Editor's comment

12th November 2004 at 00:00
When ministers wanted to force through deeply unpopular plans for higher education tuition fees, they appointed a seasoned bruiser and tough-talking ex-union boss Alan Johnson as minister to drive the bill though Parliament.

Much time and money was spent on lobbying and high-profile promotions to convince people that the disadvantaged should not subsidise the well-heeled middle classes.

Can the same be said about the introduction of more equitable measures in further education? Not according to the Association of Colleges or the National Institute of Adult Continuing Learning. Ministers cajoled and exhorted. They spoke of shifting priorities and the need for individual adults and employers to pay more. Charles Clarke has repeated the mantra that the emphasis for the next parliamentary term is "skills".

But who among the chattering classes and population at large has really listened or understood? For them, the message was at best muted and at worst irrelevant. Managers, trainers and lecturers on the ground have been left to sell the proposals amid dire warnings that budgets in the next spending round will be tight. And before the belt is even tightened, the Learning and Skills Council is reported to be squeezing out all the flexibility needed to respond to changes in the market (page 6).

So, as the Association of Colleges' annual conference approaches, there is growing concern that, at worst, there will be cuts and contraction or, at best, standstill budgets. Throughout the HE debate, there was never any suggestion that state cash for universities would be cut in line with the growth in tuition-fee income. Whereas colleges are already having to first-guess what fee income they must raise before they even know what Mr Clarke is willing to grant them.

The net effect, as reported on page 3, is that adult education not rooted in utilitarian skills or leading to a qualification is being axed. And if employers refuse to pay the bills and the drop in recruitment to adult learning continues, who will be blamed? Not the ministers.

The Government's skills ambitions are laudable and it is right that industry and adults who can afford it should pay more. The problem is that this message has not got across to those who need to hear - that requires a big and sustained campaign by politicians. They cannot blame the troops if the captain's orders are not heeded.

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