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Editor's COMMENT

The loudest message to emerge from the Association of Colleges annual conference in Birmingham is that more must be done to forge a partnership between colleges and industry.

For Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, it's a question of cash.

Colleges are being told to raise more from the private sector as the Government cannot foot an ever-increasing bill.

John Brennan, the association's chief executive, called for a "new dialogue" and "fresh partnership" with employers locally and nationally.

Sophisticated partnerships with local firms have proved that there is scope for better links.

But will colleges end up with more money or end up simply rounding up the cash to send back to Whitehall, effectively acting as tax collectors? And when money goes back to the Treasury, who knows where it goes?

The push down the private road is laudable; no one expects the Chancellor to dip endlessly into the public purse. But there is a danger of a fundamental question being missed in the debate: what is education for?

Elderly people who do art classes may not in principle deserve subsidising.

But there is increasing evidence of the health benefits. Lifelong learners live longer, healthier lives and cost the NHS less.

Prince Charles, in a message to the conference, pointed out the problem.

"Too often much of that discussion focuses exclusively in terms of costs and benefits to the economy, as if human beings really ought to become better robots.

"But in my view and that of many others I talk to, we really blossom as a society when we accept that there is no prize more valuable than the joy and self-esteem associated with, for example, the mastering of a skill, the defeat of a mental obstacle or the sensation of having one's eyes opened to the beauties of literature, mathematics and science."

Well, isn't it ridiculous, at a conference about education, that we have to hear this from someone whose credentials are royal rather than educational? How many times have we heard the same from the man or woman in the local pub? Maybe they should be listened to a little more.

Yes, industry does need to spend more. As the ICM poll for the AoC shows, three out of four people say employers should be fined for not training their staff properly.

But, instead of fining them, why not impose a levy or some other means to ensure industry does its bit? The Government cannot be expected to foot the entire bill, but there is a danger of getting the public-private balance woefully wrong.

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