This article is more than 5 years old

Back to the future of lifelong learning

Jonathan Michie reflects on a century of reforms to adult education to pose a vision for the future.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jonathan Michie is professor of innovation and knowledge exchange at the University of Oxford.

I have been talking to people recently about the creation of a Ministry of Reconstruction, necessitated by the dire situation facing the country, and the need for a long term view for its renewal.

That’s not my alternative to a “People’s Vote” on Brexit – it’s the story of 1917, when the leader of the wartime coalition government, Lloyd George, established the Ministry of Reconstruction to oversee the rebuilding of ‘the national life on a better and more durable foundation’. Its adult education committee – chaired by A.L. Smith, Master of Balliol College, Oxford – published its final report on adult education in November 1919. That report set the groundwork for British adult education over the rest of the 20th century. Among other things, it recommended that all universities create departments for continuing education. All responded positively.

Successive governments took us backwards

With lengthening lifespans, and the development of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics, the need for adult education is greater than ever, yet it has been undermined by each of the past three UK administrations. The last Labour government withdrew funds from students who had a qualification at the level they were studying, despite the rhetoric around flexibility and re-skilling, which almost by definition requires the sort of education from which funding was withdrawn.

The subsequent coalition government did huge damage to adult education by tripling fees. For kids going to university, whether that is paid for through taxation or through a loan repaid by taxation is not necessarily going to change behaviour. For an adult wondering whether to take a course, and told that to do so they will need to take a loan which they will need to start repaying almost as soon as the course is completed, it’s a different story. That feels more like a loan to replace the car or take a holiday. The effect on adult education was predictably disastrous. The universities minister who imposed it, David Willetts, has had the decency to admit he was wrong, and to say that this was his biggest regret in government.

The Conservative government’s austerity has depressed still further exactly the sort of investment in adult education that society needs, for recovery and renewal, including for those areas of the country “left behind.” Despite the Prime Minister’s declaration that austerity is over, nothing has changed.

So, this has not been a party political issue. All three have failed in government. Yet all three claim to understand that lifelong learning is becoming increasingly important – with longer lives, including years in healthy retirement; with machine learning and robotics requiring a broad based education for a population and workforce able to think imaginatively and laterally, with empathy, and innovatively, as artificial intelligence does the rest.

How to bring the necessary investment about?

The 1919 report set out a detailed plan, and it was implemented to good effect over the next seventy years or so. We need to repeat that exercise. That task is being undertaken by the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, established by the Workers Educational Association, the Co-operative College, the Raymond Williams Foundation, and the universities of Nottingham and Oxford. Its members include Lord Bilimoria, who in the House of Lords on January 16th 2019 argued:

There will be an increasing need for lifelong learning. Continuing education contributes positively to well-being and health, which, as well as being an intrinsic good, has positive consequences for the economy through the health of the population and the workforce…This needs to be at the heart of our endeavours to improve the prosperity of our country and the well-being of our people.

The 1919 report on adult education argued that a population educated throughout life was vital for the future of the country. What is striking is that the challenges they identified are even more relevant now:

  • With the extension of the electorate, it was considered vital that citizens be made able to weigh evidence, and critically reflect on political claims, so as not to be taken in by populist demagogues. Electoral issues are just as complex today;
  • With the approach of new technologies and industries, “skills training” was considered insufficient. Instead people would need to be imaginative and flexible at work. With machine learning and robotics replacing routine work, these needs are even greater today, and growing over time;
  • The population faced great challenges, foremost to prevent another slide to war. There are many challenges today which require concerted social and political action, with climate change particularly pressing.

The 1919 report called on universities to establish departments for continuing education: all responded positively, but a series of damaging policies have since caused many to close. It doesn’t have to be that way. Even with no subsidy from government or the university, Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education is running more courses, for more students than ever – 20,000 enrolments on 1,000 courses a year – with progression pathways from day schools through to part-time doctoral degrees. Record fundraising permits more scholarships and bursaries than ever, and online courses enable access nationally and indeed globally. What is needed is a repeat of the 1919 call for all universities to once again take on this role, and to ensure they rise to the challenge.

The Centenary Commission will publish its report on adult education in November 2019, a century after the previous report. It worked before. For all our sakes, we need to ensure it works again.

One response to “Back to the future of lifelong learning

  1. Hi Jonathan if you are reading this

    While you rightly emphasise the responsibility of government there is also a responsibility on us as educators to provide the sort of education adults want and not treat them as schoolchildren. A lot has happened to our understanding of learning since 1919 yet pedagogic practice is largely unaltered. There is little flexibility in curriculum design and next to no tailoring of learning to the requirements of learners. Learning itself is still largely didactic, defined by subject discipline and context independent. There are few attempts to turn existing learning or current experiential learning into formal credit. Its not as if there are not examples of how to do these things. At Chester we have a pre-validated shell framework designed for adults which started with six students in 1996 and today has over a thousand. We have received no external help doing this. If universities adapt and provide the appropriate pedagogy the students will come.

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