Blogs + think pieces

An idea whose time has come… again

01st June 2017

The revival of policy interest in lifelong learning gives sector leaders a clear agenda for advocacy post-election, says John Field.

Lifelong learning seems to be making a lively comeback. Getting labour force skills right was treated as key to the success of the last government’s industrial strategy. Internationally, lifelong learning and adult skills continue to form a centrepiece of policy thinking in the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. And I cannot remember an election in which lifelong learning was so widely discussed in the period up to the campaign, or when it has featured so strongly in the manifestos of all three main parties.

Are we seeing the second coming of lifelong learning? As an overarching policy goal, the idea first came to dominate debate in the mid-1990s, most visibly as a result of the European Year of Lifelong Learning in 1996. The European Year itself followed two influential White Papers from the European Commission, one on economic growth and competitiveness and one on education; and it preceded the election of New Labour in 1997, and David Blunkett’s 1998 Green Paper, The Learning Age.

This initial enthusiasm never died away entirely. Much of New Labour’s early passion disappeared – as demonstrated, memorably, when John Denham, then Secretary of State for Innovation and Skills, was caught sneering at classes in ‘holiday Spanish’ in order to justify cuts to adult learning. But successive governments have continued to fret over the weaknesses of our workforce’s skills, and several New Labour innovations, such as Unionlearn, have continued to thrive. Even Individual Learning Accounts, abandoned in England when evidence of fraud came to light, are still on offer in Scotland, and other countries, from Singapore to Germany, have introduced similar schemes of learner support.

More fundamentally, the issues that prompted the emergence of lifelong learning policies have not gone away. As in all western nations, our workforce is ageing and the costs of providing for the elderly are spiralling. We are challenged by intense and growing problems of productivity and competitiveness, in the face of maturing industrial economies in other parts of the globe. It has dawned on us that the impact of new technologies is in its infancy; we no longer talk about whether robotics, nanotechnology and digitisation will transform work, but about how they are already reshaping every aspect of our lives. It has become ever clearer that skills and knowledge are tightly intertwined with deepening inequalities.

So even though the enthusiasm of the 1990s faded, it is not surprising that lifelong learning never quite disappeared. And now it is back, with a vengeance. The European Agenda for Adult Learning involves clear targets for member states, which are helping to focus minds across the EU. Last January’s Green Paper on the development of a new industrial strategy, which promised to ‘test ambitious new approaches to encourage lifelong learning’, received a broad and constructive response from the further and adult education sectors. Meanwhile, the Government Office for Science has been running its Foresight inquiry into the Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning, which is well placed to help shape policy after the election.

Nor is this all. The party manifestos, as I’ve already noted (and discuss at greater length here), are full of plans for promoting learning in adult life, from the Lib Dems’ Family University to the Tories’ proposals for ‘career learning’. And then there is Brexit, which is certain to reduce the supply of skilled immigrant labour, and therefore raise the premium on skills development among the existing workforce, as well as – in principle – allowing for an expanded and more flexible alternative to the European Structural Funds (bearing in mind that the UK is a clear net contributor to the funds).

Are these the bright green shoots of a new springtime for lifelong learning? That, I think, remains to be seen. Whatever the merits of the merger that took NIACE into the new Learning and Work Institute, there seems little doubt that the loss of a clear and unified voice for a disparate sector will not be easy to overcome. Continuing high youth unemployment will shift attention away from adult skills and learning – as is highly visible in the narrow and restricted vision of the European Commission’s new Skills Agenda for Europe. Compared with young students in higher education there is still little serious attention to learners in further and adult education, while post-Brexit lobbying is likely to see a bun-fight between higher education and the rest. And if the party manifestos are full of bright ideas for adult learners, most of them are uncosted and short on detail.

All the same, it looks to me as though we are in a better place than we have been for some time. The fact that lifelong learning features so prominently in all three manifestos gives us a clear agenda for mobilising, lobbying and helping develop policy implementation once the election is over. The replacement of the Structural Funds will require the close attention of the sector’s representative bodies, but both the Labour and Tory proposed replacements look promising (the Lib Dems are silent on this topic). And high on the agenda of the new government in June will be the revision and implementation of its industrial strategy. So welcome, lifelong learning – it’s nice to see you back!

John Field is Emeritus Professor, University of Stirling, and Chair of Scotland’s Learning Partnership. He is writing in a personal capacity and his views do not necessarily reflect those of FETL or its leadership

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