The crisis in adult education

It won’t grab many headlines, even in the specialist education press, but there is a growing crisis in adult participation in education and training, with stark implications both for our economy and our democracy. If the trend continues it will soon be necessary to reinvent from scratch a part of the education system which has taken over a century to build up.

The government yesterday released its latest figures on adult participation in further education and apprenticeship training – and the news, predictably enough, was bad. They revealed an 11 per cent fall in adult participation in state-funded learning overall between 2012-13 and 2013-14, a nine per cent drop at Level 2 (GCSE or equivalent), and an 18 per cent decrease at Level 3 (A-level or equivalent), the point at which qualifications begin to make a significant difference in terms of future earnings and life chances (and lifting people out of the low-pay trap). The numbers are even starker for older adults. There were 27 per cent fewer adults aged 25 and over in Level 3 provision and 34 per cent fewer in Level 4 provision (equivalent to Certificates of Higher Education). In addition, the sector saw a nine per cent drop in adults (19-plus) on government-supported maths and English courses.

This follows a similarly dramatic decline in mature participation in higher education in the UK, and particularly in England, following the introduction of the coalition’s HE reforms, which in effect trebled the cost of higher study and replaced grant funding with financing through loans. The extension of loans to some part-time students was hailed as a step forward in terms of levelling the playing field between full-time and part-time, but a combination of increased fees, debt aversion among older adults, and a tough economic climate (unemployment, low pay, rising costs of living, and a squeeze on employer training budgets) has seen numbers plummet. There was a 46 per cent drop in part-time undergraduate entrants – the vast majority of whom are mature students attempting to develop new skills or improve existing ones while juggling family, work and other commitments – between 2010-11 and 2013-14, with full-time mature student recruitment also failing to keep up with enrolments among younger students (which have remained stable).

As I’ve argued before, part-time mature study is one of the big unsung success stories of UK higher education – the outcome of much toil and inspiration, often against the grain of public policy. It had been in decline for a number of years before the government introduced the latest fees and funding reforms, in large part due to the Labour government’s notorious ELQ rule, which withdrew state support for students studying for a qualification at a level lower than or equivalent to one they already possessed, and represented the final straw for many university lifelong learning departments. While the coalition has relaxed the policy for subjects adjudged economically valuable (STEM subjects), it still excludes a large majority of part-timers from access to loans. These students are still obliged to pay the significantly inflated part-time fees upfront. And even for those students who can access loans the increase in fees makes higher education an altogether riskier and less attractive proposition. Little wonder than that we have seen such a huge collapse in numbers among this group of students.

There are lessons to be learned from this but it is clear the government has not learned them. Despite repeated warnings from within further education the coalition opted to pursue the same high-risk strategy in a sector which had already seen a steady decline in adult participation, as well as a pronounced shift in support to courses with narrow basic skills or employability outcomes. From 2013–14, funding was withdrawn for a range of courses for over-24s and replaced with a system of government-backed loans for learners aged 24 and over undertaking qualifications at Level 3 or higher. We have begun to see the impact of this intervention. In 2012–13, more than 400,000 people aged 24-plus took courses at Levels 3 and 4. Figures for 2013–14, show that only 57,000 students aged 24-plus took up loans at this level. Subsequent figures show that only 43,830 applications for the loans were made between April 2014 and September 2014. This suggests both that there has been a very substantial drop in participation among older adults at this level and that recruitment is showing no signs of recovery. Worryingly, the government is already consulting on expanding the loan scheme. The latest participation figures should make ministers think again – and hard.

Budgetary pressure on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has, of course, been enormous, and, despite the best efforts of secretary of state Vince Cable to defend the sector, the cuts have been eye-wateringly deep. While new money was found for apprenticeships, the government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16. This meant an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 billion in 2010–2012 to £2 billion in 2015–16 (before inflation is taken into account). The budgets for offender learning and community learning, while unchanged, have remained static for many years, meaning their real-term levels are much reduced. Meanwhile, the Department for Education reduced spending on 16 to 18-year-olds from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a swingeing 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 year olds from September this year. Perversely, as Vince Cable told a fringe meeting at this year’s Liberal Democrat party conference, these outcomes represent something of a ‘result’ for the sector. In 2010, he told delegates, he had personally blocked a move to withdraw all state funding from further education (a step, civil servants assured him, ‘nobody will really notice’).

With direct state funding being consistently withdrawn from core areas of adult learning and skills, many providers will be looking ahead to next week’s autumn statement (due on 3 December) with apprehension. Coping with year-on-year cuts and instability has become a day-to-day concern of managers and leaders in the FE sector. As Vince Cable’s anecdote suggests, further education continues to be little understood in the corridors of Whitehall – not surprising given the depressingly narrow social make-up of our senior politicians and civil servants. Few will have experienced further education or have any understanding of the critical importance of second chances to so many in our society. Yet it should be obvious, even to those with limited understanding of the sector, that the provision of opportunities for adults to continue learning throughout their lives is of immense value – a necessity rather than a nice-to-have. A cursory look at the challenges we face as a society should suffice to demonstrate that.

To begin with, the UK faces a major skills challenge – one complicated and made more acute by the undeniable but equally largely unacknowledged reality of demographic change. According to the OECD, England’s young people are among the worst in the developed world in terms of literacy and numeracy – with England the only one in which the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults. The OECD’s 2013 skills survey found that around 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland, 24.1 per cent of the population, had such basic levels of numeracy that they can manage only one-step tasks in arithmetic, sorting numbers of reading graphs. This compares to an average of 19 per cent of adults with such basic numeracy levels across the developed world. The OECD warned that the ‘talent pool of skilled adults’ in England was likely to shrink relative to other countries and called for more ‘second chance’ opportunities for low-skilled adults to learn.  This is particularly troubling in the context of an ageing society in which a high proportion of the jobs of the future will be taken by the workforce of today. Some 13.5 million vacancies are expected over the next 10 years, with only seven million new labour market entrants to fill them.

At the same time, the UK has a significant problem with productivity, linked to low pay and low skills. Productivity is 30 per cent higher in France, Germany and the USA than in the UK and is four per cent lower here than it was in the first quarter of 2008, its pre-recession peak. A recent report from Labour think-tank the Smith Institute found that countries with better productivity records ‘have more high-skilled employment and less unskilled employment’, citing research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which shows that a third of UK workers are overqualified for their job. Unsurprisingly, given the economy’s bias towards low-skilled jobs, low pay is an acute problem in the UK (as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted this week). Some five million people are paid below the living wage. And, for the first time, the majority of people in poverty in the UK live in households in which at least one adult is working. Employment is on the up, but most new jobs are low-paid and insecure, with outsourcing and zero-hours contracts on the rise. Wages are falling in real terms and 1.3 million people are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work.

Addressing the problem of low pay demands not just more jobs, but better jobs, with skills development at their core. There is growing recognition of the importance of skills to this agenda, and of the need to develop a strategy for skills linked to employment and economic policy. This was borne out in this week’s report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, supported by the CBI and the TUC, which called for radical change to the skills system. Yet as the latest drop in adult participation in FE shows, government reforms are making this change harder to achieve and more remote. The prospects for a high-productivity, high-performance economy, in which adults have opportunities to retrain, upskill or change career at different points in their lives, look bleak indeed. At the same time, the vision articulated in the early days of the last government, of a learning society in which education for citizenship, social cohesion, and personal development and fulfillment was valued alongside education to find and get on at work, has receded so far that it barely registers in the collective memory of a sector battered by continual cuts and bewildered by near-constant reform. As Vince Cable has hinted, unless we find ways of increasing the resources flowing into further and higher education, more and deeper cuts are inevitable, making inclusive, sustainable growth and the development of a better, happier, more resilient, engaged and cohesive society, increasingly unlikely.

A view from Calton Hill

Heraclitus, the notoriously enigmatic pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that existing objects could be characterised by pairs of contrary properties, and that these properties, by virtue of the tension between them, were essential to the continued flourishing of the whole. He termed this phenomenon the ‘unity of opposites’. Somehow, he thought, the ongoing conflict between opposite properties enabled a single, unified object to persist.

Although it is unlikely that Heraclitus – who is said to have preferred aristocratic models of government – would have intended it, his odd theory seems highly applicable in the field of politics (that is, as Heraclitus would probably have understood the term, ‘of, for or relating to citizens’). There is, I think, something to the idea that those societies that flourish and endure are, very often, characterised by just this sort of dynamic tension, between different classes or income groups – and that where the gap between those groups or classes becomes too great that cohesion is threatened.

I was thinking about this on Sunday as I walked up Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, with its curious collection of classical monuments (Dickens described it as ‘a rubbish heap of imaginative architecture’) and its tremendous views across the city and out to the Firth of Forth. This must be among the best places in Edinburgh to begin learning about the city and how it developed, from the smoke-blackened, boozy disorder of the Old Town and its narrow medieval streets, to the precise geometrical elegance of the New Town’s squares and circuses.

The development of the New Town in the late eighteenth century saw the wealthier citizens of Edinburgh move out of the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the Old Town to more genteel, spacious homes set on wide roads, with large, green civic spaces. The poor remained in the relative – and fast deepening – squalor of the Old Town. Overcrowding, poverty and inadequate sanitation led to epidemics of cholera and other diseases in the first half of the next century.

The Old Town of the eighteenth century was cramped and it was dirty. But it was also vibrant, brilliant and exciting, a melting pot of new thinking and ideas, in which the poorest citizens rubbed shoulders daily with the wealthiest and most educated, and where the old order was taken apart and new principles put in its place. The Scots, David Hume wrote, were now ‘the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe’, and that at a time when ‘we have lost our Princes, Our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the presence of our chief Nobility’. This loss did not create a vacuum but rather a space for debate, fierce, convivial and fearless, much of it centred on the Old Town’s numerous taverns, of which Hume, among others, was a notable and enthusiastic frequenter.

A number of factors made the Scottish Enlightenment possible, among them the quality of Scottish education and its openness to ideas from the continent. The growth in the educated population of Scotland meant this renaissance in thought was not confined to a small number of literati, or to the ranks of the aristocracy, as it was in France, but was, as the historian Tom Devine notes, ‘widely diffused throughout the ranks of the educated classes’. The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were not only aired and debated in the pubs of Edinburgh’s New Town, but were also ‘described, analysed, questioned and refuted in pamphlets and journals such as the Scots Magazine, in the contemporary press, in sermons and surveys like John Sinclair’s massive Statistical Account of Scotland, published in the 1790s, which provided an examination of the way of life of over 900 parishes compiled by the local ministers.’

It was this broad dissemination, Devine argues, that ‘ensured the social acceptance of basic ideas that might otherwise have remained arcane, remote and abstract’ and which helped ground them in observation and the practicalities of life in eighteenth-century Scotland. They saw human experience as the touchstone of true understanding. The Edinburgh literati may have been, to varying degrees, born to privilege but their lives were not so remote from those of other classes that they could be indifferent to them, while the spread of school education in Scotland during the second half of the seventeenth century and the rapidly expanding middle class meant there was a large and engaged audience interested in their ideas.

Undoubtedly, too, those ideas and the rejection of hitherto unquestioned – and unquestionable (Scotland’s last execution for heresy took place as recently as 1696) – authority seeped into the consciousness of the poorer classes of society. The wealthiest had close, face-to-face relationships with the poorest, often sharing the same buildings (the rich on the upper floors, the poor on the lower ones) and they frequented the same churches, brothels and alehouses. Skilled artisans helped swell the membership of the city’s numerous learned clubs and societies, and university access widened to include the children of merchants and tradesmen.

The nineteenth century saw Edinburgh’s New Town flourish, while the Old Town plunged deeper into squalor and increasingly wretched poverty. The rich and the poor began to lead separate lives. By 1880, when the educationalist, environmentalist and town planner Patrick Geddes moved there, the Old Town was notorious for its appalling housing and poor living conditions. Geddes moved into James Court, where David Hume had once lived but which was now little more than a slum. Geddes believed that social change needed to come from the bottom up, rather than be imposed from above (however well-meaningly). He improved his own building and encouraged his neighbours to work together in improving theirs as well as their wider community. Geddes also believed that a vibrant community required a mixture of people from different backgrounds living side by side and enjoying the kind of face-to-face relationships they had in mid-eighteenth century Edinburgh. He founded a hall of residence in renovated properties around Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, including one in Riddle’s Court, another former Hume residence, which now houses, among other things, the Edinburgh offices of the Workers’ Educational Association (appropriately, Geddes’s Latin inscription above the archway to Riddle’s Court reads Vivendo Disciumus – ‘By Living We Learn’)

Geddes didn’t believe in getting rid of tradition. His idea was to build around it, improving what was good and valuable, building better housing where necessary, and making use of derelict spaces, often through the creation of gardens and other green spaces, which he thought essential to the flourishing of community. He saw the city as a microcosm of society, as a kind of blueprint for wider social organisation. A flourishing community, he thought, meant people of different classes living common lives. This created the best conditions for making successful societies. Likewise, in his academic life (Geddes purchased the Outlook Tower on Castle Hill – now known as the Camera Obscura – to be a sort of sociological laboratory), he believed in bringing disciplines together, in thinking and learning holistically – that our view is better when we see the connections, the ways in which things are held together, as well as the things themselves. Places of learning, like people, need spaces in common.

I’ve written before about Machiavelli’s Discourses and his view of social conflict as useful, even necessary, to the success of a state. He is perhaps as unlikely a bedfellow of Geddes as you could wish to find, but they do have one thing in common. Machiavelli, like Geddes, saw that a stable, successful society required a degree of commonality between classes, a sense that all classes are living comparable lives, a part of the same society. The rich, Machiavelli argued, should not become so rich that they become arrogant and indifferent to the needs and demands of other groups, and the poor perceive them as remote and out of touch. And the poor should not be so poor that they live without hope or the prospect of a better life. These ‘opposites’, to borrow again the language of Heraclitus, need to be in close enough proximity to make possible the sort of dynamic tension that is necessary for the survival and flourishing of a society. As Geddes also saw, vibrant communities are untidy communities, mixed, diverse and dynamic, with a rough equality between classes – enough at least for people to see that they are living their lives in common.

This is a hard lesson for us today. In recent decades we have seen, on a larger scale, a process not dissimilar to that which split Edinburgh in two in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. The rich have become richer, their lives ever more remote, their wealth unimaginable to the vast majority of ordinary people and their grip on politics, the professions, the arts and the higher reaches of the education system increasingly firm. At the same time, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned this week, insecure, low-paid work is putting record numbers of working families in poverty. Two-thirds of the people who have found work in the past year are employed in jobs paying less than the living wage (with many on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of minimum hours). Between 2008 and 2013 average pay for the lowest paid fell by 70p per hour for men and 40p per hour for women, while the richest 1,000 Britons increased their wealth by more than £155 billion. Growing inequality unsurprisingly correlates with declining upward mobility. Life chances are increasingly dependent on who your parents are.

The education system, one of the key means by which we might reduce poverty and narrow the income gap, is, at the same time, becoming more and more polarised, with a broad liberal education – another fairly basic requirement of human flourishing – increasingly the preserve of the children of the rich, while the less advantaged make do with training which may give them skills but falls some way short of providing them with an education. As Michael Young foresaw in his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, an education system which confers approval on a small minority of its population (and qualifies the success of everyone else) effectively hands that minority control of the means to reproduce itself. To see the consequences of this you might compare, as Young later did, the social origins of members of Atlee’s post-war cabinet with those of Tony Blair’s – or with those of Ed MIliband’s shadow cabinet.

Little wonder then that the political class has become less plural and politics a much narrower business in which most fundamental questions – including those about the conditions in which people can best flourish – are off limits. Austerity politics has become a most effective cloak under which to pursue often fairly radical ideological goals to which human ends are secondary – all largely unchallenged by a compliant media with an equally strong and undisclosed ideological commitment. It is depressing indeed, but perhaps unsurprising, that in times such as these a party of closed-mined xenophobes – a coalition of the rich, the ignorant and the desperate – should be considered a compelling, even progressive, alternative.

Patrick Geddes recognised that people, like any life form (Geddes was also a botanist), thrive in the right conditions. Politics should be about identifying and helping improve these conditions for everyone. As those great theorists of adult education John Dewey and R.H. Tawney also saw, at the heart of this must be the idea of a common life – a life which embraces all in a community, treats every member as free and equal, and attaches equal value to the needs and aspirations of all. Sadly, we are fast becoming not one but two countries – divided by wealth, opportunity and prospects for advancement. Working-class people are not only unrepresented (fulfilling Michael Young’s prediction of the consequences of educational selection) but, by and large, unheard, except in contexts which demean or diminish them. As Geddes realised, only by being immersed in the lives people lead can you begin to understand them. The government’s boasts about the resilience of the economy mean little when the lives of so many are getting worse, with little out there to give them hope of something better in the future. I doubt many members of the current political class have much understanding of how utterly demoralising and damaging it is to be branded a failure by the education system and then denied the means of turning things around and making your life better. It seems that everywhere you look second chances are either disappearing or becoming unaffordable to most. Geddes showed that people can build communities which are rich, vibrant and fulfilling, but we must first create conditions which, in the enduringly brilliant words of Raymond Williams, ‘make hope practical rather than despair convincing’.

Learning Through Life: a missed opportunity but a live agenda nonetheless

Five years ago this autumn, the two-year Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, sponsored by NIACE and led by a group of expert commissioners, published its final report, Learning Through Life. The report posed a challenge to policymakers to create a framework for lifelong learning which was fit for the early twenty-first century, and the unprecedented technological, demographic and economic changes we face. It is a challenge which, to put it mildly, is some way still from being met.

That is not to say that the report has not had influence. Its argument for access to lifelong learning as a human right, related to personal growth and emancipation, prosperity and community solidarity, is widely cited and influential, particularly internationally; and some of the more practical ideas it formulated have grabbed the attention of policymakers and sector organisations, for example its argument for mid-life career review, which has been developed by Stephen McNair and successfully piloted, with further roll-out likely.

But, beyond this, and more substantively, the news is less good. At the heart of the inquiry’s approach was a proposed shift to a new model of the educational life course – comprising four key stages: up to 25, 25-50, 50-75 and 75-plus – with learning resources ‘fairly and sensibly’ rebalanced to reflect the changing social and economic context. Regrettably, despite much rhetoric to the contrary and one or two positive interventions, we are no closer to such a settlement. In fact, in a number of key respects, we seem set on undoing previous hard-won gains, leaving us, if anything, further away from what is, after all, a fairly modest and very well-evidenced proposal.

The allocation of learning resources across the four life stages reported by the inquiry has changed little since 2009 when it was split, approximately, as follows: 86; 11; 2.5; 0.5. The report proposed a rebalancing in all public and private spending on education, by 2020, to: 80; 15; 4; 1. The costs of this adjustment, it said, would be significantly reduced by the projected reduction in the number of young people in the population over the next decade. At the same time, within each age group, ‘specific attention should be given to the fair and equitable distribution of resources’, including consideration of which groups benefit the most and which are excluded. This, the report argued, was essential to ensuring ‘a continuing commitment to equalising opportunity’, covering ‘equity both between sectors (HE, FE, community etc) and within them’.

The rationale for this reallocation of resources was, then as it is now, perfectly clear. The 18-24 population was predicted to decline by nine per cent by 2020, while the third and fourth stage populations were projected to rise by 18 per cent and 28 per cent respectively over the same period. With people both living longer and spending longer in the workplace, the educational challenges – in terms both of up-skilling and re-skilling, and remaining active and engaged in society later in life – were obvious. Yet the big story (in England, at least) in the funding of post-compulsory education in the last five years has not been a shift in the distribution of resources across the age groups but the move from a system of state funding to one of state financing through loans – a very high-stakes gambit justified on the (it turns out, spurious) grounds that it would save the taxpayer money. This began in higher education and has been extended into further education. In both cases the impact on adult participation has been dramatic.

The story in higher education is familiar. While enrolments among younger students held up, despite the trebling of tuition fees, there was a dramatic decline among mature students, and among part-time students in particular, with a drop of 46 per cent in part-time undergraduate entrants (the vast majority of whom are mature) between 2010-11 and 2013-14. These students – people attempting to develop new skills or improve existing ones while juggling family, work and other commitments – are precisely those we need to engage in learning if we are to respond to the challenges of an ageing and, increasingly, low-wage, low-skill, low-productivity economy. Their loss in such numbers suggests we are some way from the coherence of approach looked for in Learning Through Life.

Strong part-time recruitment has been one of the big, if unsung, success stories of UK higher education. It has taken a long time and a great deal of effort and inspiration to build up. Now it seems in irreversible freefall, abetted by the longer-term decline in university lifelong learning. This was accelerated when the previous administration introduced the notorious ELQ rule, denying state support to any student studying for a qualification at a level lower than or equivalent to one they already possess. And while the extension of loans to part-timers brought welcome (if partial) parity with full-time students, the majority of part-timers remained ineligible (largely because of the ELQ rule), priced out by a system which is becoming ever more polarised, unequal and unfair.

It is telling that it is the high-tariff, elite institutions – those which do least well in terms of widening participation – that have gained the most under the new system, while the lower-tariff institutions – those which do the heavy lifting when it comes to ensuring fair access – are doing the worst. This hardly demonstrates the commitment to ‘equalising opportunity’ the report was seeking. I suppose though it is unsurprising that a society so committed to putting everyone in their proper place should develop a higher education system which so heavily qualifies the success of so many of its graduates. This might suit the already privileged (which is why it is so hard to challenge) but it is hardly what we need if we are, as a society and an economy, to get the most from the talents and creativity of every citizen.

A similar high-risk strategy has been pursued in further education in the form of FE loans for students aged 24-plus studying at Level 3 or 4 – with similar, highly predictable (but, perhaps just as predictably, largely ignored) consequences. In 2012-13, more than 400,000 people aged 24 or over took part in learning at Levels 3 and 4. Government figures for 2013-14, when funding was withdrawn for a range of courses for over-24s and the loan scheme introduced, show that only 57,000 students aged 24-plus took up loans at this level. The latest figures show that only 43,830 applications for the loans have been made between April 2014 and September 2014. This suggests both that there has been a very substantial drop in participation among older adults at this level and that recruitment is showing no signs of recovery. This bodes ill indeed for a future in which the development of a high-skill economy will depend on adults’ capacity to retrain and up-skill.

But perhaps a high-skill economy is not where we are headed. As Learning Through Life argued, the debate on skills has been too dominated by an emphasis on increasing the volume of skills, with too little focus on how skills are actually used. Since the report’s publication the conviction that there is something wrong in the way in which we approach skills has taken stronger hold. We have seen a welcome increase in jobs, but they are, very largely, jobs characterised by low wages, low skills and job insecurity. Despite numerous skills strategies and near-incessant reform in the sector, the UK economy compares poorly to its neighbours in terms of productivity. Wage inequality continues to act as a drag on growth. Making better use of skills and creating the workplace conditions in which innovation and creativity can flourish are becoming increasingly significant policy concerns. A sustained, resilient, inclusive and long-term recovery depends on it. And, of course, the equity issue identified in the report, that access to training diminishes the further down the status ladder you go, remains as pressing a concern today. Far too few workplaces offer the kind of expansive learning environment the inquiry recommended. Those that do, as last month’s Smith Institute report on good work suggests, can expect to reap rewards in terms of enhanced staff commitment and productivity. But there remain far more for whom such a step would involve an almost unthinkable shift in culture.

Skills remains an area in which the pace of reform (and the turnover of ministers) is frenetic. One of the biggest equity issues in post-compulsory education concerns the relative esteem in which the further education and skills sector and higher education are held. Incessant reform in FE is a symptom of this. So is the comparative lack of autonomy enjoyed by further education colleges, though there has been greater recognition of this since Learning Through Life appeared. Still, there is an evident lack of trust and confidence in the sector and its workforce, as well as an impulse to cut further education resources, almost unthinkingly, whenever budgets are tight. In a way, this is unsurprising. Few in the Treasury have any direct experience of further education, and most senior politicians these days seem to have followed the gilded path from public school to Oxbridge before walking straight into a political career for which they have merely academic qualifications. No wonder a coherent national strategy, in which all parts of the tertiary sector are recognised as essential and important, remains elusive. It may be that it will continue to elude us, unless we can find a way to widen the political gene pool.

Despite the failure of the current generation of politicians to engage adequately with – or, for the most part, even to acknowledge – the challenge of an ageing and increasingly unequal society, the agenda set out in Learning Through Life remains relevant – a pertinent invitation to any political party prepared to think seriously about the challenges of demographic, technological and economic change. It has important things to say about credit transfer, localism, learning entitlements and improving the capacity of the lifelong learning workforce. And it has good ideas about making the system more intelligent and more coherent. As the report argued, national frameworks matter. Governments have a responsibility here, in creating the conditions in which lifelong learning can flourish, as they do in describing the values and vision which inform the sector’s work. They have a role too in ensuring the resources are there to deliver what is needed, though, as Learning Through Life makes clear, it is not expected that all these resources come from the public purse. We need a sensible, rational approach that balances personal, state and employer contributions. There may be an increased cost to developing a system fit for the twenty-first century but, as the report shows, it is one we can bear. The cost of doing nothing is much greater. Given the scale of the challenge we really must do better than hide behind the cloak of austerity, affecting to have no choice but to implement reforms which have little to do with saving money and everything to do with ideology.

The next issue of NIACE’s journal Adults Learning – due out later this month – will assess the legacy of Learning Through Life, with contributions from its authors, David Watson and Tom Schuller, as well as from David Hughes, Karen Evans, Stephen McNair, Tom Wilson, Claire Callender, Ewart Keep, Ruth Spellman, Jim Crawley, Keith Wakefield, John Field, Mark Ravenhall and Alan Tuckett.

Learning Through Life was published by NIACE in 2009. Many of the inquiry’s papers are still available to download from: