A shake-up of post-16 courses might not serve the best interests of learners, reports Harvey McGavin
SHAPING post-16 education and training around the demands of business and the need to meet training targets could lead to conflicts of interests, according to a leading economist.
Further education would become subject to the "command and control" of government ministers under the proposed Learning and Skills Council, claims Peter Robinson, senior economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
The council takes over responsibility for post-16 education and training from April next year.
National training targets have "absolutely no role to play in a modern dynamic market economy" and raise "the spectre of a return to manpower planning", says Mr Robinson.
He makes his comments in the joint IPPR and Further Education Development Agency report, The new learning market, which was launched this week.
He says the role of the Learning and Skills Council and its 47 local arms to provide advice and guidance as well as to meet training targets sets up an "unacceptable conflict of interests".
He says: "The bodies which provide information and guidance to learners must not have their own axes to grind because they have been given other targets as well, for example, to achieve particular levels of qualifications in the adult population.
"How can this not lead to the councils giving information which is potentially biased, advising people to take courses not because it is in their own interest but because it will help the councils to meet their own targets?"
The Department for Education and Employment's own review, which was published last week, showed that progress towards the targets is, in any case, much slower than what is required.
The proportion of 19-year-olds holding level 2 qualifications in 1999 was 74.9 per cent.
The figure for 21-year-olds with level 3 qualifications was stood at 53.1 per cent.
Both showed an improvement of just 1 per cent onthe previous year's figures.
This left them well short of the 2002 targets of 85 per cent and 60 per cent respectively.
Mr Robinson suggests pressure to achieve these targets within the learning council's first year would be intense.
He asks: "If the job of the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council is on the line if heshe fails to hit the targets, how could the council not resist the temptation to skew the funding mechanism to serve that end?"
Mr Robinson also doubts the council's ability to achieve the much-vaunted savings of pound;50 million in bureaucracy, compared with the outgoing training and enterprise councils.
The TECs spent an average of 7.5 per cent of their funding on administration.
"It is with some irony then that 8 per cent of the total funding of the English Regional Development Agencies will be taken up with administrative costs," he says.
"It is hard to see the 47 local Learning and Skills Councils not having similar overheads."
He adds that the proposals "could easily be caricatured as replacing one set of expensive bureaucracies with another."
The 40 per cent business representation on the local and national councils will give employers significant influence over how the education and training system is managed.
Mr Robinson says attempts to impose committee-style planning could backfire.
He points out that businesses already exert a strong influence on their local learning market by purchasing training and taking on suitably-qualified personnel to meet their needs.
"The decisions made by local planning bodies are not likely to be better than those made by market participants and could be a lot worse," he says.
"The evidence is overwhelming that adult learners, by and large, make quite rational choices based on a reasonably good reading of the signals coming from the labour market."
He suggests many of those who would like to plan by committee have a much poorer understanding of the learning market.