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.

Broken workplaces, low pay and lifelong learning

Two reports published in the past few days paint a troubling picture of the problems facing us in the UK, both as an economy and a society – and highlight the palpable lack of commitment within the political class to tackling them.

The Resolution Foundation published the findings of its annual pay audit on Monday (ahead of the full report, due to be published later this week). It found that a record number of UK workers – some 5.2 million – were in low-paid jobs, which is to say, earning less than two-thirds of median hourly pay – equivalent to £7.69 an hour. In the last year alone the figure had risen by 250,000, the report says, reflecting the nature and limitations of the recovery. It also found that a disproportionate number of women are in low pay – 27 per cent of female employees compared to 17 per cent of men. And while that gap has been slowly narrowing for a number of years it has now begun to rise, albeit slightly.

The report highlights the economic damage caused by the ‘growing rump’ of low-paid, insecure jobs, which act as a drag on recovery by keeping tax revenues low while costing the taxpayer a fortune in in-work benefits.

The government response took the form of a predictable hat-tip to moves to take some low-paid workers out of taxation (though it is higher earners who benefit the most from the rise in personal tax allowance) and a reiteration of its commitment to consider raising the minimum wage. As the report notes, however, raising the minimum wage – though important – falls some way short of what is required. We need, instead, a wide-ranging low-pay strategy capable of lifting large numbers of people out of working poverty.

This, crucially, should involve going beyond smug self-congratulation at the number of jobs being created by the economy to consider the kinds of jobs being created and the kind of growth we want. And, of course, lurking behind these questions is the big one of the kind of society we want. It’s time we stopped pretending that reduced financial circumstances somehow excuse us from asking it.

This followed the publication of another equally valuable report, from the Smith Institute. Making Work Better describes an economy in which most workplaces are ‘broken’ and under-performing – an economy in which employment is rising, but most new jobs are low-paid and insecure, with outsourcing and zero-hours contracts on the rise (and becoming the norm in some parts of the economy). And, as the Resolution Foundation points out, once you are in low-paid work it is hard to get out – and, of course, the tendency for training opportunities to coalesce at the top of the food chain makes it that much harder for people to access the opportunities they need.

This, the report acknowledges, is not to say that there are no good employers out there, employers who invest in the training and development of their staff and allow them a say in the decisions that affect them. There are many. But the gap ‘between the best and the rest’ is getting ever wider, with fairly awful consequences not only for the economy but for wider society too.

The economic impact is evident. Productivity is 30 per cent higher in France, Germany and the USA than in the UK and is four per cent lower than in the first quarter of 2008. According to government figures, UK productivity in 2012 was 20 percentage points below the G7 average. If this trend continues, the report argues, we will see continued weak wage growth and a further squeeze on living standards.

Changing this, as the Resolution Foundation also acknowledges, demands not just more jobs, but better jobs. High productivity, the Smith Institute report says, goes ‘hand in hand with good industrial relations and voice at work’. More productive economies give their employees greater protection and a bigger say in how they organise their work. And, crucially, they invest in the skills of their people. Developed countries with high productivity tend to ‘have more high-skilled employment and less unskilled employment’. This is not the case in the UK where, as research from CIPD shows, one in five jobs requires only primary-level education and a third of workers are overqualified for their job.

And the prognosis is not good. Our continued failure to invest in high-end goods and services, and generate growth that is based on good jobs and fair pay, will lead to ‘a worsening of skills utilisation, persistent under-employment and continued job insecurity’, not to mention widening wage inequality.

There is, of course, also a profound human cost to our failure to invest adequately in our people and give them a say in the work they do. Many of the workers interviewed by the Smith Institute said they felt under-valued, overworked and disengaged. Their skills and talents, they say, are under-utilised. They feel insecure and anxious about work. They do not trust their employers and feel badly treated by them. And these worries are not confined to low-paid workers. They were just as pronounced among better-paid, skilled employees.

If we reflect on the centrality of work to our identity and sense of self-worth, it is not difficult to imagine the wider impact of bad workplaces on our health and wellbeing.

But what struck me most about the Smith Institute report was the notion of ‘workplace citizenship’. Its report argues that the best workplaces – the most successful and productive ones – are those that give their workers the greatest say over their work, that develop ‘a pervasive culture of consultation and engagement’, supported by job security and investment in training and development. Top-down models of work, by comparison, stunt innovation and productivity, creating a culture of mistrust, skills under-utilisation and anxiety. Many us will have worked in places where creativity is not only frowned upon but is practically a disciplinary offence. These are not places in which trust or good will flow freely.

The report highlights the role of lifelong learning in addressing these challenges, noting that working lives are longer and more likely to involve mid-life career change. An ‘appetite for learning’, it says, should be encouraged across the workforce, with a particular focus on those with low skills – those, perversely, least likely to benefit from opportunities to train and develop their skills. Workers need to ‘be given confidence that skills upgrading is an opportunity rather than a threat or a challenge’. And that, again, is about culture and ‘institutional architecture’. A culture of trust and collaboration creates an environment in which workers feel more comfortable not only in stating their training needs but in taking more ownership of their work. As the report suggests, we need to become as assertive as ‘workplace citizens’ as we are as consumers – but we need first to feel safe and secure about doing so.

Education and skills are critical in generating the productivity which enables higher wages and in creating not only more work but more good work. They have a huge and under-explored role in tackling these difficult and complex issues. The best workplaces go beyond offering job-specific training and attempt to create a genuine culture of learning which permeates the life of the organisation, from top to bottom. For most of those who have not fared well in the formal education system, however, their problems are compounded by poor prospects of advancement and little access to worthwhile education or training. For that reason it is vital that we strive to ensure a ladder of opportunity from basic skills to higher education, formal, non-formal and informal, with no rungs missing, for people of all ages, at every stage of their lives, wherever and whenever they need it. That, at least, should be the aspiration of any society that believes that the knowledge, experience and creativity of its citizens are its greatest strengths.

Sadly, in some respects, we seem to be going in the opposite direction, undoing historic gains in adult participation in education, for example, part-time HE, which has unravelled under the reformed funding system, and moving to a self-funded model in further education which has resulted in a substantial decline in adult participation at Levels 3 and 4. As I’ve argued before, we need to start seeing these issues as part of a single ecology, one problem, to which we need a broad, long-term, multi-faceted solution. The lack of political commitment to tackling these issues is reflected not only in our failure to think big, but in our failure to think coherently.