We’re about to herald in a new prime minister – and with him (whoever he may be), we may also see a new chancellor and new education secretary. Together, and with the other ministers, they’ll be looking to revitalise the domestic agenda to sustain them beyond the immediate challenges of Brexit.
The Augar review may have been commissioned by outgoing PM Theresa May, but to not take ownership of it – and make it the core part of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review – would be a missed opportunity.
For the Institutes for Adult Learning (IAL), the most inspirational part of the review is the vision of a robust “national adult education network” bolstered with capital and revenue support. As adult education providers supporting around 120,000 students between us, we already feel that the IAL are at the heart of such a network. We are closely aligned with FE colleges – which Augar identifies as the backbone of the network – and feel confident that the infrastructure is already there to build an adult education service fit for the 21st century.
Background: Augar review: Give colleges £1bn and freeze HE funding
Quick read: Undervalued and underfunded': Theresa May on FE
Learning for life
Beyond Brexit, the government will face the challenge of skills shortages as artificial intelligence (AI) and automation change the workplace beyond recognition. People are also living for far longer and want to continue to be economically, physically and mentally active. As Augar recognises, this is not the time to allow the decline in adult learning participation to continue, but rather to reverse it and establish a culture where learning for life is the norm.
Essentially, the main direction of travel in the review is about shifting the balance away from an overarching system that favours university degrees as the predominant end goal (especially for the young and the better off) towards one that encompasses diverse ages, backgrounds and objectives. We welcome the commitment in the report that “post-18 education should be a lifelong experience available to us all, irrespective of age, situation or income”.
For far too long, the education system in this country has been geared towards sending young people out into the world of work without much interest in what they might need for the following 50, 60 or even 70 years. Mid-life and mid-career retraining is woefully unsupported, as is smoothing the transition from full-time work to a productive later life. An overarching system that looks at all stages of life and the learning needed for people and society to prosper would be truly revolutionary.
Linking education and the community
This approach that’s been taken by the IAL and other adult education providers have delivered for decades. We support learners from 19 years old up to centenarians, we help people to achieve qualifications, but we also welcome those who are studying for other reasons and our student population crosses the social class spectrum – groups that are under-represented elsewhere in the education system are a core part of adult education. Adult education offers a broad curriculum, as well as specialist or intensive support for individuals or groups with specific needs.
Augar is very strong on the links between education institutions and their communities: their “core civic role in the regeneration, culture, sustainability, and heritage of the communities in which they are based”. The IALs define ourselves by working closely the communities we serve, tailoring our provision to the needs of local people and aiming for maximum inclusivity. These can be geographic communities, marginalised groups or those who have common interests or needs such as the deaf community or those with learning disabilities.
We believe that a national adult education network can build on the strengths of adult, further and higher education and their distinctive but complementary approaches. There need to be clearer pathways for learners who want to progress from entry-level through to accredited FE and beyond, especially those who are returning to education later in life.
For many adults, the proposed lifelong learning loan could be just the incentive they need – although we should still be mindful of adults whose economic circumstances mean that even a loan is a bridge too far.
Value for money?
The review has a preference for courses that are economically valuable: value for money and with demonstrable economic outcomes. This is only part of the picture – the full value of adult education shouldn't be measured only in jobs. We know there’s also a compelling case for education’s contribution to better health and wellbeing and greater social cohesion, bringing communities together and helping learners to achieve greater confidence, creativity and critical thinking skills. These are economically valuable, too.
For lifelong learning to be fully incorporated into our national culture, we need to go further still and support those learners who have no intention of taking a qualification and yet who still derive huge social, personal and economic benefits from their studies with adult education providers. That way people of all backgrounds can prosper and some of the things that divide our country might start to be remedied.
The review offers the new government a vast menu of opportunities to reform the nation’s post-18 education for the better, albeit with some difficult decisions to make to shift the balance of resources.
We encourage the new prime minister, chancellor and education secretary to go back to the review and make it the central plank of a Spending Review that moves us towards an education system where all-age learning is the norm and every individual has the opportunity to take part whenever they choose and in a setting that best suits their needs.
This would truly meet Augar’s vision of post-18 education which promotes “citizens’ ability to realise their full potential, economically and more broadly”. Alongside our colleagues across the sector, the IAL are ready to step up to the challenge.
Mark Malcomson is the principal of City Lit and chair of the Institutes for Adult Learning. These include: City Lit, Fircroft College, Mary Ward Centre, Morley College London, Northern College, Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College, Ruskin College, Working Men’s College and the WEA