Willis Pickard reflects on the latest airing for lifelong learning
IT is sometimes necessary to remember the pace of change in education after school. Ten years ago, you could not have had a conference at which senior university figures sat alongside representatives from further education and training discussing the shortage of plumbers and childcare facilities.
It is a measure of the influence of the Scottish Executive's lifelong learning strategy and of the backbench MSPs' report preceding it that more than 200 signed on, at a cost of up to pound;411, for a day in Edinburgh.Conference organiser Neil Stewart Associates, must have seen the kind of business opportunity that ministers in their Smart, Successful Scotland programme envisage the rest of us seizing.
The Association of Scottish College and Universities Scotland lent their weight (as did The TES Scotland).
But a weakness in the Executive's enthusiasm for all-embrac-ing lifelong learning was immediately clear. Business was barely represented, and there were not many from the voluntary sector, although they had been offered reduced rates. Lifelong learning is still perceived as a matter for education professionals.
There were tensions, too - not that that should be deplored when the future is being charted. Iain Gray, Lifelong Learning Minister, invoked a "passion for learning" and said that people should be "eager to learn, curious to learn, inspired to achieve".
But Ray Harris, principal of Edinburgh's Telford College, pointed out that at the lower levels of participation, few people went into "learning" per se. Other incentives were needed.
And Tom Kelly, chief executive of the ASC, said that those pursuing the most basic post-school qualifications did not thereby enhance their chances of employment and greater earning power.
Mr Kelly said that the lifelong learning strategy, in seeking to balance the needs of students, employers and society, highlighted the role of FE colleges. The Executive is being cautious about the entitlement to learning which lay at the heart of the recent report by the Scottish Parliament's lifelong learning committee.
Regretting the absence of the "vision thing" from the Executive strategy, Mr Kelly said that instead of a "chance to study", the aim should be for the "right to learn". Among groups reluctant to enrol in learning there was a need to tackle those less easy to identify and reach than, for example, prisoners and young people who were leaving care (the category singled out for piloting a learning entitlement).
A note of caution was sounded on behalf of higher education by David Caldwell, director of Universities Scotland. Mr Caldwell was clearly anxious that in looking for the widest embrace of lifelong learning the strategy might forget the unprecedentedly high numbers of students on the traditional route from school to undergraduate course.
A heavy price would be paid if they were neglected in the pursuit of funding for students in FE who need a high level of support. The quality of university tuition and preparation of graduates for employment could suffer.
Mr Caldwell said that the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework launched in December was a significant aid to opening up new pathways and helping to ensure that the right credit was given for prior learning. In many countries and unlike Scotland, higher education was outwith a credit transfer framework.
But articulation, fitting one course with another, would never be simple, he said. With the diversity of choice "not every course at one level will articulate with every course in the same subject at the next level up".
Mr Caldwell referred to the problem many students with HND qualifications had in transferring to degree courses. "Articulation works best when it is carefully planned between particular higher education institutions and FE colleges." The SCQF would encourage more such schemes and that would benefit the learner.
Iain Gray's "passion for learning" was tempered by Mr Caldwell's assertion that Scotland as "the learning nation" was still an aspiration, though good progress had been made. He wanted an assurance that in going further, ministers would still invest in the most able students.