Government plots course to the learning age

February 1998 saw the launch by the UK Government of a Green Paper, The learning age, setting out its vision of Britain as a "learning society". This feature reviews the contents of the Green Paper and the social partners' reactions to it.

In late February 1998, as part of a move to improve the skills and education of the nation, the Government launched its vision of the UK as a "learning society" in a Green Paper entitled The learning age: a renaissance for a new Britain (UK9803112N) The Government's approach is based on the premise that a new age has started - the age of information and global competition: "The Industrial Revolution was built on capital investment in plant and machinery, skills and hard physical labour ... The information and knowledge-based revolution of the 21st century will be built on a very different foundation - investment in the intellect and creativity of people ... To continue to compete, we must equip ourselves to cope with the enormous economic and social change we face ... Our single greatest challenge is to equip ourselves for this new age with new and better skills, with knowledge and with understanding"

The Green Paper argues that individuals learn in many different ways - through formal study, reading, watching television, going on a training course, taking an evening class, at work, and from family and friends. So within the consultation document the word "learning" is used to describe all of these. This means that the "learning age" will be built upon a wide range of skills, knowledge and understanding - from the most basic skills of literacy and numeracy right up to postgraduate levels. This will include: basic skills; employability skills for unemployed people; skills for the young; developing technicians' skills; graduate and postgraduate skills; and strengthening managerial skills

The Government's vision

The Government's vision is built on the following principles:

  • investing in learning to benefit everyone;
  • lifting barriers to learning;
  • putting people first;
  • sharing responsibility with employers, employees and the community;
  • achieving "world-class" standards and value for money; and
  • working together as the key to success

Primarily, the Government's approach follows the 1997 "Fryer report" (Learning for the 21st century, National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning) in calling for the transformation of culture to achieve the "learning age". The Green Paper states that the aim should be to help people to learn wherever they choose and to support them in assessing how they are progressing and where they want to go next. A major element will include a better understanding of the obstacles that people face - including cost, fear, inadequate information, complexity and inconvenience.

The University for Industry

The Government's priorities for early action are to:

  • launch a University for Industry (UfI);
  • stimulate demand for learning through the new UfI;
  • publicise the Learning Direct information, advice and guidance service; and
  • work with broadcasters to promote learning channels.

The central element of the new "learning age" will be the University for Industry. Its aim will be to put the UK ahead of the rest of the world in using new technology to improve learning and skills. The UfI will tell individuals what courses are available, offer advice if they need it and provide them with a course that meets their needs - whether full time or part time, or through study at home, at work, or at a local learning centre.

In the UK, 99% of households receive television broadcasting. This provides enormous potential to open up access to learning through the UfI. New technology will allow many more channels to be received - by satellite, cable or terrestrial TV - and will open the way to interactive learning.

Another method will be through the establishment of learning centres. These will be places equipped with technology where people can easily go and access UfI courses and materials. The UfI will ensure that the learning centres meet the high standards required for providing access to its programmes. The Government will provide funding to support the UfI in a private-public partnership and will help meet the costs of people on low incomes.

Learning Direct will become the information and advice service for the UfI. This is a new national "helpline" which offers advice both on how to get started and on courses to meet the individual's needs. It is available for anyone over the age of 18, whether employed or unemployed. Employers can also benefit from Learning Direct by obtaining advice and information about qualifications, training or development for their employees.


Views are being sought on a new partnership between government, individuals and employers for further investment in the future. The Government proposes the following priorities for public funding:

  • guaranteeing help with basic skills, with courses provided free of charge at whatever age;
  • guaranteeing free full-time education for young people up to the age of 18;
  • sharing with employers the cost of learning for young people in work (for example, through the "modern apprenticeships" scheme);
  • sharing the costs of higher education with students through a new student support system;
  • making provision for the highest level of postgraduate education; and
  • targeting financial help for adults on those who most need it.

Public financial support for "learners" should be designed to: bring back into learning those who stopped after leaving school; address particular shortages; widen access for those who are disadvantaged; and enable individuals to choose the method of learning that best suits them. Proposals for a national system of individual learning accounts will lead the way for people to take control of this investment in their own future.

Individual learning accounts

A new "individual learning accounts" (ILA s) scheme will be built on two key principles: first, that individuals are best placed to choose what and how they want to learn; and second, that the responsibility for investing in learning is shared. ILAs will be available to everyone, including the self-employed, and will allow individuals to save and borrow for investment in their own learning. The UfI will play an important role by, for the first time, providing a single place for people to obtain advice on courses, on what their accounts could buy for them and on which providers are appropriate for individuals and their companies. The Government is proposing to support up to one million ILAs, funded by GBP 150 million from the resources of Training and Enterprise Councils (TEC s). There will be two main approaches to learning accounts - the universal and the targeted:

  • the universal approach will offer accounts to anyone at work wanting to learn. Each individual has to invest a minimum amount of their own money and then the Government will support the initial investment up to a maximum public contribution of GBP 150 for each account. It will then be up to others, such as employers, to contribute to a person's account in cash or kind; and
  • the targeted approach will use a proportion of the one million accounts to support particular learning or skill needs - eg people without qualifications and in low-skill jobs, areas of skill shortage, employees in small firms and those seeking to return to work.

The Government believes that ILAs also need to be part of a coherent approach to welfare reform, in which relieving poverty is not just a question of financial support but also of enabling people to obtain the skills which allow them to earn their own living.

Sharing investment with employers

According to the Green Paper, learning assists organisations in many ways and some organisations have already turned their workplaces into centres of learning by providing employees with skills beyond those needed for business objectives. The Paper notes that employee development schemes - pioneered by management and trade unions in organisations such as Ford, Rover, and Sheffield City Council and now being taken up elsewhere - have been very successful in encouraging employees to learn. The Fryer report recommends the widespread establishment of company learning centres with strong links to the UfI. The Government proposes to encourage this in the private and public sectors, supported by the ILAs.

The costs and benefits of investment in skills should be shared between the government and employers. This is already the case with modern apprenticeships, "national traineeships" and the so-called New Deal for unemployed people (UK9710175N). From September 1998, where employee training directly benefits the employer, further education colleges will increase the fees and thus the employer will share the cost. This will bring an estimated GBP 20 million into colleges, which will help with increasing access to other courses. Employers will also have the opportunity to support their employees in learning by contributing to their ILAs, as well as offering time off and so on.

Small firms are seen as particularly poor at raising their skill levels. The Government wants to help change the culture in these firms by linking learning more closely with business performance and by lifting the obstacles to learning. The "Investors in People" scheme (UK9703111F) will be consolidated as a general standard to be obtained by all employers. Also, the Government proposes that companies should publish much better information about their investments in skills, and is working with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and others to develop a system for "benchmarking" information on training investment.

Trade unions

Learning is described as a natural issue for partnership in the workplace between employers, employees and their trade unions. Joint activity focusing on practical issues such as time off for learning, employer support for ILAs and training plans for staff is seen as signaling a new and modern role for trade unions, which have "long made a valuable contribution to workplace education". The Government proposes to support innovative projects in workplace education by establishing an "employee education development fund", to which it will allocate GBP 2 million in 1999. The Government will discuss with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) how the fund can most effectively be used, which could include unions contracting with the UfI to deliver training. The TUC's "Bargaining for skills" initiative, which now involves projects with about 60 TECs, is leading the way in helping union representatives negotiate with employers about improving training.

The role of learning institutions

Government wants more people to stay on in full-time education, and its "Investing in Young People" (IiYP) strategy is a comprehensive approach aimed at young people who have not achieved at school. It will also propose greater cooperation between schools and colleges in promoting education for those aged 16-18 years.

For more mature people, the Government proposing to set up an "adult and community learning fund" to sustain and encourage new local schemes that help men and women gain access to education, including literacy and numeracy. It will also make GBP 5 million available next year through the Basic Skills Agency and the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE), and will look to match this with contributions from trusts, charities, companies and private donors.

The Government proposes that higher education should play an even larger role in the future by:

  • providing more places to meet demand;
  • offering a wide range of courses up to postgraduate level;
  • ensuring high standards so as to enhance the employability of graduates;
  • improving participation by offering opportunities later in life to those who missed out the first time around;
  • contributing more to the economy and being more responsive to the needs of business;
  • collaborating effectively with other institutions, other learning providers and the world of work; and
  • making itself more accessible by exploiting new technology and flexible delivery, with facilities available at times convenient to students.

Social partner responses

The responses to the Government's Green Paper from social partner organisations has been mostly positive. The reactions of some of the main organisations are summarised in the table below.

Organisation Response to Green paper
Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) "We are pleased that this 'virtual' university will build on employer-based training and work-based learning initiatives by bringing together the UK's world-leading expertise in open and distance learning". IPD welcomes the ILAs but stresses that employers and government will have to make regular contributions to the accounts if they are to be successful in the long term.
Confederation of British Industry (CBI) CBI believes that the proposal should make a significant difference to skill levels in the UK. Skills and knowledge are critical to international competitiveness and CBI welcomes the recognition in the Green Paper of the central role that the workplace plays in supporting skills and development.
Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) "We need to take a long term view of the structure of education and training, simplifying the frame so that it enables people to gain parts of qualifications at any time in their life. The University for Industry should provide a kitemark for quality training."
Trades Union Congress (TUC) "The new GBP 2 million fund for trade union and lifelong learning recognises the contribution that trade unions are making to learning through TUC-TEC Bargaining for skills projects and training partnerships between unions and employers. The new fund will help trade unions to achieve our aim of a better-educated and more highly-skilled workforce."
Manufacturing, Science, Finance (MSF) union "To compete in today's ever-changing and challenging world of work, employees, unions and employers all have to share the responsibility of equipping the workforce with the right skills, not only for work, but for life."


The Green Paper illustrates the strong continuity between broad thrust of vocational education and training (VET) policies under "New Labour" and those followed by the previous Conservative administration. The main ideological points of departure are the significantly greater emphasis placed upon the non-economic case for increased educational participation (citizenship, cultural growth, and enhanced self-worth), and the willingness to afford a positive role to trade unions in promoting training.

The Green Paper launches two major initiatives that were initially conceived while Labour was in opposition - the UfI and ILAs. Many of the details of how these will be structured and operated remain to be determined through consultation. Nevertheless, two basic issues will clearly be important. The first relates to the levels of public funding that are being allocated to support the new measures. By contrast with government spending on training programmes in the mid- to late-1980s (for instance, the Youth Training (YT) Scheme), the sums involved are modest. Moreover, the desire to minimise the state's input may ultimately undermine the effectiveness of what is being proposed. One example is the Government's desire for the UfI to support itself in the long term from income from "brokerage" and "kitemarking" (ie certificating quality) activities. Similar arrangements were attempted with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ), but never worked.

A second crucial area will be the role of employers. The UfI and ILAs are predicated on partnerships between government and the private sector, and between individual employees and their employer. If these partnerships do not emerge in adequate numbers, operate effectively and generate sufficient flows of funds, the initiatives will suffer accordingly. Many firms will doubtless want to be involved, but there must be doubts whether those firms which currently fail to train a significant proportion of their adult workforce will be able to make the commitments that are required.

The UfI and ILAs represent interesting new ways of promoting cost-effective training, and of reaching those sections of the adult population currently neglected by other forms of VET provision and funding. Their progress and the lessons that can be learned from their development will doubtless be watched with considerable interest by other EU Member States, and by the European Commission (MW Gilman and Ewart Keep, IRRU).

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