In her speech launching the Augar review into post-18 education in England the Prime Minister highlighted her determination to support flexible lifelong learning.
She reiterated her belief that the current funding system was a key barrier to her ambition, saying that “we need to support flexible lifelong learning, including part-time and distance learning – something which the current funding system does not always make easy.” This commitment to encourage flexible learning and tackle the huge decline in lifelong learning seen over the last decade is written into the terms of reference for the post-18 review.
Labour recently announced a lifelong learning commission to take forward the party’s manifesto commitment to develop a National Education Service, and the Liberal Democrats have also set up an independent commission on lifelong learning. I have accepted Labour’s invitation to be a member of an independent advisory panel alongside other post-18 education sector experts. Politicians must prove this isn’t just political rhetoric. Lifelong learning must play a key role in their focus on delivering the policies that enable people of all ages and backgrounds to have the skills and opportunities to succeed.
The Open University has a unique and critical role to play here, making the case that the future of education must have flexibility at its core. We are the largest UK university, and the only one to operate across all four nations. Lifelong learning pioneers for fifty years, we have educated more than two million people. In 1971, our first intake of students totalled 24,000; we equal this number today with the support we give to disabled students alone.
This is an urgent priority. In just under a decade the number of people aged 21 and over studying towards undergraduate qualifications has been halved, with more than one million lost learners. With Brexit looming and the fourth industrial revolution gathering pace, the country will need to be prepared to adapt and face future challenges. Today’s workers can do a handful of different jobs throughout their careers. People who have worked in one sector for a lifetime are now finding themselves the victims of declining industries and economic uncertainty.
It is essential that the UK government ensures far-reaching proposals are not developed solely through the policy lens of an 18 year-old student entering higher education for the first time. Re-skilling and upskilling the adult workforce are essential for future prosperity. Economic success in the coming years depends on embedding a lifelong learning culture which rests on three equal pillars: flexible lifetime learning opportunities, apprenticeships and full-time study.
Designing the future
Lifelong learning means access. Part-time undergraduates value the flexibility online learning brings: being able to fit study around work, family and other commitments. The Open University is open to anyone anywhere, reaching thousands of people who might otherwise be excluded from learning. More than a third of our students lack the qualifications they’d need to get into traditional universities. With our support, they can achieve success.
Lifelong learning means earning and learning. For learners in work, part-time study is not a choice, it is a necessity, and 76 per cent of our students are in work already. This will make the biggest and quickest difference for the individual, the employer, the region and ultimately the country. A report by London Economics in 2018 estimated that graduating with a part-time degree at the age of 37 – the typical age of an OU graduate – is associated with an increase in total lifetime earnings of £377,000 for men who begin their studies without the traditional two or more A-levels.
Lifelong learning means locality of provision, helping tackle threats to regional economies where people have to leave their communities to study. There are no geographical higher education cold spots for part-time distance learning. Apprenticeships can and are driving inclusion, opportunity and positive outcomes, in health and social care. This helps keep people in their communities and supporting their local hospitals. The OU now has over 1000 higher and degree level apprentices in key areas, including digital management, and nursing.
Lifelong learning means ease of movement in the system. The UK government should help people make informed choices with a national system of personalised information, advice and guidance for all potential post-18 students, not just school leavers. There must be a progressive approach right across the education landscape. In a current government-funded pilot, we are working with colleges to deliver functional skills in flexible ways that will help learners, often people with low confidence or other barriers preventing them from getting into education.
Quick wins and slow gains
These are ways for people to develop their basic skills, with flexibility as the key, allowing people to gain confidence and a qualification which could transform their career prospects. Funding support for higher education students based on the amount of credits studied rather than academic years would make it easier for people to study in smaller bite-sized chunks. The regulator could introduce a system that makes it easier for students to bank their learning credits and move from one provider to another.
If the Prime Minister is serious about realising the UK government’s ambition on lifelong learning she could look to Wales. One option for providing financial support is to introduce maintenance grants for part-time students following recommendations from the independent Diamond Review. The OU in Wales saw a substantial increase in student recruitment last year, especially in the most disadvantaged areas. The Government could also look to further relax equivalent or lower qualifications rules, which stop many people from engaging in lifelong learning if they already have a higher education qualification.
The future world of post-18 education must have flexibility at its core. With multiple reviews in train from all political parties, there are big opportunities to develop policies that will recraft lifelong learning in England into the life-changing opportunity it really needs to be. In the interests of the economy, employers and society, as well as the health, wellbeing and career prospects of individuals, we all have a responsibility to get this right.