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More than a token gesture

The latest brainwave of the Learning and Skills Council - the introduction of gift vouchers to be spent on college courses - is one of those ideas which is so good that it would seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight.

This is a simple, inspired and (hopefully) non-bureaucratic move to remind the public that colleges are places of fulfilment and fun - not just places of hard graft in pursuit of qualifications.

Of course, society at large benefits from wisely-targeted cash for free adult courses and that issue must not be allowed to be obscured - but there is plenty of scope for colleges selling themselves more effectively to those who can and should be paying.

There is massive demand for subjects such as Spanish, art and even traditional A-levels for those who want a stab later in life at the kind of studying which seemed somehow less attractive when they were at school.

The scheme can also be used to improve the public's understanding of how FE is funded. When people see the cost of a partly-subsidised course going up, they all too often feel they are being taken advantage of - not realising that even the increased fee is sometimes less than the total cost of providing the course.

Where the course is part-subsidised, this should be made clear in the pricing of the vouchers.

This scheme is destined to succeed. The commercial challenge will be to make sure the vouchers are staring the public in the face - on display in newsagents and promoted on the internet. Colleges will need to join forces and use their combined purchasing power to make sure the marketing is good enough to do justice to the idea.

If they do, the customers will flood in.

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