The National Commission on Education's recent report, The Way Ahead, drew scathing attention to the fall in the Department for Education's spending on research to less than 0.1 per cent of total public spending on education - a meagre Pounds 23 million in 1994-95. "This is not a responsible basis for policy-making," it said.
Quite so. The consequences of such lacklustre investment in research are familiar to us all: repeated ministerial refusal to acknowledge the importance of the relationship between class size and school standards and the withdrawal of funding for the Reading Recovery programme, despite overwhelming evidence to support its effectiveness, are salient examples.
Nowhere, as the Association for Colleges' recent Manifesto for Further Education points out, is the need for detailed research more evident than in FE. In particular, there is a serious lack of research into the crucial contribution of further education to the economic and social prosperity of our country. It is a legacy of the sector's Cinderella past that our understanding of this area remains so limited.
It is now widely accepted that it is the talents, skills and abilities of the workforce of any country which constitute the prime determinant of its competitiveness and its future prosperity. Without investment in education and training infrastructures, these talents and skills atrophy and a country loses it competitive edge.
At the same time, the rapidly-changing patterns of production, consumption and technological advance require continual updating of the skills and knowledge of the workforce. Lifelong learning becomes imperative - both for economic success and for social justice, since without access to the infrastructures of learning, individuals are excluded from meaningful employment and from the means of personal fulfilment. Social exclusion, marginalisation and an impoverished civic identity are the intolerable consequence.
The Labour party is currently drawing up consultative policy on a new framework for lifelong learning. Our belief is that the whole spectrum of post-compulsory education and training from FE colleges to our universities - will play a pivotal role in the renewal of Britain in the 21st century.
A glance at the figures demonstrate the distance we have to travel. While rates of 16-plus participation in education and training have risen considerably in recent years, drop-out rates at 17 and 18 remain far too high. In 1991, the average level of participation of 18-year-olds in non-university education and training was between 57 and 80 per cent in France, Germany and Denmark. In the UK the proportion was only 16 per cent in 1993-94.
Meanwhile, in 1989, only 25 per cent of the British workforce had intermediate vocational qualifications, compared with 63 per cent in Germany and 57 per cent in the Netherlands.
These figures are a reflection of a long-standing and peculiarly English disdain for vocational learning and indicate our historic failure to provide excellence and achievement to more than an elite.
Much has changed, however, in recent years. The expansion of higher education proved a major driving force in fuelling aspirations throughout our education system. The current growth in FE will equip many more people with qualifications for skilled employment and ensure that demand for higher education remains buoyant.
But there is still a long way to go. Adult education has been left to wither on the vine of government cuts to local authority budgets and the current division between the three tracks of learning - academic, vocational and occupational - reflects the persistence of one of our most fundamental cultural weaknesses.
In order to sustain and drive the development of mass participation in post-compulsory education and training, we need to generate a new investment coalition for learning: employers, individuals and publicprivate institutions. This is the fundamental concept behind the proposal from the Commission on Social Justice for a learning bank, a learning entitlement financed by both students and employers.
A coalition operates on the basis of mutual expectations and trust. Employers are expected to invest in training and education. Employees and those outside the workforce are encouraged to commit themselves to lifetime learning, with the support of employers and public agencies, within structures that permit probability of qualifications and attainments. The Government underpins the coalition, defining the sphere of entitlements, working in fruitful partnership with learning institutions and external stakeholders, and developing the resource base of the learning society through creative interaction with the private sector.
Individual learning accounts held with a learning bank represent one option for the machinery to fulfill a person's rights and responsibilities in a learning society. In the long term, we need to develop a flexible and efficient system of support for students, structured by the principle of equity in the treatment of learners at all levels.
The current framework of agencies who have responsibility for funding FE and training provision is manifestly not a stable basis for progress. Learners can be funded at different levels for different courses by local authorities, the Further Education Funding Council, training and enterprise councils and the Funding Agency for Schools.
Moreover, the recent Competitiveness White Paper will only make matters worse. It announces the deregulation of entry into FE, provision of private providers and suggests a relaxation of controls on the opening of sixth forms. It also announces legislation to improve careers advice for school-leavers. This is to stretch credibility to breaking point. What we desperately need are robust mechanisms for constructive collaboration and coherence, as well as greater equity in funding, between institutions.
Greater emphasis on partnership and strategic coherence must also take place within a framework of accountability. FE colleges now have little formal co-operation with other education providers. Concerns have also arisen over the structure of college governance. The formal instruments of governance are premised on a narrow understanding of the communities colleges serve and recent events have highlighted the need to redefine specific lines of accountability and democratic participation in the sector.
The enormous change FE has undergone in recent years has exposed its diverse strengths and weaknesses. With a better informed policy agenda the strengths can be developed and the weaknesses tackled.