Lifelong mantra for Shephard review

Next month, Department for Education and Higher Education Funding Council officials will meet in Oxford to consider conclusions on the first stage of the Government's higher education review. They will have to take into account a bewildering array of responses from more than 100 organisations and individuals.

There can be little doubt that, in their search for common themes and issues among these submissions, they will soon home in on two words which have become the mantra of educationists in recent months.

"Lifelong learning" may be hardly a new concept, but its relevance as a governing principle in the future development of post-compulsory education and training has bestowed on it the status of an almost unquestionable creed. While the banner is unchanged, the meaning of lifelong learning has made a rapid shift from embracing elements of provision which higher education has seen as marginal to its main activities, to becoming perhaps the main activity for colleges and universities. Which is why those two words have found their way into the responses of some of the most prominent and influential of organisations with a stake in the future of the sector.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, for instance, lists the need to provide students with a learning experience of their choice which enables them to "acquire and update, through lifelong learning, the knowledge and skills needed for an effective role in the workplace" as one of the chief purposes of higher education over the next decade. Later in its response paper, the committee cites "the need and demand for lifelong learning" as a key influence on the DFE's chief concern in the first stage of its review - the evolving shape of higher education.

Other groups, such as the Association of University Teachers, link the notion of lifelong learning to that of a "learning society" which is constantly updating its knowledge and skills.

Meanwhile, the Confederation of British Industry talks about empowering individuals to thrive in the rapidly changing world of global markets, technological advances and the information revolution, through "lifetime learning".

All of these aspirations sound very fine, but what is their realisation likely to mean in practice? There are several themes underpinning today's concept of lifelong learning which could lead to certain conclusions about the future make-up of the sector.

Some of them can be spotted in the DFE's guidance letter on the review, which takes the Robbins committee's four chief objectives for higher education as its starting point, and pinpoints new emerging priorities. Two of these are an increasing emphasis on Robbins's objective "to provide instruction in skills relevant to future employment needs", and the likelihood that the future workforce "will need to adapt and will expect to learn new skills to reflect changing needs and more frequent job changes".

Each of the organisations has obviously approached these themes from its own perspective, but the key conclusion reached in almost every case is that the sector of the future will need to be more flexible in every way. Changes in the educational expectations and training needs of a population whose members are increasingly likely to take part in higher education as "mature" students, and the requirements of the world of work as it adjusts to the technology revolution, have led to a rising demand for diverse modes of learning.

The same forces have also placed a higher premium on what the CVCP calls "skills in critical analysis and interpretation" and what organisations like the CBI are more likely to term "transferable" or "core" skills. These tend to be defined as personal skills which are valuable in any occupation, and help the individual to learn how to learn.

In other words, the principle of lifelong learning not only requires a flexible provision, but also a flexible "product" - the multiskilled graduate.

At this point, however, the review could conceivably encounter the kind of conflict which only someone like "Mr Fixit", Sir Ron Dearing, could be expected to sort out. For while everyone seems to be in agreement about the kind of skills higher education ought to promote, there is something of a culture clash involved in the debate over how such skills should be developed and assessed. The relevance of Sir Ron is that it is he who has been charged with responsibility for reviewing qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds. The DFE has made it known that it wants him to pay particular attention to "core" skills currently assessed on General National Vocational Qualification courses, and how these might apply to other areas of education.

In its submission, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications suggests that the identification, assessment and certification of higher- level core skills is a vital issue. The CVCP might agree, but there are worries about the GNVQ approach, which has been criticised by inspectors.

So how should these supremely valuable skills be developed and measured in the new, flexible, lifelong learning system? The DFE might look to the experience of the universities, or the experiments of the NCVQ, or a combination of the two, for an answer. The eventual solution, however, could turn up in Sir Ron's review, rather than the DFE's.

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