RESOUNDING PRAISE FOR LIFELONG LEARNING
on Estelle Morris's Visit to the University of Leicester)
Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the Rt Hon Estelle Morris, MP, visited the University on 17 January to inaugurate the Institute of Lifelong Learning and to commemorate Vaughan College's 140th anniversary.
Though late, when she did arrive, undaunted after her battle with motorway traffic, her enthusiasm was magnificent - and she clearly seemed to think the University of Leicester was magnificent, too.
Vaughan College was her first port of call the first ever visit by a Secretary of State to the College. Showing a keen interest in the College's past and its present, she scrutinised its history, displayed in the reception area, accompanied by the Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Burgess, the Director of Lifelong Learning Professor John Benyon and the Director of Vaughan College, Dr Paul Poplawski, before meeting staff and students in the hall.
Look, I heard someone say, She's not just doing a quick 'Hello, how are you'. She's really interested in what people are saying.
And she was. At each group clustered round a display of its work Estelle Morris engaged in a lively discussion, clearly having done her homework and able to talk with some prior knowledge of LILL's achievements.
It is a real privilege to meet you all what a marvellous place this College is, and it is because of people like you, she declared.
Unveiling the anniversary plaque, she spoke briefly of her pleasure at what she had seen during her tour of the College - including the minutes of a meeting that led to the foundation of the College in 1862. As a Secretary of State the trick is to keep my feet on the ground, to go out and see what you do and how you affect people's lives. I am hugely optimistic when I see places like Vaughan College, where people are doing things right, and I can go back to London and tell the Government about it.
How many people's lives have you changed in your 140 years? she wondered, commenting that the founding spirit of the College seemed to have remained intact, even if social customs had changed over that period.
Those days of opting out of learning are gone. Being in education we are born optimists we believe in people's capacity to improve. We are learners and teachers throughout our lives thank you for what you do; no-one can measure how many people's lives you have changed.
If the founding fathers of this college were here, they would be proud of what you are doing today.
As Estelle Morris left Vaughan College, a flight of cars sped away in her wake, carrying those keen to join 200 guests at the Richard Attenborough Centre, where the official inauguration of LILL was to take place.
There the wait had been dealt with in a way that did credit to the invention and resourcefulness of lifelong learning. Wine, soft drinks and live music had been conjured out of thin air to refresh and entertain those waiting.
In introducing the Secretary of State, the Vice-Chancellor pointed to some of Leicester's achievements in lifelong learning, describing it as an integral part of the activities of the University. Leicester was the only university in the East Midlands to receive funds to develop foundation degrees and is a major provider, internationally, of distance learning.
Estelle Morris was in no mood to argue with that, in fact she spent the next few minutes reinforcing the message and extolling the many virtues of the University, during what was, she confessed, her first visit to the University of Leicester.
However, she said that felt she had been a joint educator with the University and recalled her experiences as a sixth-form teacher in Warwickshire and the fact that many of her students had chosen to study at the University of Leicester.
I've heard good things about this Centre, she began at the RAC: I can say it is a centre of excellence in inclusion thank you for being an example to others.
She continued: We [society] need to change, but people in education have been doing that all their lives. Education is linked to the needs of the economy and education demands change, it's the nature of the service.
Inclusion is one of the areas in which it's most difficult to bring about a cultural change it is the implementation of that inclusiveness that is really tough. If you don't get it right you will make things worse than if you don't try at all. I sense here that you have been brave and courageous and innovative, and you are there you have gone through that cultural barrier. The University is one institution that brings many services to many people. When you talk about inclusion now, it is about success, about real life and real change that is taking place here.
Clearly passionate about lifelong learning, Estelle Morris paid tribute to the work of Lord Attenborough and continued, As a nation we need to see it is no longer acceptable to have a low wage, low skills economy. We need to be a high skill and high wage economy. It's a tough option because we have to put education at the top of what we are doing.
I don't want the image of lifelong learning to stop being comfortable and fun. But we have got to grasp the hard fact that it is also about accreditation, skills, solving the needs of the region as well as national needs.
Higher education was going to have to become more versatile, she pointed out, ready to serve a wider range of people than it had traditionally done. Students should not leave school feeling they had left learning, and universities have to be there for them when they seek education and training later in life.
Turning again to the issue of inclusion, she regretted the fact that the country had still not broken the link between the social classes and higher education. We need to get 50 per cent of the population into higher education. Currently, only 17% of social groups D and E go to university we need to convince them that university is for them.
There is a difference in students' background from before. Many will come from families with no previous experience of higher education and from neighbourhoods where nobody has a degree and no one has set foot in a university.
This is my challenge to every single university. But that's what you do already here. You are a national leader. Because of your 140-year history in adult education you start with an advantage, but even over the last ten years you have made the move from a safe adult education image to the new image of learning for work.
Leicester scores well in the Research Assessment Exercise, your retention rate is amongst the best in the country. The quality of your teaching is good. You are above the HEFCE benchmark in many of the things you do and you show us that you can have excellence and wider participation. You work with partner organisations like the WEA and colleges of further education.
For me, as a policy maker, you must root policy in good practice. We must spread it and I need experiences like this to impact on my policy making. I congratulate you. You are a role model, she concluded.
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