If further and higher education are to be the engine of social justice, as the Government claims, we must be sure it is firing on all cylinders. But something is clogging up the works.
Worshipping at the shrine of work-based training to the detriment of all else has had serious consequences. In terms of inter-generational social mobility, the UK is among the worst, and is slowly going further downhill.
The recent pillaging of the budget for adult education - the area where the UK was once high in international league tables - has meant that, over the past two years, 1.5 million course places have been lost, with the worst-off hardest hit.
What was meant to be a settlement for some years, based on the Foster and Leitch reports, is falling apart. Foster recommended a narrow, largely pre-25 college mission. Leitch recommended handing the principal responsibility for the adult education and training budget to employers, despite having found that it was precisely this group that had failed to deliver the goods in the first place.
The proportion of employees receiving job-related training fell from 17.3 per cent in 2001 to 14.9 per cent in 2007, leaving the UK even further away from its target of 79 per cent of the population qualified to at least level 2 by 2010.
Education and training for employment are vital, but the tendency to see employer-led training as the only approach has proven harmful. There is some understanding of this in the Tory party's recent promise of an extra Pounds 100 million for adult education.
We need education and training - not just for those working for employers who provide training, but also for those employed by the 50 per cent of employers who do no training. We also need it for the growing numbers of jobless people.
Many of these groups benefited from general adult education in the past. A Learning and Skills Council (LSC) study, Impact of Learning on Employability (2007), shows how their ability to gain initial employment and stay in a job have been enhanced as a result.
A mixture of cuts and fee increases has put FE beyond the reach of precisely those groups most likely to benefit. To take a local example, there was a 25 per cent drop in adult course provision in Leeds between 2002-03 and 2006-07, with 15,000 fewer places. The position in many rural areas is dire, with adult education often on the verge of extinction.
There is a 25 per cent decline in attendance by pensioners. As the charity Age Concern has argued, many older people who have paid taxes all their lives feel they are being robbed of leisure activities that they had assumed were part of the social compact for their retirement.
Much of the funding for adult education was diverted (or "rebalanced", as ministers put it) to Train to Gain. There might be less concern about adult learning's demise if it were clear the programme was really thriving, but there does not seem to have been much extra work-based training going on.
We are told Train to Gain has high employer satisfaction, but in many cases this is because the money is merely paying for what they would have done anyway or for the accreditation of existing skills.
If you talk to anyone involved in Train to Gain, you get the feeling that the quality of such statistics is akin to that used for the inflated estimates of Mussolini's air force shortly before it unravelled in the abortive invasion of Albania.
Nor is the money raided from adult education being spent on work-based learning. The LSC underspent by Pounds 208m, most of it (Pounds 207m) being accounted for by employers not taking up Train to Gain funds. To add insult to adult learners' injury, much of the unspent money was used to "rebalance" a shortfall of Pounds 128m in the HE student grants budget.
This is not a moral rebuke for employers, or opposition to work-based learning. Its just that unless there is a shared national commitment to training, it will not be as much of a business priority as turning over a decent profit or, in the case of more and more firms, simply surviving. The traditional UK pattern of "some coach while others poach" is usually reinforced in a recession.
The new UK Commission on Employment and Skills, led by Chris Humphries, is asking for feedback on its five-year strategic plan, looking in particular at collective solutions. There is still real potential to encourage development through the sector skills councils.
The growth of the union learning rep movement and the introduction of the new right to request time off for education and training give some grounds for optimism, but the price paid for the latter was the effective abandonment of the strategy to encourage many to develop training to the levels in the Leitch report.
When you draw attention to the loss of 1.5 million adult learning places, ministers always say it's just a few holiday Spanish classes we have lost - a luxury next to the pressing needs of employer-led training.
While languages, literature and culture have fallen by 107,000 students, the greatest decline in learner numbers comes in health, public services and care (477,000), ICT (394,000) and preparation for life and work (248,000). But languages should be defended in their own right because they develop mind and understanding, as well as communication. Moreover, many working-class people, previously turned off learning, have started back with a holiday Spanish course.
It is interesting to recall that in supposedly less enlightened times, hard-nosed motor manufacturers would subsidise employees who took a language course in the evenings.
So how can we "rebalance" resources back to adult learning?
If Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, were prepared to release the reins, the remit of the Department for Children, Schools and Families could end at 16, with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills picking up all learners aged 16 or over. Sixteen-year-olds no longer consider themselves to be children, and most would prefer an approach that recognises their maturity.
Accompanying this could be the end of the absurd right of any school to set up a sixth form, which erodes the existing range of provision by undermining viable minority subjects and actually reduces subject choice.
And funding for higher education could be brought together with LSC funding in a new Adult Learning Funding Council.
- Paul Mackney Associate director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.