Will the swill be served from the same trough?

29th November 2002 at 00:00
IN its final report on lifelong learning, the Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee has roared. Has it brought forth a lion or a mouse?

The remit of the report was wide - further education, higher education, vocational training and communityvoluntary education. The aims are largely laudable, including social justice, citizenship and quality. So the scope of this report is ambitious.

What about the results from an FE perspective? There is much to be praised.

The report promotes a long-term vision. Given the chaotic changes to structure, funding and everything else, this should mean progress. It talks about how "ultimately we would like to see a standard basic entitlement to lifelong learning being available to every citizen". The individual learner should be "empowered" and "non-traditional patterns of learning" introduced. One thing that will raise FE eyebrows (or perhaps have us falling off our chairs) is that "parity of esteem" between the different sectors should be encouraged. Great!

The justification for all of this is effectively put in the report itself. The world is changing, and education must change with it. Some 80 per cent of university entrants come from professional backgrounds while only 14 per cent come from unskilled backgrounds. There has been a dramatic drop in workplace learning (training would be a better word), and along with this is a projected fall of 25 per cent in the proportion of people aged 20 to 34 by 2020.

The numerous conclusions of the report include a thought-out lifelong learning strategy: involvement of stakeholders (I prefer swords and spears to stakes in the arena, but never mind); extension of entitlement to lifelong learning; flexible entitlements with targeting help for those with lower qualifications, the disabled, non-traditional learners, the islands; part-timefull-time equality when it comes to fees. All very good.

The idea of merging the FE and HE funding councils is interesting. The sight of Edinburgh and St Andrews universities swilling in the same trough with us 'umble FE colleges would be something.

But forgive an ageing gladiator a moment of doubt. I have two worries. The first is who this report is really for. It is commendable to try and meet the needs of students, but its first justification for change is economic, the "ability to supply a highly skilled workforce . . . to drive productivity".

Now it's fine if students' interests and high productivity are the same. Personal development and profit-making (unless, of course, you are the one collecting the profits) tend to clash. And this does not only affect the students.

Anyone in FE who looks at it objectively will see that our problem is precisely the day-to-day subordination of real education to the drive for productivity (not just of students when they leave college, but of the teaching and support staff within college). Everything is counted, monetarised, squeezed to save cash, again and again.

The report is commendable in trying to involve other factors like social justice, but we know which is the dominant factor now - "the envelope of available resources", as the report admits.

Still, I can't wait for parity of esteem with higher education (without the top-up fees, though). It will be just grand sipping sherry with the trainee plumbers after a long seminar, and getting stuck into research on our year-long sabbaticals.

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