The need for a fresh commitment to lifelong learning in Britain has never been greater. For 15 years, policies have concentrated more and more resource on schools and the immediate learning needs of 16- to 18-year-olds. The impact on adult learning is stark: 2 million fewer adults – among them the poorest and least skilled – now have access to publicly supported further education than in 2003.
Over the past five years, more than half of all mature students have disappeared from universities, as prohibitive fees have put part-time study out of the reach of many. And employers in the UK, unique among its European partners, invest less in staff training than they did before the 2008 financial crisis, in part because public policy has taught too many employers that the state pays for training.
Contrast that with the need for learning opportunities at work and in the community. The World Economic Forum calculates that artificial intelligence and robotics combined will cut a swathe through white-collar jobs in the same way that expansion of global trade wiped out so many manual manufacturing roles a generation ago.
Adapting to the challenges and opportunities created by that shift will require flexible and creative work, backed by opportunities for adults to learn new ways of working and to master new skills. Every significant new technology developed brings with it the need for imaginative new forms of learning, and technological changes proliferate rapidly. The new challenges posed by the prospect of life outside the European Union also make the maintenance and further development of a skilled workforce ever more important.
Benefits of adult learning
Our society is ageing rapidly, and the evidence is clear that people who carry on learning experience benefits in their mental and physical health, as well as their ability to continue to be active citizens. Authoritative research shows that the health benefits of adult learning are not limited to older people, but also the relief of the national health service, which is already under severe pressure. But the case for lifelong learning is richer than that.
In a world in which inequality is accelerating, adult learning offers men and women ways of transforming their lives and those of their families. Look at the evidence of family learning, where adults – and women in particular – strengthen their literacy and numeracy skills: the impact on their children’s achievement is direct and positive. Sure Start was a living example of this until it began to be undermined from 2010 onwards.
Adult learning also plays a role in helping people recovering from poor mental ill health, providing safe spaces for engaging again with other people who share their interests.
Many of the current trends in social change were already apparent 20 years ago when both Conservative and Labour governments recognised the need for effective investment in adult learning. Under the Tories, with Gillian Shephard as secretary of state, education and employment were brought together into a single ministry and the first generation of learning cities was supported.
And Labour, following the publication of The Learning Age Green Paper 20 years ago, introduced a wide range of measures to give practical life to the policy commitment. These included Unionlearn; Individual Learning Accounts; the University for Industry; a national free advice line for lifelong learning; the Adult and Community Learning Fund; neighbourhood learning in deprived communities; foundation degrees; the e-university; and the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning. The Skills for Life programme, instigated following the Moser report on improving literacy and numeracy, led to 5 million people gaining their first qualification in literacy and numeracy during its nine-year run.
Not everything worked as well as it might, of course. But we believe the time has come both to look back at what worked well, before the wet blanket of narrow utilitarianism smothered so many innovative initiatives, and as a way to identify a vision for today. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s comparative studies on adult skills show that, beyond initial training, productivity is enhanced best when people learn something about which they are passionate. This confirms that learning “leaks”: the skills and confidence we gain in one context are applied elsewhere.
Launderettes for learning
There is an intimate relationship between learning at work and in the community. Nowhere recognises this better than the city of Suwon, South Korea, where everyone lives within 10 minutes of a library and 20 minutes of a learning centre.
In Suwon, launderettes, coffee shops and factory canteens all double up as centres for lifelong learning. Businesses, the voluntary sector and education providers work together to foster a learning culture. (Singapore has its own version of individual learning accounts, backed by a national workforce-development strategy and community learning, to secure the same end.) Despite a pressure-cooker approach to early education, it is interesting that there is recognition of the importance of allowing people to return to learning, and to face the challenge of rapid change through lifelong learning.
Countries such as Switzerland and Austria, which give equal value to vocational and academic studies, foster a respect for all kinds of learning; and countries that invest adequately in further as well as higher education engage wider sections of their societies in learning.
Each of these initiatives has something to offer a revitalised vision, but we need, too, to remind ourselves of our own rich traditions of learning our way out of our difficulties. The need to do so is urgent, and requires the best of all our thinking.
A conference, convened by the University for Wolverhampton on 16 February, will mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Learning Age and explore which initiatives worked then, as well as what is needed now. For details, see bit.ly/LearningAge
Lord Blunkett was secretary of state for education and employment between 1997 and 2001. Sir Alan Tuckett is professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton