The new ice age has been protracted and severe. Shedding surplus fat we did not know we had, we have had to retreat deeper into caves in order to survive. Our level of funding, expressed as pounds per unit of activity, has dropped along with the thermometer. From an average of the bracing mid-twenties five years ago we are now down to a distinctly parky middle teens.
The last government saw no reason to end this progression towards absolute zero, so when the incoming Blairs and Browns said that there would be no change to the Major spending plans, yet another chill ran up and down the collective college spine. Accordingly, all current plans are based on the assumption that the future funding level for colleges will be pound;16.20 per unit of activity, because that is the figure you get if you apply the public expenditure limits set by the Major government, and divide the amount of money available by the amount of activity to be contracted for.
Things may yet be different. The Government's fundamental spending review is going on right now. While numbers are being crunched nobody in a position to do so is prepared to speculate about what might come out of the review. But if, just supposing, the case were made and accepted that colleges are being screwed, and that they not only deserve but need more money to do what they are doing now, we might expect a higher rate of funding per unit, and a little colour might return to our cheeks. So far there has been no talk of that. What we have had is a little extra for doing a whole lot more, widening participation here, giving a new deal there. But there have been sufficient half-caught hints to keep us hopeful. In the spring sunshine the Blunketts, Howells and Blackstones of our world are catching the eye with their spectacular displays of tumbling, swerving and diving, showing off their glistening new plumage like so many lapwings in the greening fields round here. Lapwings, or peewits if you prefer, make a lot of noise which sounds cheerful enough from a distance, but doesn't convey any very clear message.
It is a bizarre and cruel coincidence that the collective noun for lapwings is a deceit, although it's really hard to know how to react to a government which has so little regard for the facts that it announces the appearance of a Green Paper when what appears is self-evidently not only blue but a magazine. To call it a blue magazine might, of course, have run the risk of disappointing heavy-breathing dirty raincoats. This cavalier habit of calling things what you please rather than what they are is one which the senior civil servants in the Department for Education and Employment must have picked up during their student days. Oxford people insist that a river which everywhere else on its journey from source to sea is called the Thames is in fact the Isis, and at Cambridge an annual bout of rowing and parties which lasts for a fortnight and takes place in June is known, mysteriously, as May Week.
The collection of publications about lifelong learning which have the overall title of The Learning Age are very strong on vision, and if the words used in them have their usual meanings, the Government has listened very attentively to Helena (now Baroness) Kennedy, Sir Ron (now Lord) Dearing and Bob (still just Bob) Fryer. Lifelong learning will transform the economy, raise the national spirit level, and reduce crime. The Green Paper does not mention it as a specific goal but we might expect an improvement in the standard of English cricket and a reduction in the traffic on the M25.
If only it were that simple. Don't get me wrong: lifelong learning is a Very Good Thing, but if it is thought of as the answer to all ills you would expect those countries whose pattern of lifelong learning is so much better than ours to be veritable havens of prosperity and social harmony. We are invited to look at the examples of France, Germany, Singapore and the United States. They all have records of qualifications achieved which are superior to ours, especially at mid-range levels. Are they notably better places to live and work in? Or are they variously strike-prone, socially fissured, heavily repressive, and crime-ridden?
Lifelong learning must be a key element in a stable and successful society, perhaps the most important of them all, but it cannot be the sole determinant. Tony Blair is quoted in The Learning Age as saying: "Education is the best economic policy we have." We must not allow ourselves to be taken in by that sort of rhetoric, because when the country fails once again to fulfil the promise of politicians, as it sadly and surely will, we run the certain risk of carrying the familiar can, however many new enrolments we have secured from new kinds of students from new postcodes.
So, all hail to the blithe spirit of this new dawn. Hoorah for the longer days and the strengthening Sun. The streams are starting to flow again, yippee! But before we start stripping off the animal furs and putting on our new pinstripes a moment's reflection about what we are letting ourselves in for would be advisable. We are not to blame for the next eclipse.
Mike Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College