A society without second chances

Suddenly, if belatedly, adult education is in the news. Planned cuts to adult further education, amounting to 24 per cent of the total budget once apprenticeships – the government’s shamelessly over-hyped, all-purpose panacea for the gathering skills crisis – are taken out of the equation, have prompted a petition to reverse the move and provoked some unusually strong (some would say overdue) words from college groups and others. There have even been one or two articles outside the specialist education press. Finally, the staggering and deplorable withdrawal of learning opportunities for adults is making ripples outside the world of adult and further education.

The latest cuts are massive, inflicted in full knowledge of the damage they are certain to cause. It’s nice to see Vince Cable launching a well-intentioned consultation on adult vocational education but it is hard not to think that this is far too little, far too late. When you consider the scale of cuts already made by the government – a 35 per cent reduction in spending on adult skills resulting in the loss of one million learning opportunities for adults since 2010 – it is easy to understand why the Association of Colleges is forecasting that state-supported adult education and training will have ceased to exist altogether by 2020. The loss will be huge. These are not just numbers. They represent the frustrated ambitions, aspirations and life chances of hundreds of thousands of people, their families and their communities.

In research published today, the Association of Colleges estimates that more than 190,000 further adult learning places could be lost next year alone as a result of the latest cuts, with courses in health, public services and care, and information and communication technology likely to be hardest hit. It notes that funding cuts to adult education have already resulted in a 17.9 per cent drop in adult students participating at Level 3 between 2012-13 and 2013-14. If the government continues to cut adult education at the same rate, it says, there will be no adult education system left to support students aged 19 and over by 2020.

It says a lot about the government that it has been prepared to oversee this near collapse in what was, for many years, a vital and vibrant part of our education system, something that took decades of effort and inspiration to build up. And this at a time when the need for adults to access education throughout their lives has never been more pressing or evident. As the AoC notes, the proportion of over-50s in the workforce is set to rise to a third of the workforce by 2020 – from 27 per cent now – while 50 per cent of workers aged over 55 are proposing to work beyond the state pension age. These people will need affordable, accessible opportunities to upskill and reskill, to improve their prospects at work or to start a new career. The government talks a decent game, publicly at least, when it comes to the skills and education needs of adults but, privately, it has been happy to see the sector which supports adults in accessing second chances to learn all but destroyed.

But it isn’t all about the economy and it isn’t all about skills. Even if we accept the government’s narrowly economic rationale for funding provision, the current obsessive focus on apprenticeships is certain to be self-defeating if people aren’t equipped with the more basic, lower-level skills necessary to undertake one. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we face a major challenge in improving UK adults’ literacy and numeracy skills, still terribly poor by international standards, despite decades of interventions. These are not only economically useful, they are basic requirements for any adult who dreams of living a happy, fulfilled life. But there is a deeper point here about the kind of society we aspire to be. Do we want to be the sort of society where the wider benefits of a broad, liberal education are available only to the already privileged, while the rest of us have to make do with training for employment, in one form or another, and the prospect of spending much of our adult lives paying for it? Or do we want to be a society populated by thoughtful, caring, active and engaged citizens, with inquiring, resilient minds, willing and able to learn new things and embrace new challenges throughout their lives?

These are important questions, but you won’t hear them on the lips of mainstream politicians, not publicly at least (and not privately either for the majority of them). Instead, the main parties have used the false but compelling narrative of austerity and deficit reduction to affect to have no choice over what are, truthfully, ideologically driven decisions with massive social implications. The things we are losing – part-time higher education, adult further education, the public library system, and much else – may seem a price worth paying now, but, faced with the task of rebuilding what is, after all, part of the essential infrastructure of any civilized society, it may seem very expensive indeed to the future generations who will pay the real cost of our current short-sightedness.

I’m constantly taken aback by the senselessness of all of this. How can we have got to a point where the idea of education as an important public good has been all but superseded by the notion that education has only private benefits and so should be funded very largely by the private individuals who benefit from it? How can the devastation of something so valuable – to individuals, to employers, to society more widely, both economically and in terms of social inclusion – be met with such public and political indifference? How can we have failed to see that spending in this area is a critical investment in all our futures (amply repaid by the clear economic and social benefits), not just another cost to be disposed of in the march of austerity? There is not much left of what we used to think of as ‘this great movement of ours’. What remains is pretty embattled, with even the most illustrious institutions forced to recast their values and sense of mission in order to survive. But second-chance learning is not a luxury. If we want a fair society, a vibrant, humane democracy in which everyone has a decent chance of success and the circumstances of a person’s birth are not the overwhelming determinant of their life chances, we need a flourishing system of lifelong learning as surely as we need strong, fairly funded schools and world-class, widely accessible universities.

Please sign the University and College Union petition opposing the cuts. More than 20,000 people already have.