Every adult would be entitled to six years of free study under Labour plans to bring vocational education in line with university degrees and stamp out the skills shortage.
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner will on Tuesday propose free A-level access for adults and grants for low-earners as part of the party's commitment to forge a national education service providing cradle-to-grave learning for all.
Labour also wants the proposals, which cost more than £3 billion, to aid its green industrial revolution by giving adults the skills needed to tackle the climate crisis and to prevent people being shut out of work by automation.
Need to know: Ofsted and adult education: Labour's election pledges
Ms Rayner is to be joined by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Blackpool when she pledges the free entitlement to six years of study for studies at levels 4-6, including undergraduate degrees and equivalents such as diplomas and foundation degrees.
Labour's general election pledges
The entitlement would also be extended to certificates and diplomas of higher education in areas such as engineering technicians, nursing associates and professional accounting technicians.
And any adult without an A level or equivalent qualification would be able to attend college and study them for free. Grants to support low-income adults through their courses would also be made available under a Labour government.
Labour pledges include:
- Enable any adult without an A level or equivalent qualification to attend college and study for them for free.
- Give every adult a free entitlement to six years of study for qualifications at levels 4-6 (undergraduate degrees and equivalents such as Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, foundation degrees, Certificates and Diplomas of Higher Education in areas such as rail engineering technicians, nursing associates, and professional accounting technicians)
- Provide maintenance grants for low-income adult learners to complete their courses
- Give workers the right to paid time off for education and training
- Give employers a role in designing qualifications to make sure training is equipping learners with the right skills
- Support workplace learning and improve basic skills by reversing cuts to the Union Learning Fund
- Make sure everyone has access to the information they need to return to study through a national careers advice service
'Throw open the door' to further education
Ms Rayner is expected to pledge to "throw open the door for adults to study".
"People have been held back for too long. We will make free education a right to ensure we have the skills we need to allow our economy to rise to the opportunities of the future," she is expected to say.
Mr Corbyn is planning to say Labour will ensure "skills and vocational qualifications are valued the same as university degrees".
"Tomorrow's jobs are in green and high-tech industries. We need people to have the skills to take those jobs. By ensuring the ultra-rich pay their way, we can provide training to everybody who needs it," he will add.
The spending proposals are estimated by Labour to come in at £2.6 billion on education entitlement, and a further £573 million on maintenance grants in 2023-24.
Labour said funding for the pledge will be set out in the party's manifesto, but higher taxes on the top earners and reversals to giveaways to big businesses have been hinted at.
Among those who have raised concerns over a skills shortage has been the CBI, which has suggested only a third of businesses are confident they can access the digital skills required in the coming years.
Reaction to the plans
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) has welcomed the plans. She said: "Breaking down the practical and financial barriers to education is key to ensuring that all adults and communities can access the skills and learning they need to thrive.
“For too many years, adult learning has been a sorely neglected part of our education system and the failure of successive governments to invest properly in it has led to steep falls in student numbers and a huge loss of capacity and staff expertise.
"UCU strongly supports the principle of a right for everyone to learn and wants to see colleges, universities and the hugely neglected adult education sector given the investment they need to help transform the life chances of millions of people."
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, agreed that adult education needed to be addressed.
She said: “We know that following years of devastating funding cuts to further education there is a huge lack of adult education provision in many areas of the country. FE is the main provider for non-university adult learners, including young adults [with SEND], Esol for adults of all ages and adult returners, who come into FE to improve their English, maths and digital skills as well as to learn vocational skills.
“Learning should be a right for all, not a privilege for a few. Introducing free education at all stages of life – from the early years through to lifelong learning – is the right thing to do both for the rights of individuals and to reskill the economy to meet the challenges that lie ahead, particularly those posed by the climate emergency.”
Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute and member of Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission, said that Labour's "bold proposals" to tackle barriers to learning and drive up participation were a "welcome contribution to the debate".
He said: “Learning makes such a positive difference to people’s lives and careers, and access to training is only going to become more important as we seek to decarbonise our economy and adapt to the changes automation will bring. Yet, our survey shows the number of adults taking part in learning at its lowest levels on record. Worse still, it is the adults who could most benefit from access to training opportunities who are least likely to participate."
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, said: “We are pleased to see that Labour agrees with us that no one should be shut out of education. For too many young people, though, that is exactly what is happening, especially if they have additional needs or if they live in low-income families."