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Degrees past their sell-by date

EVEN for the most blase of travellers, the moment when an airliner begins to accelerate down the runway and you know that there is no going back makes your heart thump a bit. You remind yourself that the laws of physics are on your side and that, implausible as it may seem, tons of metal can be made to fly. You put out of your mind the recollection that physics cannot explain how a bumblebee can fly. And you comfort yourself with the thought that pilots have to keep up to date or lose their licence to fly.

That seems to be an idea worth copying. I received my degree way back in 1963 and my teaching qualification a year later, but I am still entitled to put those valuable letters after my name. What is absolutely certain is that if I were to be plonked down in an examination room now and asked to prove that my knowledge was still current, I would fail abjectly. Whatever I knew then about the image of the Superfluous Man in Russian literature has not only slipped out of my mind, but has in any case probably been superseded by new thinking on the subject. As for theories about how children learn or the choice between a selective or non-selective system of education, received wisdom changes almost monthly.

Perhaps we should put a date after our qualifications to show how old they are. We would know that a 1963 degree, like a 1963 Ford Prefect, was likely to be past its best, overtaken by more recent models. Unless, of course, like a pilot, we could produce a service history which showed that proper care and maintenance had been carried out. A qualification, whether it is a degree, a GNVQ or an RSA keyboard speed test records achievement at a moment in time, not for ever. We accept the logic of that in the use of evidence to build up a portfolio for recognition of NVQs: evidence has to be current, not past its sell-by date. We might have been able to climb a mountain in our youth, but doing it then is no guarantee that we could do it now.

Lifelong learning need not mean learning something entirely new every year. It could, indeed should, include refreshing and updating our existing qualifications. Awarding bodies, including universities in the case of degrees, might devise schmes of work which must be followed and assessed if qualifications are to remain current. Those who fail could be stripped of their awards, as fading restaurateurs lose their Michelin stars when they can no longer cut the mustard.

I am not suggesting for a moment that people who want to keep their qualifications should be forced to go back into the lecture halls and classrooms of their youth. We know a lot more now about work-place learning and how to accredit it. But we could do it better, and a requirement to update would bring out new ideas as the spring sunshine brings out the flowers. The capacity of Learndirect to provide access to a complete range of learning materials online would be helpful, and of course colleges would be leading the charge in any campaign to promote opportunities to keep on learning.

We would need an acceptable timetable of expiry dates. Would a degree "last" for, say, five years without refreshment? An A-level, if it was the highest qualification, three? An NVQ, unbuttressed by further training, might crumble away within two years. Whatever the terms, the requirement for currency, relevance and up-to-date thinking would usefully tax both the awarding bodies and the recurrent student. We could start carrying qualifications passbooks around with us, with the appropriate endorsements and date-stamps. Employers would find that useful, holders could be proud of them, too.

But best of all would be the boost to the status of lifelong learning. Try as we do at the moment, it is hard to kill the perception that those who undergo a dose of lifelong learning are in some way making up for the deficiencies of their youth. They are hailed and feted as heroes when they succeed, quite rightly, but there remains something of the repentant sinner about them.

If every professional person in the country, every professor, doctor, lawyer, teacher and college principal was at it, and seen to be at it, lifelong learning would become as normal and respectable as having your gas boiler serviced. And you could continue to sit back in perfect confidence as the nose lifts off the tarmac.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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