The role of further education, training and adult learning was hailed as crucial to Britain by politicians of all colours as they jockeyed for position before the general election was called. But there is scant evidence of that commitment in the manifestos of the main contestants for power. Labour and Conservatives offer schemes, but miss the big picture.
The Tories have pledged more of the same: Modern Apprenticeships, national traineeships, and learning credits, a plastic card reminding 16 to 21-year-olds that they can choose training or education up to A-level standard. But there's a rub - Gillian Shephard has already warned colleges that "efficiency savings" will continue for three years, and there is no plan to extend educational entitlements beyond the age of 21.
As the Further Education Funding Council has revealed (page 1) cuts already decided by the Tories when they pulled the plug on extra cash for growth mean up to 258,000 students will be turned away from colleges this autumn on top of an unexpectedly high 7.6 per cent "efficiency" cut.
Labour offers tax breaks for employers who take on the unemployed and offer them training. The party wants to give Pounds 150 to a million people willing to invest Pounds 20 in their own education - an idea with a proven track record. Welfare to Work proposals offer full-time study to the under 25s - but no educational entitlement beyond that age.
Funding too is a problem for Labour. The party has pledged Pounds 3 billion windfall tax proceeds for post-16 education and training. But there is still concern that its short-term proceeds will not be translated into long-term investment in education for those over school age. Labour has already warned colleges it cannot promise extra funding over that provided by its one-off tax on the privatised utilities.
Liberal Democrats make bold pledges. Like Labour, they want individual learning accounts supported by the state, employers and individuals. And the party goes further, promising a levy on employers, remissible to those who cough-up the full amount for education and training for all employees. Its leaders also promise support for all adults embarking on education or training.
Concerns remain, however, that the much-vaunted one-pence-in-the-pound extra income tax for education has already been stretched beyond the realms of credibility. The Lib Dems' pledge to make greater commitments to HE and extend them to FE leaves a gap between income and expenditure which they have repeatedly refused to be pinned down on. Very little cash is likely to be available for anyone but schools in the first year.
Each of the manifestos offer more support to education and training for those who have left school; warm words offering programmes with real potential. But each fails to address the full extent of the challenge facing Britain.
As the training and enterprise councils' national policy director Chris Humphries argues on page 26, a revolution in adult education driven forward by a coherent strategy for colleges, universities and employers has to be the next big idea, regardless of who governs for the next five years.
What is expected of FE colleges, TECs and higher education must be more clearly defined. That begs a proper review of the FE sector, which has lost out to both schools and HE. It cannot go on simply being an underfunded repository for the education and training goals espoused by politicians, which neither the schools and universities nor industry want to take on.
But such a review is not just about the state of 487 colleges - it is about an agenda for life. All three parties are moving in the right direction. They all acknowledge the necessity for building the nation's skills base. But what they lack is a strategy for funding and providing education for everybody when they leave school. Every 18-year-old with three A-levels has virtually an automatic right to a university education. But what about the rest?
The next Government must see that every working or unemployed man or woman in Britain should be entitled to a first, second or third chance of training. The jumping-off point for a worthwhile career is NVQ level 3 or equivalent, and everyone must be entitled to an education or training to provide it. Why should students be entitled to three years' state support to do a degree but not to do FE?
Such a revolution will pose fundamental questions about the dominance of Britain's university-led culture which may be uncomfortable for a Government under pressure to keep education's sacred cows alive and well.
But the serious problem facing the nation's policy-makers will make answering those questions imperative: Britain needs a highly educated workforce of adults and young people. Whoever finds themselves in Number 10 on May 2 will have to deliver them.