'Boost adult education spending or UK will lag behind'

Investing in literacy and numeracy skills would deliver substantial benefits for a modest investment, says David Hughes

David Hughes

Association of Colleges COE David Hughes respond to Learning and Work Institute report

One undeniable impact of Brexit is that employers are now more worried about education and skills than they have been for a very long time. Last month, in a speech at Cambridge Regional College, Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, added to calls on the government to invest more in colleges and skills below degree level.

With fewer skilled EU nationals wanting to work in the UK and a dip in the numbers of young people entering the labour market employers have recognised that they will increasingly struggle to recruit and retain people with the skills they need. Self-interest is always the strongest motivator, and there is nothing wrong with that.

At the same time, there has been a renewed interest in the concept of lifelong learning, with commentators and policy-makers waking up to the arguments around, and the evidence of, improved social justice, fairness, productivity, health, wellbeing. 

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Post-18 funding review

These new interests have coincided with the government’s post-18 education and funding review which has the unenviable task of looking at the balance of investment being made in education and skills for everyone over the age of 18 as well the outcomes. The imbalance is stark, even though making comparisons is complex. The Institute of Fiscal Studies 2018 report on education shows that the total investment, including loans, in higher education is £17.2 billion. That funds around half of the adults to participate in higher education by the age of 30.

The adult education budget (AEB) which in essence meets the needs of the other half of the population to fund education mainly below level 3 is £1.5 billion and the apprenticeship budget for those over the age of 16 will add another £2 billion when the levy is fully utilised but is closer to £1.5 billion in the current year.

The £17 billion versus £3 billion (combined AEB and apprenticeship funding) picture is an interesting ratio, particularly given that the adult education budget on its own was £3 billion in 2010 and the higher education spend was £15.1 billion. Clearly, higher education spend reflects the fact that more students study full-time whereas AEB students tend to be part-time, but the changes over the last decade have led to a halving of education and learning opportunities for adults below level 3 whilst participation in higher education has grown.

England's outlook 'not good'

The latest report from the Learning and Work Institute (L&W) sets out some great analysis on the impact of this pattern of investment, comparing projections across other countries of educational attainment up to 2030. The outlook for England is not good, at current levels of investment, despite modest improvements in qualification levels for adults up to the age of 64. Their prediction shows that despite the proportion of adults with at least level 2 (GCSE, or functional skills) proficiency rising from 83 per cent to 85 per cent in literacy, and in numeracy from 75 per cent to 77 per cent, the UK would fall from 10th to 14th in literacy and from 11th to 14th in numeracy, out of 17 OECD countries. Both are performances we need to avoid.

The call to action in the L&W report is for additional investment of £1.9 billion per year, from government, employers and people, which would restore some of the cuts made since 2010. That investment would boost the UK economy by £20 billion per year and support an additional 200,000 people into work.  It would improve productivity and social justice and bring all sorts of wider benefits, not least increasing tax receipts and better health, wellbeing and civic engagement. So not soft, by substantial benefits, for a modest investment – the increase in the loan repayment threshold made last year is estimated to have cost around £2.3 billion alone.

Lifelong learning vital

There are lots of challenges about how this investment would work. The L&W report rightly points to the need to build a culture of learning; inspiring adults to want to learn; encouraging employers to invest in and utilise skills; and ensuring learning can fit around work and home life. But all of those are bread and butter to colleges and adult education services and the challenge of achieving them would be so welcome after a decade of austerity.

Politicians are artful in how they use numbers and how they point to investment they are making. I’ve seen the AEB £1.5 billion figure used time and again to show how committed the government is to lifelong learning and social justice. This report lays bare the facts that we will continue to slip further behind other OECD countries unless and until we re-balance adult education spending. The individual life chances of hundreds of thousands of people can be enhanced if we get this right; and millions will suffer if we don’t as our society and our economy take the hit of lower productivity and less social justice.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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David Hughes

David Hughes

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

Find me on Twitter @AoCDavidH

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