Paying for the learning society

31st January 1997 at 00:00
If the latest campaign (page three) to take learning to the masses does not succeed, it will not be for want of trying. Next week the adult guidance helpline will have been launched three times, the national deficit in skills will have been outlined for the umpteenth time, the importance of learning and relearning to the individual and to the nation will have been stressed yet again.

Scotland's relationship with learning is a puzzling one in many ways. The national folklore is awash with the alleged value which we place on learning and the superiority, even if an eroding one, of our performance. Yet, if the Mori poll cited by the campaigners is to be believed, only a minority of Scots adults place any premium on learning, in the sense of being prepared to do anything to advance it in their own cause.

There may once have been an argument that potential learners had few outlets and even less information to justify their lack of inclination. But that is no longer the case: if anything, the problem is the reverse one of too much provision and too much information. Indeed the Mori pollsters found that surprisingly few people reported a lack of awareness or availability of suitable courses.

The language of economics has now entered the learning world and the campaign to be launched next week aims to concentrate on the "demand" rather than the "supply" side of the equation. The lofty purpose, in other words, is to educate people into learning and raise their sights. The suppliers will then be wheeled out to meet the demand. It is an alluring prospect and, certainly, action of that kind will be one of the essential ingredients if Scotland is to come anywhere near meeting the education and training targets set for 2000. Schools can do so much but, as the new campaign implies, substantial inroads will not be made unless employers and adults get the message.

There is no point, however, in kidding ourselves that government and providers of education can be absolved from any responsibility simply because individuals have a lot to learn. The latest pronouncement on the subject, by the Institute for Public Policy Research in its Promoting Prosperity report, makes two key recommendations which will cost money - all employers wanting to take on under-19s must guarantee them at least eight hours off-the-job vocational training every week, and adults should be given a learning incentive by making all sub-degree courses free and charging fees for degree courses.

These proposals were put forward by businessmen. They are clearly getting the message. But are they - or we - prepared to pay?

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