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Ministers talk down learning credits

THE Scottish Executive has given a lukewarm response to the report of the parliamentary committee on lifelong learning - while one of its leading officials issued a clear warning that ministers are not keen on being "overly strategic".

The Executive appears particularly cool towards the key plank in the all-party report by MSPs on the enterprise and lifelong learning committee of an "entitlement" to ongoing learning. This would allow anybody who wished to study to be funded for 720 credits over six years, the equivalent of two years in fifth and sixth year at school followed by a four-year degree.

But in an interim response in advance of a debate in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, the Executive betrays its nervousness of spending commitments. The response "recognises the difficulties inherent in this concept, and that the extent to which entitlement can be fully realised depends to a considerable degree on how it can be resourced".

Stimulating greater interest in lifelong learning, the Executive continues, is dependent on removing barriers to access the opportunities that are already available.

Its response also underlines the importance of promoting learning in the workplace and selling its value to employers. The Executive's role "is to ensure that the right mix of different learning opportunities and routes through the learning landscape is available so that individuals can choose what best suits their circumstances".

Surprisingly, the response is most positive on the prospect of merging the funding councils for further and higher education. The committee suggested that this should occur in around five years and the Executive says it "supports this general approach and will develop specific proposals".

But it is less clear on what to do about the "complicated issues" surrounding the funding gap between further and higher education. The committee's major recommendation was that part-time students, who comprise over 80 per cent of FE rolls, should be placed on the same footing as full-time undergraduates in having their fees paid.

The Executive commented: "Care needs to be taken with the way the figures are analysed as comparisons based on simple averages do not do justice to the complexities of the sectors."

The key factor in both sectors, the Executive continues, is to ensure a good quality of learning.

One of the central assumptions in the parliamentary lifelong learning report is that there is no national strategy. Ministers have bristled at the assertion and this emerged clearly in a speech delivered by Ed Weeple, head of the lifelong learning division, to an FE conference in Glasgow on Monday. Mr Weeple pointed to the former Scottish Office 1998 report Opportunities Scotland and "the family of linked documents that flowed from that".

He said: "There is a danger in having an over-centralised and over-bureaucratic view of lifelong learning. We do have a market in lifelong learning and the arguments against government intervention in markets in general apply to lifelong learning as they do elsewhere."

The interim response itself catalogues a raft of developments pointing to a strategy. These include the establishment of Learndirect Scotland and Careers Scotland; major funding increases for FE and HE, support for HE expansion in the Highlands and Islands and the south-west; a new science strategy; more modern apprenticeships; setting up the Scottish Union Learning Fund to promote workforce development; creating community learning partnerships in all local authorities; investing in the "inclusiveness" measures recommended in the Beattie report; and tackling the "historic neglect" of adult literacy and numeracy.

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