We are right to think the unthinkable;Commentary;Opinion

13th March 1998 at 00:00
David Blunkett's revolution of further and higher education "will break down the fortress walls I to make much more use of our universities (and) tap their potential," according to Kim Howells, minister for lifelong learning. This should be music for the ears of all in education looking to widen opportunity and develop a learning society.

Undoubtedly the UK higher education system is world class, but at the expense of the rest. Now higher education will be integrated into the whole system. Universities will contribute to a wider range of courses working with schools, FE and adult education, including community education and the informal and voluntary sectors.

This should not be seen as an attack on universities or academic excellence. It should be seen as a new age of mass education in which universities will have a far more important role than simply educating the top 30 per cent. Universities should welcome it as an opportunity to contribute more. The more advanced universities have already taken steps down this road but will all professors and academics take on the challenge or resist change?

In my experience business leaders have long felt that many in the elite universities were not waking up to the implications of globalisation of the economy, spread of communication technologies and international competition. One company chairman who went back to lead a seminar at his old Oxbridge college told me that virtually no one in the audience was aware of the global economy threat and the necessity for increasing the skills-base of the majority if the UK is to survive.

But it is not just the universities - all education institutions need to wake up to the future agenda. This nation's education system unlocks potential for the elite only. For the majority it underperforms (UK average score is below that for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations) and it fails a comparatively vast tail approaching one-quarter of our people.

The scary statistical facts on adult education like 40 per cent of adults have no formal qualifications or access to continuing education courses mean we should all wake up. Helena Kennedy's summarising quote in her report "if at first you don't succeed, you don't succeed" should be the final nail in the coffin of elitism.

The UK must undergo a learning revolution which opens up access and unlocks the potential of all. Never has David Blunkett been more realistic than when he announced that these reforms will require a knowledge revolution on the lines of the industrial revolution - this time we are way behind other national, currently falling further behind the leaders and have to take urgent action to catch up.

Business takes a holistic overview of education in line with the National Commission on Education. On investment business is concerned about pound;1,200 investment in each primary pupil (less for those in the early years) and pound;2,400 in each secondary student set against nearly pound;10,000 for university students.

This is particularly worrying as young children need more personal attention and adult students can perform well in larger groups using information communications technology, distance learning and unitised accreditation systems. Business is also concerned to see pound;30 billion from the state and pound;26bn from industry invested in education and training set against pound;12bn from individual contributions. No nation can pay for all to attend university. Therefore incentives are needed to increase individual contributions from long-term loan to individual learning accounts - the only issue here should be strategies to enable access for the most needy.

Finally, business is concerned about institutional performance and the quality of teaching measured by baseline improvements in results. Hence business supports Lord Dearing's strategies on quality and professional qualifications for teaching in HE. And in terms of added value business is concerned about widening access, opening up education and training facilities to the community and expanding ICT and distance learning to reach new markets among the excluded. Here David Brown's new University for Industry looks on target but scale of provision and access have to be proved - all universities should play a part working with businesses, schools and further education in the economic regeneration of their regions.

FE is already undergoing vast change, much of it on neutral budgets despite vast increases in student numbers and more market-driven accountability. Schools have faced a decade of reform to the curriculum, assessment systems and performance accountability. Both phases now face the new culture of continuous improvement. Integrating the higher education phase into a holistic system with joint responsibility to develop a learning society for all is the only future agenda. The inherent challenges such as professional qualifications for quality teaching of broader abilities, key skills on the curriculum or unitisation to widen access can no longer be side-stepped. Let's move to a world in which divisive roles leading to elitism and exclusion are history. The new age of the knowledge worker will require educational opportunities to be available in every home, community facility and workplace. If teachers from all sectors, like trainers from all sectors of business, were to play a full part in David Blunkett's learning revolution the UK would tap the potential of the whole profession to improve UK competitiveness and tackle social cohesion - this would put universities and the teaching profession on the map.

Ian Pearce is director of education for Business in the Community

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