further Education Funding Council units as a realistic proxy for students, it's apparent that one of our college curriculum terms, dealing predominantly with full-time students attending all year, might earn for the college rather fewer units than two or three of our lecturers-at-large can generate in a matter of weeks. Lecturers-at-large seek out opportunities in largish organisations to provide direct training (not franchised) to largish groups of employees. They are certainly reaching parts of the population where we have not penetrated before, and they may stimulate an appetite for learning where there was once only listlessness. But the real question is whether this extremely cheap way of doing things is telling us something about how the mainstream, site-based programme should be redesigned. It suddenly looks awfully expensive, and not necessarily very effective.

If all the world was employed by large companies with premises suitable for mass training life would certainly be easier. That sort of direct provision would thaw out the great permafrosted blocks of resource represented by staff and buildings, and we could make safer progress along the road to achieving our targets.

But the world is not like that. Lifelong learning will require a great deal more individual guidance and encouragement if it is to work. That needs to be backed up with a lot more training for those who will do the counselling and give the support, for we shall have to seek out the target audience for the message in small firms, and in their own homes. Not with a megaphone but with a word in the ear. All that will be alarmingly expensive.

It would be a lot cheaper if individuals could take responsibility for their learning in the way in which, slowly, the idea of taking responsibility for your own good health is catching on. The medical analogy is helpful, in that, as with a group practice or a health centre, individuals might be required to register, at, say, a college, to undertake a regular learning check-up, to receive "treatment" as the need arose, and to be told what kind of lifestyle would keep them in a good state of learning. To shift the emphasis from the supply to the demand side, as the economists would say.

Anything less would drain college coffers which, remember, have been meanly topped up by successive miserly public expenditure settlements which have pretended that inflation does not occur. There is an answer to that, of course. Why has nobody invented the 99p coin? It would cut time spent waiting for change, thus reducing the shops' costs. More important however, the psychology which holds that shops like to give change because customers think they are getting something back for their money would soon compel those shops to reduce their prices. The downward pressure on prices would spell the end of inflation.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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