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'Skills budget cuts have forsaken a million adults - we must shout louder'

David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (Niace), writes:

We’ve heard so much recently from the Labour party about ‘the forgotten 50 per cent’ and from the Conservatives about ‘hard-working families’ that I had begun to believe that things really were changing. Two recent big announcements, though, have shown just how empty those slogans really are and have led me to propose a new one - ‘the forsaken million adults’

The ‘forsaken million adults’ are those people (definitely forgotten and who almost certainly want to be hard-working) who have no access to learning and skills because of cuts to the adult skills budget. Since 2010 over a million learning opportunities have been lost.

The pledge from Labour to cut higher education fees - which was announced the day after the Coalition had cut the skills budget by 24 per cent - doesn’t help either.

Maybe I should be more understanding, because it seems difficult for politicians to remember that the learning and skills system includes more than schools and universities. They’ve improved a little with their new love affair with apprenticeships; the preferred skills policy solution for those who want to show that they are not only interested in universities.

The problem is that higher education and apprenticeships are aimed at the transition from school to work and we know that the skills needs of the country will not be met by only improving that journey. In the next decade there will be 13.5 million job vacancies and only 7 million young people entering the labour market; immigration will not fill that gap.

The only way to fill it is through training people who are of working age, helping (hard-working) people to stay productive and work later, delaying their retirement.  We need to support ‘the forsaken million(s)’ or we won’t achieve sustainable economic growth.

With skills shortages rife across the economy and with productivity languishing in many sectors, I am not alone in calling for greater investment. When the CBI and the TUC join together with a captain of industry (Sir Charlie Mayfield) in calling for ‘an informed debate on how to tackle these deep-rooted challenges’ then surely we need to listen and act?

There is no shortage of good words about adult skills. The first Coalition funding letter to the Skills Funding Agency in 2010, for instance, set the ambition to ‘help deliver a vibrant economy through empowering learners’ and for the UK to ‘be amongst the best countries in the world for the quality of skills supporting the economy, and for participation in lifelong learning.’ What a shame their actions didn’t match those words.

I think a major part of this is the diversity of people who access further education (as well as those who cannot because of the cuts) and their lack of voice.

It is simple politics to worry about middle class parents concerned about the higher education and apprenticeships prospects of their children. It is also too easy not to worry about the access to skills and support for the 5 million (hard-working) people on low pay or unemployed people because they are much less likely to vote and the challenges to support them are much more complex.

In our manifesto we called for an independent commission to set out a stable, long-term solution for meeting the skills needs of the nation. 

The commission needs cross-party support, as well as proper engagement with employers, learners and wider society. It would have to move beyond tinkering with a system which is woefully under-funded and changed all too often.

It would combine the interests of an inclusive economy with those of a tolerant, fair, healthy and vibrant society. Critically, it would support people to invest in themselves alongside employers investing in their workers and would target state investment on overcoming the inequalities in access to and achievement in education.

We’ll achieve a commission if we lobby hard now and immediately post-election. Our best asset is the many stories of learners who have used learning to transform their lives. They are the best advocates for greater investment. Introducing learners to politicians will be a central part of Adult Learners’ Week in June where Niace will push this message home with whatever government has formed by then.

We can also use the voices of employers, because when they analyse their own workforce needs they very quickly understand the challenge. The growing consensus on that challenge is strong but we must soon translate that into concerted, long term solutions.

Each year as I read some of the 1,200 nominations for Adult Learners’ Week awards I get more inspired and determined. Inspired by how much talent, ambition and energy is unleashed by learning as an adult; determined to fight for more learning opportunities, funded and flexible enough for (hard-working) people.

We need to shout louder about the forsaken million(s); they deserve the chance to learn, to gain new skills and to realise their ambitions. 

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