Why every adult needs to be in lifelong education

Learning and training for your first 21 years isn't enough any more – every adult should participate, writes David Hughes

David Hughes

Lifelong education: Why every adult should participate

Last week I found myself once again participating in a discussion where everyone agreed how important it is that we develop a system of post-18 education and training that works for all adults. That’s some progress, given how little attention has been paid to lifelong learning for much of the past decade.  

Interest in lifelong learning has been growing over the past couple of years, signalled perhaps by Theresa May launching the Post-18 Review of Education and Funding three years ago at Derby College. That report set the tone for the debate we are now entering, with Philip Augar concluding in his foreword that tertiary education is a “story of both care and neglect, depending on whether students are amongst the 50 per cent of young people who participate in higher education or the rest”.

Many things have happened since that report, not least Brexit, the pandemic and the Skills for Jobs White Paper, which have brought even more focus on to how we support people to gain the education and skills they need to enter adult life, become active citizens and progress in the labour market.

As unemployment climbs, employers find it difficult to recruit skilled people, productivity once again rightly becomes a central policy challenge and the government tries to deliver on its promise of levelling up, the question of how we support all adults throughout their lives will rise even further in importance.


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That was some of the background to the ResPublica webinar which softly launched its lifelong education commission. Chris Skidmore, who will chair it, opened with a good overview of the needs, barriers and possible solutions, inviting debate, discussion and engagement to ensure that this new commission really gets to grip with the right issues and makes a tangible difference.

The importance of lifelong learning

I started my input with four simple statistics that help to scope out the scale of the challenge in achieving a system that works for all adults. Firstly, we spend six times more per student in higher education than we do in further education, and more than three times as much overall. Twenty years ago those multipliers would have been much smaller. Any attempt to improve things for all adults will need considerably more funding in FE, and hopefully not at the expense of HE.

Two statistics, I believe, show how far we have to go on this. The first is that only 60 per cent of 19-year-olds achieve a Level 3 qualification (A levels or equivalent) and by age 25 that has only increased to 68 per cent. Meanwhile, about 20 per cent of the adult population has poor basic literacy, numeracy and digital skills. Those numbers put us a long way behind more productive competitor countries and they are not improving here as fast as they are everywhere else.

The final statistic I gave is that, in the Leaning and Work Institute annual learning survey, 45 per cent of adults said that their biggest barrier to learning was that they have no need to learn. Forget the costs, the time, issues of access and flexibility or childcare, those come a long way behind the simple issue that lots of adults do not believe they need to carry on learning. That’s worrying for their chances of being in good work as the workplace changes. It’s worrying also for their engagement as citizens, given how online now dominates engagement with public services, retail, hospitality, leisure, utilities, insurance, banking and just about everything else to do in everyday life.

Addressing those challenges will require nothing less than a culture change. The culture we have has got us here – with adults not believing they need to learn, employers investing less than in most Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries and governments divesting from FE. We need a revolution in attitudes to learning and skills: an expectation that every adult will continue to learn and train throughout their lives, not just the current model of about half the population having a very heavy investment for the first 21, 22 years and then nothing for the next 50 years of their working lives.

We need an honest debate about why we seem to value a degree above a literacy or numeracy or Esol qualification. I would argue that the impact on life chances, communities, families, participation in our democracy, wellbeing and on productivity is as great or perhaps even greater from the latter. We also need to become less obsessed about qualifications and focus more on participation because we need to help people get into the habit of learning. All of the evidence shows that successful learners become lifelong learners; that giving confidence and helping people to see that they can learn is more important to engage people than the topic, curriculum or qualification.

Changing the culture will take a long time, perhaps a generation. A vital part of achieving it is the funding and development of a truly tertiary system with thriving colleges, universities, adult education providers, community organisations and employers offering an array of learning opportunities. I hope that this new commission takes that long, expansive view and doesn’t get caught up solely in a narrower consideration of the role of universities and higher-level learning.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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