Kicking off his keynote speech at the Learning and Work Institute's Setting the Agenda conference, Professor Tom Schuller made a point that resonated with me. As he approached his 40th anniversary in lifelong learning, he said, he was still making many of the same points he had been making since the beginning of his career.
In fact, he said, a number of the slides in his presentation he had used before. Among those constants for the sector, Professor Schuller explained, were the challenges around scaling up successful smaller projects, and the chronic lack of funding support for the adult learning sector.
Both of those, of course, are very much the case. All over the country, numerous adult learning projects are highly successful in equipping learning with crucial skills – many of them present at the conference. And according to Professor Schuller, few countries spend more than 1 per cent of their annual education budget on adult learning.
I don’t doubt the impact that lifelong learning can have. The case studies at the conference proved that, if proof were needed. Adult learning and education can give people a better understanding of health conditions, research from the Learning and Work Institute suggest, give them better knowledge of the available treatments and more skills to manage their health. Simply put, those engaged in adult learning are better able to take care of themselves.
Adult learning also benefits the workplace, a draft Learning and Work Institute report circulated at the conference suggests, allowing learners access to the labour market and advancement. And, according to the same report, adult learning can also benefit communities.
So why, then, has so little changed? Why has the adult learning community not managed to win favour with successive governments to make sure it is well-funded and supported to benefit people all over the country equally? In Austria, for example, success was, according to conference speaker Gina Ebner from the European Association for the Education of Adults, at least in part due to individual ministers feeling strongly enough about the issue.
But, actually, it seems to me another thing is also key: while we believe that adult education is beneficial, we have simply been unable to prove it is more beneficial to society and the economy than the other parts of the education sector it is in direct competition with. What has to be demonstrated, somehow, is the added value, ideally in monetary terms, of adult education, along with the opportunity cost of it not being offered.
Hans Hindriks said the approach at a national level in the Netherlands had been based on an understanding that adult learning benefited not just the individual, but also businesses and the economy as a whole. And in one presentation at the conference, Helen Chicot from Rochdale Borough Council explained it had been able to calculate a £3.68 return on every £1 invested in its Citizens’ Curriculum through reductions in demand for high-cost services.
This, surely, is one thing that is worth scaling up. How much does the UK benefit from adult learning? And how much would it lose if schemes across the country were unable to offer those opportunities?