I sometimes wonder about the politics of the cosmic joker. I studied literature at the University of East Anglia, surrounded by people who very quickly became literature in themselves. Among the well-trodden nostrums of the time was the distinction made between moral and amoral comedy.
Moral comedians would choose a hero from the wrong side of the tracks, like Fielding's Tom Jones, give him (it was usually a him) lots of fun; reveal him to be basically decent, if unlucky; introduce him to a breathtaking, but too posh, heroine; contrast his moral integrity with the decadent gents; lead him almost to the gallows, but at the last reveal him to be the long-lost heir to the Squire. In one fell swoop the legitimacy of the true gentry is reinforced, and our hero gets the posh heroine after all.
Amoral comedy was not like that at all. Tristram Shandy, who takes hundreds of pages hovering on the edge of being born, or Samuel Beckett's heroes, hanging around in a fruitless wait for a Godot the author never intended to send along, illustrate the type. In this world, there is no benign deus ex machina, ready to come along, like the cavalry to put things right. It is a world of missed opportunities, of time schemes that never quite synchronise.
I was reminded of this earlier this month, when the Government announced its intention to increase massively the numbers of people in further and higher education. David Triesman, supremo of the Association of University Teachers, was reported to have congratulated Labour's Tessa Blackstone on such a wholehearted backing for the expansion of higher education. She replied, the story goes, "for further and higher" education.
To have a Prime Minister committed to education three times over, and ministers beginning to address post-compulsory education as a whole system rather than as a series of discrete and competing sectors is welcome, and augurs well for adult learning.
The temptation is to see this as the resolution of a moral comedy, when we finally permit ourselves to invest to give all our communities the opportunity to become a learning society. However, much of the fun in amoral comedy comes from having protagonists who behave as if they were in a moral comedy, little realising what the author has set up for them.
I think it would be at best incautious to feel too optimistic too soon. This is not because I am sceptical about the Government's intentions. It is because I detect the hand of a comic novelist in the challenges posed to education and training in the UK by Agenda 2000.
Agenda 2000 is the policy framework adopted at the Amsterdam summit of the European Union heads of state. The agreement includes changes to the European Structural Funds, which mean that in two years' time the seven pots of money currently in operation will have been reduced to three "objective" funds.
The three objectives are straightforward. Objective 1 funds will focus on the poorest areas in Europe, with 60 per cent or less of average EU standards of living. This is a tighter definition than the current one, and is likely to include fewer areas in the UK - if any.
Objective 2 funding will be for areas with unemployment rates more than 10 per cent above the European norm. Currently the UK has the second lowest unemployment rates in the community. Of course, Britain is further through the economic cycle so we may be back in recession by the time the jobless are counted; but just now we would be unlikely to benefit much from objective 2.
The best hope is for money from objective 3, which aims to support economic restructuring in all the areas not covered by 1 and 2.
It is encouraging that supporting lifelong learning will be one priority under objective 3. However, we look likely to lose large amounts of the money that fund education and training in the UK. Brussels pays for much of Training for Work, the work of the Independent Training Organisations, the Further Education Funding Council. It also finances economic regeneration in the old coal communities, and for that matter Adult Learners' Week.
Since it has not been a government priority to draw attention to just how much money comes from Europe, there is as yet little public debate or anxiety shown about the matter.
Of course, UK civil servants will, as I write, be sitting up late into the Brussels night seeking to minimise the impact, but that too leaves me feeling queasy. If they are successful, it will mean less goes to east and central Europe, and securing reasonable equality of opportunity is not just a national matter, is it?
So, just as the British Government is giving greater priority to learning, a chasm in the budget threatens to open up. The dilemma we face in dealing with it is, I suppose, not unlike that faced by vice-chancellors committed in principle to widening participation, but finding that the economic health of their own institutions leads them to defend their hold on the cash. Hence my sense that the cosmic joker probably is an anarchist, and has yet to be as convinced as she should be of the value of lifelong learning.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.