Political interest in adult education is experiencing one of its periodic spikes. Time will tell whether the interest is sustained or whether, as has so often been the case, it amounts to little more than a rhetorical flourish, a knowing half-nod to the changing zeitgeist rather than an attempt to capture it. Brexit, of course, is the unknown quantity with the potential to change the game and make lifelong learning a genuinely pivotal component of mainstream political thinking in the UK. A dawning (and, frankly, rather belated) appreciation of its far-reaching implications is the likely driver of this latest shift in perception.
The government’s green paper on the development of a new industrial strategy makes much of the role of adult skills in post-Brexit economic renewal and demonstrates a rare awareness of the need to ensure better articulation between the demand for skills and their supply. This has been a niggling issue with UK skills policy for decades, with successive skills strategies seemingly concocted in a sealed civil service laboratory, some distance from the stubborn and not always particularly agreeable realities of British economic life. The result, too often, was training for training’s sake and a pretty shoddy return on public investment. Fortunately for the dozens of journeyman politicians who have passed through this territory, tolerance of failure in this neglected area of policy has tended to be high. Only a handful – John Hayes and Vince Cable notable among them – have offered any vision or sense of a wider role for FE and skills, and that in spite of a largely uncomprehending civil service (one short-sighted civil servant famously suggested to Cable that all public funding for FE be withdrawn to meet the department’s budget reduction target).
The new industrial strategy is an opportunity to change all this. It includes skills as one of 10 ‘pillars’ which will drive growth and raise productivity. The green paper highlights a number of ‘key issues’ concerning skills which, it says, we need, as a country, to address. These are: poor levels of basic skills, particularly among younger adults; a shortage of high-skilled technicians below graduate level; skills shortages in sectors that depend on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM); skills shortages specific to certain sectors, which force some employers to look overseas to fill certain vacancies; the poor quality of careers advice; and ‘the accelerating pace of technological change’ which ‘means there is a growing challenge with lifelong learning: supporting people to up-skill and re-skill across their working lives’. People, the green paper continues, are ‘living and working longer’ at the same time as ‘training across working life is going down’, particularly among older workers and low to medium-skilled groups (those, it notes, whose jobs are most likely to be replaced by technology in the next two decades).
To meet these challenges, the green paper proposes a number of actions to improve basic skills (including by reviewing current policy and supporting further education colleges in becoming ‘centres of excellence’ in maths and English), build a new system of technical education (with clearer routes, better teaching and institutes of technology in every region), boost STEM skills, and raise skills levels in other poor-performing areas. It also undertakes to publish a ‘comprehensive careers strategy’ and to ‘explore ambitious new approaches to encouraging lifelong learning, which could include assessing changes to the costs people face to make them less daunting; improving outreach to people where industries are changing; and providing better information’.
There are some good ideas here, as well as some welcome notes of realism. The government’s willingness to review the effectiveness of current policy on lifelong learning and skills is encouraging and should act as a prompt to membership and advocacy groups to make their strongest case. However, we should not allow ministers to play down the scale of the task or to obscure the role played by government policy in creating the problems the green paper describes. Putting skills at the heart of the UK’s industrial strategy will require more than a review of policy effectiveness and a willingness to embrace new approaches. It will mean the effective reversal of decades of political neglect and under-funding of adult education, with substantial investment to restore the huge gaps in our lifelong learning infrastructure that have emerged as a result of austerity politics (a catastrophic and costly failure which is being quietly swept under the carpet – not unlike the equally calamitous political career of its chief architect, David Cameron). The latest figures in both further education and higher education confirm the damage done.
In further education, there is some good news for the government, in that it is on target to meet its target of three million new apprenticeship starts by the end of this parliament (with almost 900,000 new apprenticeships in 2015-16). However, the latest data also show that participation in learning other than apprenticeships in England is in sharp decline. There are 800,000 fewer adults in FE (excluding apprenticeships) than there were in 2011-12, with some 300,000 fewer adults on English or maths courses. The proportion of unemployed adults taking part in learning had also fallen sharply. This trend in participation is the direct result of cuts to funding for adult skills, with the government, in 2015 alone, cutting as much as 24 per cent from the adult further education budget. At the same time, funding for ESOL provision has been savagely cut – by 60 per cent since 2009 – again, denying opportunities to learn to adults who are desperate to do so. As if this were not bad enough, the sector has been given little chance to adapt to straitened circumstances, with funding cuts accompanied by near constant reform, experimentation and ministerial churn. There is limited policy memory in further education and little scope for leaders, struggling to adapt to curriculum and funding changes while meeting the requirements of an overbearing accountability system, to think about how to respond creatively to the challenges they face.
In higher education in England, the numbers are just as dramatic, and the challenge equally stark. The latest figures confirm the ongoing decline in part-time higher education. According to a House of Commons Library Briefing, total part-time entrants to HE have fallen by 45 per cent since 2009-10, with mature learners combining study with work forming the vast majority. This is the result, principally, of the introduction of loans and the rise in tuition fees. New data on student nursing enrolments confirm the lack of enthusiasm for loans (or debt) among older learners, with applications falling by 23 per cent (29 per cent for those aged over 21) since grants were converted into loans to support the provision of more places. Moreover, applications to full-time undergraduate courses by over-25s fell by 18 per cent in the last year, confirming a general trend of dwindling participation in HE among adults. Overall, the higher education system is becoming less diverse, less accessible to older adults and less relevant to the challenges of modern society. All of this, it should be added, has been an entirely predictable result of the policies adopted by the government.
These are all trends which must be not only halted but thrown decisively into reverse if the government is to achieve its ambitions and lifelong learning is really to help deliver the step change in growth and productivity the green paper sets out as its objective. A cohesive industrial strategy, with an ‘ambitious new approach to encouraging lifelong learning’ at its heart, is a big step in the right direction. But it will require a major shift in culture to deliver it, with ministers and civil servants looking beyond schools and elite universities, recognising that education is for adults too, and making a long-term commitment to supporting it. As Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive of the Workers’ Educational Association, has argued this week, a national strategy for lifelong learning would not be a bad place to start.