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Colleges must learn to sell themselves

In attempting to impose a policy of "vocational course good, leisure course bad", politicians are trying to tinker with the complex circuitry that wires together education and the economy. Having pulled out some wires, strange things seem to be happing, as our front page story shows.

Instead of an exodus of jam-makers or those pilates enthusiasts for whom the Government has professed so much disdain, the biggest fall has been among those taking courses that have a workplace application.

Ministers have pointed out that some of these courses are employers' responsibility and should not be subsidised from the public purse. They will also repeat the mantra about how much more money is going to colleges since the last time we were under the Tories, who have repositioned themselves rather belatedly as the saviours of adult education.

Ministers have a right to exercise their mandate - a commitment to invest in colleges on the basis of skills, literacy, numeracy and improving the country's economic performance. Equally, colleges have the right to insist education is about something bigger than providing workforce development to employers.

"Non-vocational" education is a cultural activity, and culture is what happens at grassroots level as an expression of people's aspirations and tastes. It is not something planned in Whitehall, even if we do have a "minister for culture".

Just as the Learning and Skills Council has sold the case for vocational training via its belated grasp of mass-media advertising, so colleges must join forces to promote their "brand" to the public, including those who get excited about jam-making or pilates. Only when the public understands the challenges around post-19 funding will the issue move up the political agenda.

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