What are we all learning for?

18th October 1996 at 01:00
What's it worth? What exactly can I do with it?" Providers of continuing education are getting a lot of such questions as we offer an increasing range of programmes which carry academic credit. In my own university, the credit points do not, under current regulations, count towards a degree, and since most people still associate universities almost exclusively with degrees, this causes some puzzlement.

We do a lot of explaining, to the effect that the credit points do indeed signal that assessed work has been successfully carried out to higher education standards. It is in part for the student to explore what this might mean in the wider world. Other universities may accept the credit points as counting towards one of their awards, a practice which is becoming more thoroughly embedded in Scotland as the Scotcat system becomes more widely operational. One of our tasks is to build closer partnerships between universities to make such transfer a real possibility.

Or employers may take notice, perhaps because of the specific knowledge gained, but also because of the application which a student has shown in gaining the credits. We are carrying out some market research into people's awareness of credit-bearing provision, and participants in the focus groups have observed that they would expect their employer to give them credit (of a different kind) for committing themselves to study and assessment.

But there is the wider question of the role of certificates, as we supposedly clamber our way to the status of learning society with qualifications as the pitons under our boots. Who actually benefits, and what are the costs? I'm not talking here about the organisational costs of setting up assessment systems, of putting hundreds of short courses through validation boards and of keeping complex records of student progress (my university will have to log several thousand new students onto its computer, with an 80-item registration form). I am thinking more of the possible costs to students' own sense of their competence.

Let me illustrate what I mean by referring to some work done in Denmark in a very different context. The study concerns poorly educated women working in social care jobs.

As the lifelong learning juggernaut rolls on its way, they are being encouraged, even pushed, into presenting themselves for certificate-bearing courses. The first question is whether the education will add to their competence or merely certify it. Even if it only does the latter, it may still be a benefit, giving them recognition and possibly status.

But there are two risks attached. The first is that they will fail to attain the required standard. This will weed out the incompetent, but the likelihood in an occupation such as this is that people who have been doing the job perfectly well for a number of years may suddenly lose their informal licence to practice.

The second risk is that the process of making explicit (in order to test it) the previously tacit knowledge may remove it from the control of the practitioners. Again, in some cases this may be a good thing, allowing greater accountability. If professionals are required to say what they are supposed to be doing, it will be easier for lay people to exercise some kind of judgement. But for poorly educated social carers, the whole accreditation process may have the effect of undermining an area in which they felt themselves to be competent, and where that confidence was almost self-fulfilling. They know they can do the job, and being asked to prove it to some external body - composed in all likelihood of people very different to themselves in background and experience - is a risky business.

This is the other side of the coin when it comes to thinking about the advantages of accrediting work-based experience. It may be very advantageous to recognise the amount that people - especially those without much formal education - learn outside the educational system. But that needs to be qualified by an awareness of some of the less obvious pitfalls of external accreditation.

Professor Tom Schuller will be giving his inaugural lecture in the University of Edinburgh Senate Room at 5.15pm on October 29. The lecture - "Building social capital: steps towards a learning society" - is open to the public and free

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