Why can't a college be more like a supermarket? Supermarkets are taking over not just our High Streets, but our lives. They aim to be the hub of the community, the perfect venue of the future, not just to shop but to marry, to have the baby christened, to hold a funeral or to get the dog wormed. From the cradle to the grave, against the merry beeping of acres of checkouts, your caring, sharing supermarket will minister to the physical and spiritual needs of you - and your little dog too.
We have flirted timidly with the idea of the education supermarket in the past. Students became clients or customers who were invited to shop for courses, and we adopted a service ethos. Staff were encouraged to wear corporate uniforms and were issued with little badges which encouraged us to "smile more". The latter proved a difficult strategy to implement, alas, as team leaders insisted that, before a smiling policy was introduced, lecturers especially would need rigorous and lengthy staff development. We flirted, but the relationship just didn't work out.
The problem is, college isn't like Asda or Tesco because education and training can't be costed the way a tin of beans can. Take Eddie. At 50-plus, he was made redundant and came to college three hours a week on a gardening course. He designed a garden layout using computer-aided design software and he was hooked. Now he's half-way through a full-time Higher National course in computing. He feels he's using his brain again and tells me college is the main focus of his life - somewhere he can learn, eat a good lunch, get his hair cut at a bargain price, and find plenty of hillwalking buddies.
Robert Wright, professor of economics, would probably judge Eddie a waste of space. He is reported as saying recently that retraining the over-50s is a waste of taxpayers' money and that we should just write them off. Eddie would love a word, I'm sure. Eddie has no illusions about the challenges of finding work again, but the college experience has given him confidence, a purpose and a social experience.
We ignore that social aspect at our peril. I teach a part-time class and, although a few of them do as Eddie did and progress to full-time courses, most have been attending the same class for many years. "It sounds as if it's more of a social thing, like a knitting-bee," a colleague said to me disparagingly, "somewhere warm to come out of the cold." I thought about that one. Most of the class members live alone. They have become friends and support each other through life's vagaries. I like to think I educate them too, but I don't underestimate the value to them, and to society, of the social network they have formed.
In college, we're dealing with a real community, not an artificial one created by casual shoppers and advertising slogans. Learners live the experience, and lecturing staff live it with them. Our learners are people who fall in love, get sick, find jobs, and sometimes have messy lives like everyone else.
If you're the one teaching them it's impossible to see them just as customers or just making up a student unit of measurement. They're people, and you're there to share their joy when things go well, as well as hand out tissues when they don't.
So forget the supermarket model. You can't cost a course the way you can a tin of baked beans, Professor Wright. Coming out of the cold is priceless.