This week the Independent Commission for Lifelong Learning, of which I was a member, published its final report.
In my view, the commission’s empowering vision of education is the most radical for a generation. I hope that its proposals will resonate way beyond the Labour Party and inform a new consensus.
The commission sets out proposals for a paradigm shift in our society’s approach to learning. It enshrines at the heart of a National Education Service a bold new universal entitlement: the right for all adults to access free learning wherever and whenever they need it.
This right is important because it moves us on from the discourse that has dominated the past 20 years in which education is being increasingly marketised and those who cannot afford to learn lose out.
Lifelong learning for all
The report calls for adults to be fully funded to access local learning opportunities up to and including level 3, and for every individual to receive six years’ worth of credits to fund learning at level 4 and above. This is an ambitious plan which would mean that every adult – whether they want to study at entry level, degree level or anywhere in between – could access the learning they need without fear of cost.
The proposal is a powerful investment in all our futures – in a future where everyone is able to fulfil their potential. But it is also a radical response to some stark and troubling statistics.
Adult participation in learning is at a 20-year low. The number of students in part-time higher education tumbled by 40 per cent in the years immediately after £9,000 tuition fees were introduced. In further education, participation at levels 5 and 6 dropped by around 50 per cent following the introduction of advanced learner loans. Millions of working-age people are not qualified to level 2 or above.
This shows what we all know: that the current approach to funding lifelong learning simply isn’t working. We need a new way of doing things if we are going to reverse these damaging trends.
Adult education and social justice
While the headlines surrounding the report’s publication have mostly focused on Labour’s adoption of the recommendations at level 3 and above, the commission’s call to support learning at lower levels is just as important.
Our vision for reform is firmly based on the view that lifelong learning is a social justice issue. We are committed to a vision of lifelong learning that can be accessed by all and that benefits all. That imperative stretches far beyond enabling people to gain qualifications – though that is important – and includes a broad spectrum of learning for a variety of different purposes. We have set out a direction of travel towards a system where people can access bite-size chunks of learning as well as full qualifications.
In this fast-changing world where new technology, globalisation and climate change are all impacting our jobs and lives, we need a radical culture change that opens the door for adults to return to learning again and again throughout their lives. This needs to be supported by a reformed system of credit accumulation and transfer so that people can demonstrate the cumulative impact of their learning over time, even if there are large periods between learning episodes.
Importantly, we must also enable adults to take on learning at a pace and intensity that suits them. For example, someone made redundant may need to retrain intensively over a short period while others may want to access a similar amount of learning over a number of years alongside an existing job or caring responsibility. The learning entitlement model would be flexible enough to accommodate both approaches.
Crucially, our vision relies on a fundamental shift from the current competitive provider model to one based on collaboration and social partnership. We want to see public universities, colleges, community learning providers and other reputable organisations working together to provide these opportunities, and providing access to beginner and taster content as standard. A more coherent dynamic that supports adults to move between providers seamlessly, and gives people multiple entry points into learning, will be key to getting and keeping people engaged in learning throughout their lives.
Ensuring that all adults have a right to learn, and the means to do so, is the right thing to do for our society. The commitment of Angela Rayner and Gordon Marsden to the transformational effect of lifelong learning is shown clearly by how readily Labour has adopted so many of our proposals, but that should be just the beginning. Lifelong learning is central to all our futures and politicians of all parties must grasp the nettle and deliver it for all our communities.
Matt Waddup is the head of policy and campaigns at the University and College Union