Save adult education - before it's switched off

Despite politicians' apparent love affair with lifelong learning, it is being starved of funds. Without urgent action, we will all suffer

Alan Tuckett

Britain is approaching the general election in bad shape. Despite years of bleak austerity and major reductions in expenditure there has been no significant diminution of public debt. Productivity is reported to be half that found in the US, France or Germany. We have high unemployment, skills shortages and an hourglass economy - resulting in the well-publicised "squeezed middle". This is coupled with a rapidly ageing population, expectations of later retirement, and a health and social care system already creaking from the strain.

At the same time, education budgets for adults have been slashed, with a million adult learning opportunities lost during the life of the coalition government. Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, points out that by 2020 a third of the British workforce will be over 50. Yet the 2015-16 adult education budget is set to drop by 24 per cent, with another 190,000 learners likely to be lost.

Meanwhile, the fee changes in higher education have led part-time adult participation to drop dramatically, putting great institutions like the Open University under severe pressure. British workers come near the bottom of European league tables in terms of days of training undertaken. It's not surprising, then, for the AoC to argue that without major policy changes we will have no public further education for adults by 2020 (Further, 27 March) - a terrifying prospect for our future productivity and competitiveness.

Anyone who left Britain in June 2010 would find this picture completely bewildering. Coalition speeches in the aftermath of the last election would have led them to expect a golden age for adult learning. True, the commitments made in the major parties' manifestos were modest enough, but the coalition took power appearing to understand the benefits of adult learning and promising to spare education from the cuts.

As David Cameron put it in an interview with Adult Learning, the journal of adult education body Niace, in May 2010: "Learning isn't just about consuming chunks of knowledge in order to be able to do a job. It's about broadening the mind, giving people self-belief, strengthening the bonds of community.Given that my vision for this country is for us all to get involved and play our part in national renewal, I believe adult learning and the way it inspires people is crucially important."

In his first speech as minister for business, innovation and skills, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable made it clear that he had direct experience of the power of adult learning in putting lives back together: "Education and learning are of course desirable in their own right. Education for education's sake - learning how to learn - benefits the economy in the long term.

"When I was 10, [my mother] had a major nervous breakdown and spent time in a mental hospital. When she recovered, she saved her mind through adult education - learning for the first time about history, literature, philosophy and art."

Finally, in his first public speech as FE minister, Conservative John Hayes addressed an Adult Learners' Week ceremony in these terms: "Adult education - make no mistake - brings hope and the promise of a better society founded on social mobility, social justice and social cohesion.Adult learning is not a luxury, it is an essential component of our education system."

Broken promises

This love affair lasted through the first austerity Budget, as Cable protected adult and community education from the cuts. Alas, the wider world of vocational FE for adults was not so lucky. The coalition promised to protect education budgets, but FE was relocated to the skills department, where its lobbying power was weaker. Step by step, cuts followed and adults lost the transformative life chances offered by education.

In its defence, the government points to the expansion of apprenticeships. Although they do offer real opportunities for some people, the bulk of take-up when they were first introduced was by adults already in work - and too often having their existing skills confirmed with a qualification, saving employers the cost of developing new skills. However laudable, too many apprenticeship opportunities appear light on rigour in comparison with schemes in Germany or Switzerland.

There has been astonishingly little public debate, let alone outrage, at the collapse of investment in adult education. FE colleges and community learning centres are the palaces of second chances. They are the places people turn to when they want to review their options, change jobs, learn to read or take a degree close to home. As the WorldSkills competition demonstrates, FE can train to levels of global excellence, and providers can respond at speed to emerging local demand. It is hard to think of better uses of public (or private) investment.

But the capacity of colleges and community learning organisations to be this responsive, and to offer a rich variety of adult education opportunities, is being systematically strangled - by the cuts and by never-ending changes in regulations. If the situation continues, we will face a future where second chances will be accessible only to those with cash to burn.

Apprenticeships aside, it takes more than a cursory glance at the 2015 manifestos to find any recognition of the importance of lifelong learning, whether for industrial productivity or for the well-being and enrichment of citizens' lives. You would have thought this would be a major priority for the Labour Party, with its concern for fairness for all. Yet, like the coalition, Labour finds it easier to talk about schools or higher education.

There is still time for a change of tack - for the Tories and the Lib Dems to remember their rhetoric, and for Labour to disinter the generous inclusive vision of lifelong learning that David Blunkett brought to the 1997 government. Whoever wins, they will need to gird their loins to fight Treasury biases and insist that the right to learn, whatever your age, income, class or circumstances, is a fundamental feature of a civilised society.

Alan Tuckett is professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton and president of the International Council for Adult Education

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