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Universities may lose cash

Ben Russell on leaked proposals which could move funds from higher education into adult learning

Radical plans to revolutionise adult education, which could be paid for by wholesale redistribution of cash from the universities, are contained in a leaked Government report due to land on ministers' desks this summer.

High-profile QC Helena Kennedy will recommend a string of reforms to bring an army of people back into education, when her Further Education Funding Council-commissioned report is published in July.

Its key points are understood to include: * a lifetime entitlement to education to A-level standard - with free teaching for people from deprived areas or with no qualifications; * a review of student support which would reverse the marked bias towards undergraduates; * tax breaks for employers who offer training and education; * harmonisation of funding for post-16 education covering schools, colleges and universities; * reform of further education budgets to target cash at people with few, or no, qualifications; * a learning regeneration fund, to mirror current economic regeneration budgets, targeting cash at initiatives in deprived areas; * a "learning nation" fund, paid for by the National Lottery, to put cash back into local communities; * legislation to force all terrestrial broadcasters to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Ministers, undertaking their first official engagements during this week's Adult Learners Week, were at pains to offer their support to lifelong learning, something Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett said was no accident.

Baroness Blackstone, who leads Labour's drive for lifelong learning, promised: "Our new approach to lifelong learning has a simple philosophy: excellence for everyone at all ages. We are clear about our aim - a society in which learning is valued and practised as part of everyday life - not just by the few but by the many."

But the report will throw down the gauntlet to Labour, offering proposals for action by which ministers' words will be judged. Although commissioned by the FEFC, the report is understood to be aimed directly at the Government.

Ms Kennedy, chair of the Charter 88 pressure group and a figure with strong new Labour credentials, warned this week that reforms could be politically uncomfortable, arguing "there are going to be some rather unhappy members of the middle classes".

Her report is understood to make no explicit proposal to cut universities, but her argument is clear. She said this week: "The shocking fact is that support for students is heavily weighted in favour of those who personally benefit most from education and whose family circumstances are most favourable to continuing in education ... the top fifth of households with the highest incomes in the country receive the greatest educational subsidies.

"If Government is committed to widening participation in learning there has to be some financial redistribution. We have to be unashamed in our insistence upon a shift of priority. We have spent too long in taking those deemed to be 'the best' forward.

"We have to turn the spotlight on those who have been left behind. If not we shall be overtaken by our own failure."

Baroness Blackstone, formerly Master of Birkbeck College, said it was too early to talk about the specifics of funding. But former colleagues say university leaders, hoping for a good deal from new Labour, will be surprised by her support for FE.

Elements in the report have already found favour with ministers. Pilots for common funding of 16-19 education are going ahead, learning accounts have been promised, and Mr Blunkett has opened talks with the BBC about promoting lifelong learning.

Much hangs on the results of Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into higher education. One possible way forward is the concept of investment-based learning accounts which combine saving for education with government subsidy and graduate tax-style repayments through National Insurance.

The idea is being evaluated by Sir Ron, but it is acknowledged that it could fund any form of education and would dovetail with Labour's current proposals for one million learning accounts each primed with a pound;150 subsidy.

White Paper, page 10

FE Focus, page 33

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