This week, the Labour Party launched our lifelong learning commission that has been months in preparation and discussion, and several years in the making.
It was back in 2016, during debate about the government’s higher education and research bill, that we introduced our new clause 15, which contained the embryo of that different path to lifelong learning that has now brought us the commission launched this week.
This lifelong-learning commission will support individuals, communities, and our economy, locally, regionally and nationally, by defining an inclusive system of adult education that enables people to upskill or retrain at any point in their lives and helps to close the gap between the skills people have and the skills our economy needs.
Background: 'Adult learning is addictive, but easy to avoid'
The focus on lifelong learning
But why are we doing this now? Because the moral and social arguments that have long been advanced for prioritising lifelong learning are now coalescing with the economic ones alongside the unprecedented speed of the digital world and the fourth industrial revolution, which is now affecting all of our generations "from cradle to grave" – to use the words that accompanied the launch of the NHS in post-war Britain.
Skills are a major challenge for Britain. Five million adults lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, and 12.6 million lack basic digital skills. Almost 75 per cent of employers in a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said they were struggling to find the skills they needed. And those who go on to further and vocational earn, on average, 25 per cent less than someone who goes to university.
Instead of addressing these challenges, the Conservatives have cut funding for the adult skills budget by over £3 billion, and the imposition of advanced learner loans has seen participation in adult education fall, with the number of learners taking out loans down 19 per cent in three years since 2015-16.
New learning and skills
We are entering a world where we will need to empower and enthuse people for acquiring new learning and skills at all stages in their lives and careers to meet those challenges. It is a world in which a traditional model of education – which assumes that what is learned or experienced either on the job or in higher or further education by people between their late teens and mid-twenties will be adequate for their lives, jobs and careers thereafter – already feels woefully inadequate.
We want to chart an ambitious future that builds bridges not barriers for individual and collective needs at every stage of people's lives and for businesses. That means integrating higher and further education in a unifying system of lifelong learning, including degree apprenticeships – getting the skills that both the millions of self-employed and tens of thousands of small businesses will need. We are in a world where businesses of all sizes will need both more generic skills as well as very specific ones to match a digital and increasingly automated economy.
And it is about ensuring that there are frameworks and institutions that can deliver that lifelong learning – at all levels, government and locally, involving civil society, trade unions, employers and the myriad of providers in further, higher education and skills.
Gordon Marsden MP is the shadow skills minister