Put students in the driving seat

Fresh research says employers should not dictate choice of courses. Joseph Lee reports

* abour's favourite think tank has attacked the Government's plans for letting employers determine future demand for courses.

The Institute for Public Policy Research, in a publication called Learning for Life, said that unless students are allowed flexibility and choice, those who most need education, such as the unemployed and those in part-time work, will miss out.

"The new framework for adult learning needs to start with the needs of individuals rather than the needs of employer bodies," the report said.

"Employers should not expect to have their training needs paid for by the state."

Simone Delorenzi, the report's author, said adult students in FE should also have the same access to subsidised loans as their counterparts at universities, as many currently have to borrow at commercial rates for living expenses while studying.

And the 16-hour rule, which prevents those on benefits from studying full-time, should be scrapped, the report recommends.

The Government aims to raise the proportion of adults with the equivalent of five good GCSEs to 90 per cent by 2020, citing estimates that demands for unskilled jobs will fall from 3.4 million to 600,000 during that period. Ministers argue that this full level 2 qualification is the minimum for career progression, but because productivity only tends to increase when staff reach level 3, the taxpayer should subsidise employers.

But the report said these conditions are too inflexible. They are set too high and ignore a wage premium of up to 14 per cent for those who have fewer than five good GCSEs, which suggests employers do value skills below level 2.

Using Train to Gain has led to a damaging reliance on competency-based NVQs which offer no pay increase at level 2. BTEC and City and Guilds can provide better returns, along with GCSEs.

Limiting the level 2 entitlement to a full qualification was wrong, because adult study is likely to be in short spells to fit in with work and other commitments. Train to Gain is also expensive, costing pound;2,020 per student for only 17 hours teaching, plus 23 hours assessment and portfolio building. Traditional study costs an average of pound;3,300 for at least 450 hours of lecturers' time.

The report argues that giving individuals freer choice over their learning will improve their job prospects and boost the economy in turn. It said those without five good GCSEs should have a new entitlement, equal in value to the current one for full level 2 qualifications, but giving free choice from entry level to level 3, and allowing them to mix and match.

Colleges should also be given similar autonomy to universities in their planning, allowing them to respond to student demand. And state subsidies for the employer-led Sector Skills Councils should be ended, the report said.

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