Lifelong learning was described last week as "a motherhood value" by Rae Angus, principal of Aberdeen College, after the UK launch of the European Year of Lifelong Learning in Edinburgh (page 10). The FE principals whose views were canvassed after the proceedings were generally asking "where's the beef?"
"The trouble is, the concept needs more clarity and coherence," Mr Angus added. "Although it is 'a good thing' to which everyone claims to subscribe, we lack a clear strategy and appropriate funding which is targeted at the adult learner". Mr Angus preferred a "skill-seekers for adults" approach, in the form of voucher-based funding which puts the student in the driving seat.
Although the consultation paper on adult guidance which was launched by the Scottish Office last week is intended to answer critics who complain about the absence of a national policy, Graham Clark of Falkirk College suggested: "We are up to our necks in strategy and initiatives of various kinds; what we lack is an action plan. There are many schemes of lifelong learning but I don't have the impression that anybody is driving them."
The Government's approach of an alliance of providers from the public, private and voluntary sectors was endorsed by John Sellars of the Association of Scottish Colleges. But he added: "We've had so many short-term initiatives when what we really need is a coherent strategy which offers some hope of long-term funding from private and public sources and which is stable and forward-looking." Alex Gordon, principal of Banff and Buchan College, agreed that "so many people are dipping their toes in the water, it is difficult to see a discernible strategy".
There should be a one-stop shop for learning opportunities and the FE college is one obvious provider, Mr Sellars said. But Mr Angus was doubtful. "You can't have a one-stop shop in a competitive situation: there couldn't be a one-stop shop for groceries." Mr Gordon said that, despite the profusion of providers, effective adult guidance links did exist informally.
The colleges do not see themselves as just a one-stop stop for information on adult learning opportunities, however, but for the courses themselves. Derek Huckle, principal of Fife College, said that many of the adults now returning to college in increasing numbers could be offered "complete opportunities" from basic learning to degrees.
Mr Huckle said that this trend is of benefit to the colleges as well as the students: "Adults bring to college a knowledge of life which the younger students don't have and they pass on that knowledge. One consequence of that is an improvement in behaviour."
Advice on careers and courses from colleges is not always seen as objective, given the competition for students, and there were calls at the Edinburgh conference for the establishment of an "honest broker" to provide the service (the new-look careers service being one of the possibilities).
Fife College has been piloting what it says is a new style of advice in the form of five "student resource co-ordinators" who are members of the academic staff but said to be semi-independent. "We are not flogging courses at Fife or any particular college," Mr Huckle stressed. Fife's link with the University of Abertay Dundee enables the college to pass on students to other institutions where appropriate, he said.
Other colleges have been trying to advance the cause of lifelong education by investing in flexible learning, and this week Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, officially opened the latest centre at Dundee College. Another is due to be operational in the autumn at Banff and Buchan College. Such flexible provision of courses is "a crucial factor in promoting lifelong learning, " Mr Robertson said.
Bill Greenock, principal of Clydebank College, also drew attention to the important role which colleges can play in delivering education to adults in schools. "That's very important in a place like Argyll which has no FE centre," he said.
However, the Government is likely to come under continued pressure to review its FE funding arrangements if colleges are to maximise learning benefits on behalf of adults. More lifelong learning means more flexible funding, according to Mr Sellars, since the present formula is geared too much to structured vocational courses.
But Mr Sellars believed the first requirement is to find out what the customers actually want before any national adult guidance service is established. The clients were conspicuous by their absence from last week's event, he added.