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Where will the funds go?

A plethora of pilots, but who in adult learning should get the money? asks Mark Corney.

ADULT learning and skills policy is incredibly messy. Different government objectives are pulling policy in different directions.

First, there is the role of regional government and elected regional assemblies. Second is the so-called "new localism" and devolution of budgets to local institutions. Third, there is the reform of public services and moves to put buying power into customers' hands. Finally, there is the possibility of a learning entitlement - tuition fees paid - for all adults, without level 2 (GCSE) qualifications.

Amongst these competing objectives are a plethora of pilots each focused on the annual pound;1.7 billion adult further education budget.

Six employer training pilots will test the free-tuition policy. Employers will be compensated for giving staff paid study leave. The spending review then announced two regional pilots which will pool adult learning budgets of local learning and skills councils and regional development agencies.

The Department for Education and Skills is piloting company development accounts which put buying power in the hands of employers. Until recently, it was also expected that the mark II individual learning accounts would be launched. The decision to defer them until next June raises important questions about what proportion of the adult FE budgets should be used for ILAs.

But the critical issue amongst these widely different pilots is what end-game the Government has in mind. The pooled RDALLSC pilots have provoked speculation that this will be rolled out across every English region - taking the entire pound;1.7bn adult FE budget.

Indeed, the LSC adult learning budget might go to elected regional assemblies. Equally, the employer training pilots have fuelled speculation that the Government has in mind a UK right to statutory time off.

Bridging the gap between political objectives and pilots, however, requires a set of common principles. It is often overlooked that a key strategy (DfES Strategic Objective 3) covers both adult FE and HE. That says funding of adult FE and HE should be "reviewed in-the-round".

Also, the lower the rate of financial return for training, the greater the public subsidy. Where rates of return are low, as they are at level ??, the response should be free tuition. Where returns are significant, as at level 3 and 4, fees should be charged. But in both cases there should be grants relative to loans for maintenance and study costs.

Whether learners get any public subsidy should depend on the level of their first qualifications. It is quite wrong that adults with a degree can go to college for a second lower-level qualification and get three-quarters of the tuition paid for by the state. The critical point here is whether the first qualification someone takes is governed by individual choice or the perceived need of the labour market.

It is widely accepted that first level 2 qualifications are about getting people into the labour market. This suggests that it should be left to individual choice. A level playing field for funding across England is needed, so that everyone below level 2 has equal entitlement.

The task then is to devise a strategy that balances the needs of employers and individuals, based on free tuition and means-tested FE maintenance allowances.

It is also generally accepted that the higher-level qualifications relate to productivity rather than employability. Thus, there is a legitimate debate about whether provision should be determined by individual choice or planning needs.

In turn, the Government must do more than assert the superiority of the regional approach over all others. This implies that the "pooled" RDALLSC pilots should target higher-level qualifications, including traditional and foundation degrees, not plan first level 2 provision. Moreover, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and every HE institute in the pilot regions should be integrated within the planning process.

Mark Corney is director of MC Consulting

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