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.

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

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.

14 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

    1. It remains essential that the nation will assess the needs of the economic development post covid19 lockdown. Many adults may need to gain new skills to meet the expected new era of economic revival and recovery. The cost benefits analysis of the Covid19 lockdown will need to be evaluated and the needs analysis for economic upturn rated for the new strategies for recovery and job creations. The National office of Statistics in due course, will be able to inform on the deficits in professional and vocational needs of the nation to be able to identify and coordinate skills and courses right for the populace.
      The government had been tackling the lockdown well, but we are not sure what the after lockdown will be.
      This makes education on life long learning very relevant to the nation as many returners to work will be adults possibly needing new skills after the vovid19 lockdown. Hopefully the government will allow the adult life long skills education to gain access in the new economic strategies.

    2. Respect from Shanghai ,a 33 years old lady who want to continue her education as life long pursuit!

  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.

    1. Yes, you are absolutely right on all counts – on the point about the world of work, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist Andy Haldane put it well in his Preface to the Centenary Commission’s Report: “For three centuries, the UK’s education system has had a singular – and very successful – focus: developing cognitive skills in the young. That model is not fit for tomorrow’s purpose. The education system of tomorrow needs to span the generational spectrum – young to old – and the skills spectrum – cognitive to vocational to interpersonal.”

      Not just ‘training’ in today’s ‘skills’!

  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…

  6. Yes, absolutely – the ‘unconscious bias’ is too often that if you miss out on university at age 18 then you get written off. We need collaboration between providers, with pathways including WEA, FE, universities and others.

  7. Excellent article from Jonathon Michie, and very glad to see that there is a growing number of groups pushing the Lifelong Learning Agenda.
    10-15 years ago within the UK HE sector it seemed to be the ‘next big thing’, but was then overtaken by the drive to create remote campuses – selling the same 2, 3, 4 etc. year product.
    For me this demonstrates that universities still struggle with the whole ‘horizon-scanning’ strategic planning exercise. Surely there is an understanding that the days when my Father took his engineering degree and that remained his sole relevant qualification for life have gone. Nowadays taking a 3 year IT degree can result in the year 1 content being outdated on graduation.
    There is a need for the sector to both react quickly to market needs (ask anyone trying to recruit UK staff with renewable fuels technology skills) and to provide the opportunities to keep those skills relevant.
    Surely there is also a huge new business opportunity here – How many universities contact their graduates and offer short refresher courses around their subject on updates such changes as legislation, technology, etc

    1. wow! that’s quite an elaboration which extend my logic and deepen my notions about the education system! Thank you Ian !!

  8. I’d like to propose an alternative approach – building from the bottom and the edges. I was the co-initiator (with Alan Tuckett) of Adult Learners Week that began with Conservative government backing in 1992. For a whole lot of reasons I do not expect this government to follow in a similar direction. However, I do believe that the new appetite for devolved power offers hope. We should be aiming our entreaties at the devolved administrations – Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – at the mayoral and combined authorities, all of which show a growing interest in the strategic opportunities opened up by flexing their political muscles. We should also engage with the Conservative MPs who won Labour seats in December 2019, some of whom take their levelling up mission seriously.

  9. While opportunities are always necessary for people in work to further their careers and contribute more to the economy, please don’t forget those of us who enjoy education for its own sake. Since early retirement at the age of 52 I have gained a BA, MA and MPhil; now at 81 I am still studying, on line at present, using Oxford Conted short courses, next starting in May 2021, FutureLearn, mainly free, in history and literature courses, Arvon writing courses, and many more. I am unlikely to contribute to the economy but, writing a novel, I hope to be part of the creative and artistic community that also contributes so much to society. Joyce Ireland, Cheshire, UK.

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