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: http://www.niace.org.uk/lifelonglearninginquiry/.

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