Government could support lifelong learning, or just launch initiatives

Any number of reports and campaigns call for proper sustained effort on lifelong learning, including at universities. Jonathan Michie wonders why the government is taking so long.

This Government was elected on a commitment to support adult education.

We will strengthen universities and colleges’ civic role. We will invest in local adult education and require the Office for Students to look at universities’ success in increasing access across all ages, not just young people entering full-time undergraduate degrees

But will the Government deliver on this agenda?

It cannot “build back better” unless it does. “Levelling up” will only be achieved with a revitalisation of community education. But the attitude of Gavin Williamson to date suggests he may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Cross-party agreement

There is a consensus between the political parties and across society that Britain needs to commit seriously to the rejuvenation and development of adult education and lifelong learning. The Conservative Government included this in Augar’s remit. The Liberal Democrat Commission called for a renewed commitment to lifelong learning, supported by among other measures individual learning accounts, which would be topped up over one’s lifetime. A Labour Party Commission concluded equally strongly that adult education and lifelong learning was vital for the future of our society as well as our economy.

The Kerslake Review’s Interim Report argued that “universities – as part of their charitable mission and civic responsibility – must prioritise adult education”, and the Final Report concluded that adult education “is the greatest unaddressed challenge facing higher education”. The Centenary Commission on Adult Education reflected upon the 1919 Report on Adult Education emanating from the Ministry of Reconstruction’s remit to advise on how society might be built back better from the ravages of World War. Its report called on government to appoint a Minister for Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in order to launch a national strategy – which would be delivered by Local Educational Partnerships between universities and colleges, the local authority, employers, and the WEA and other educational bodies. Employers would be required to commit to providing funding and time off for employee education and training – and in return would be able to use the apprenticeship levy more flexibly; local authorities would have their statutory obligation to provide adult education restored along with the concomitant funding. Universities would be obliged to participate as a condition of using the protected term “university”.

The plans are there. All it needs is for Government to give the go-ahead. The resources required would be modest, and the return on investment – to society as well as the economy – would be significant and sustained.

A good answer

Such a rejuvenation of adult education and lifelong learning will be vital not just to build back better from the Covid-19 crisis but also to tackle the climate crisis – for which education is key, not only to understand the issues, and the options for action, but to mobilise communities and workplaces to deliver on that necessary action.

This need for adult education and lifelong learning is embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals, and being acted on across the globe. Denmark has since 2017 built into collective agreements between employers and trade unions the obligation for employers to design and invest in training for their workers, and give them time off for it. Singapore’s SkillsFuture movement is a national initiative to promote lifelong learning. A significant proportion of UC Berkeley undergraduates will have studied previously at a Community College.

The UK did have a “world leading” model of provision, which of course could and should have been developed and improved – but instead under successive governments of all political parties a series of unfortunate events have left the country’s provision weaker rather than stronger. In response to the 1919 Report all universities over time committed to providing adult education and lifelong learning. The government provided funding to deliver locally through partnerships between universities, local authorities and the WEA. The founding of the Open University was world leading. We did it before and can do it again. It isn’t rocket science – it just needs political backing and above all to avoid a plethora of initiatives and micromanagement. Government needs to set the national strategy, provide the resources, and allow local partnerships to deliver.

Campaign goals

The Adult Education 100 campaign is calling for the Centenary Commission’s recommendations to be implemented – including a Government Minister for Adult Education & Lifelong Learning. The campaign Right2Learn seeks “a lifelong statutory right to fully funded learning and training for every adult throughout their lives”. The UK’s Universities Association for Lifelong Learning is relaunching as a charitable incorporated organisation to make it more agile and effective in serving and representing the sector. And the House of Commons Education Committee has issued “A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution” arguing that

The current approach to education funding is overwhelmingly focused on education before the age of 25. We must move away from this model, towards a system and culture of lifelong learning that encourages education at any age.

What is needed is clear. The detail has been set out by these various Commissions, the House of Commons Education Committee and others. The plans have been published. They demonstrate a broad consensus. All the Government needs to do is give its backing.

Yet there is a serious danger they will do the opposite, by retreating once again into initiatives – an approach that has continually undermined adult education and lifelong learning over the past 30 years. And worse, Gavin Williamson has adopted a divisive approach, presenting the FE sector as the proper place for those seeking a second chance. Government needs to be persuaded urgently, before it is too late. Universities and colleges need to collaborate to provide pathways, and to work with local authorities, employers, the WEA and others to ensure learners – the country’s citizens, taxpayers and electorate – can choose from a rich array of opportunities at the various stages of life at which individuals may need – or wish – to re-enter education.

6 responses to “Government could support lifelong learning, or just launch initiatives

  1. Hats off to Jonathan Michie for producing such a compelling case for lifelong learning. Along with vocational education, it is the poor relation of the UK education system. All political parties and civic bodies should pressure central government to do the right thing and invest in it.
    Kevin Morgan
    Cardiff University

    1. Thank you Kevin – I know that the Welsh Government has committed itself to supporting lifelong learning, although facing funding challenges.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Having been a 20-year old ‘drop-out’, who returned to university as a mature student, gaining BA, MA and PhD, I have gone on to teach for the WEA and the University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education. I have seen adult education/Lifelong Learning from both sides and, indeed, benefitted from both learning and teaching in that environment. The benefits to individuals and society are enormous and the government should recognise this with more than words.
    Sylvia Pinches
    University of Oxford, Department for Continuing Education

  3. Thank you Sylvia – and I think what you say demonstrates the importance of ensuring that universities play a role in making such provision. And thank you for everything you’re doing!

  4. There’s also the question of graduates updating their own credentials (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) to compete in a dynamic workplace and to maintain themselves in older age. With so many more younger people entering the graduate job market, we need to be sowing the seeds of lifelong learning before they graduate, and as the older generation of graduates reach retirement the evidence is growing that conditions like dementia are delayed through ongoing cognitive stimulation.

  5. Thanks for continuing to push on this agenda Jonathan. The current OfS consultation on future approaches to widening participation via outreach activity speaks volumes – while there remains a rhetorical commitment to doing ‘something’ to address the decline in mature learners, the assumptions embedded in the consultation remain rooted in a notion that students are young and want full-time education. Not sure they have realised not all potential adult learners are in FE…

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