How can we explain the UK’s strong performance in the European Adult Education Survey?


Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey (AES) suggest that participation across most of Europe is rising. I’ve already taken a look at the figures for Austria, which show a surge in participation following rthe adoption of a national policy for lifelong learning in 2011. But the figures for the UK are equally striking: if the AES is to be believed, participation in the UK rose from 35.8% in 2011 to 52.1% in 2016.

As Tom Schuller pointed out in a comment on my post, the UK’s performance is something of a puzzle. Recent years have seen significant cutbacks in all forms of public adult education provision in all four UK nations. The Learning and Work Institute, which monitors participation rates over time, last year described the continuing falls in participation in all forms of publicly funded adult learning as ‘disastrous’. So what might explain the UK’s strong showing in AES?

First, the AES is confined to adults aged 25-64; the European Commission considers this group a priority because it is of prime standard working age. It is likely, in my view, that cuts in publicly funded adult education impact most heavily on the retired, who do not have access to workplace learning.

Second, the AES is a household survey and covers all participation in the twelve months prior to interview. By contrast, the European Labour Force Survey is a workplace survey which covers training in the previous four weeks. According to the LFS, training participation in the UK fell from 20.5% in 2011 to 18.8% in 2016 (though the LFS shows an even sharper fall between 2010 and 2011).

Third, the AES divides adult learning into ‘formal’ and ‘non-formal’. Its definitions of these terms follows the UNESCO International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). Formal education and training comprise ‘education that is institutionalised, intentional and planned through public organisations and recognised private bodies and – in their totality – constitute the formal education system of a country’, and which is ‘recognised as such by the relevant national education authorities’.

Non-formal education ‘may include for example learning events (activities) that occur in the family, in the work place, and in the daily life of every person, on a self-directed, family-directed or socially-directed basis’, and ‘may cover educational programmes to impart adult literacy, life-skills, work-skills, and general culture’.

In the case of the UK, the AES found a huge rise in participation in non-formal education – from 24.3% to 47.5% between 2011 and 2016; at the same time, participation in formal ecucation and training fell, from 14.8% to 11.9%. In other words, the UK rise in overall participation is due entirely to growth in non-formal learning rather than formal education and training. The Survey also suggests that the growth was particularly strng in job-related non-formal education and training, while non-job-related participation showed a small decline.

This leads me to wonder whether what we are witnessing in the UK is a growth in overall participation rates, combined with a fall in the quality and depth (and cost) of activities. The AES offers some support for this hypothesis, in that it shows a clear drop in the duration of learning: the average time sent by UK participants overall fell from 167 hours in 2011 to 121 hours in 2016. The fall was particlarly marked in the average time spent by participants in formal education and training.

So perhaps an apparent growth in UK participation doesn’t translate simply into more learning going on, but rather a redistribution of opportunity – and thinning of resources.

Any other suggestions out there? Am I daft in ignoring the possibility that AES has got it right, and against all expectations the UK is experiencing a lifelong learning renaissance? Or are the survey results just a blip?

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, the UK’s participation in the AES doesn’t necessarily end with Brexit. Non-EU member states taking part include Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey. Brexit will complicate matters, though: as members of a federal state, it will probably fall to each individual national government – which is where responsibility for education policy lies – to decide whether to continue co-funding AES in the future.


What has Austria got to teach us about adult learning?

Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey are now available. Broadly, they show a rise in learning participation across the continent, with rising participation rates between 2011 and 2016 in eighteen of the nations taking part in both waves, and falls in only six; one country – Norway – reported no change at all.


Austria – worth a closer look?

Growth was particularly strong in Austria, where participation levels among the working age population shot up from 48.8% to 59.9%. It seems unlikely that the 2016 result is a blip, given that the Labour Force Survey also reported comparable growth rates over this period. For an outsider, the obvious question is how we might explain this impressive growth spurt.

An article by two Austrian specialists points to key factors which they think might lie behind rising participation levels. First, the proportion of the workforce involved in workplace learning has risen. Presumably this largely reflects enterprise-level decisions on continuing training investment, as well as a growing willingness to participate on the part of employees.

Second, they attribute growth in ‘non-formal learning’ (the Survey’s term for general adult education) to changes in public policy as well as learner demand. In particular, the authors point to the emerging impact of the Initiative Erwachsenenbildung (‘adult education initiative’), a joint programme of the federal government and the Länder, launched in 2012 to promote free basic skills and second chance courses for adults to achieve lower secondary school leaver qualifications.


The Initiative clearly has its weaknesses, but they seem to result from practical design flaws rather than the underlying concept. An external evaluation noted that the insistence on achieving formal qualifications and rigid limits on the length of participation were deterring some of the very people that the Initiative was designed to reach. Overall, though, it concluded that the Initative was making considerable progress in tackling educational disavantage and was meeting a clear need.

It’s early days in the release of AES findingss, and anyway I suppose a cynic would say there’s nothing new in the Austrian adult education initiative. We already know the value of concerted campaigns directed towards well-defined target groups and backed by adequate resources. It’s still useful to be reminded of this, though, particularly at a time when some governments are disinvesting from adult learning. And it is certainly interesting to see the broader evidence of sharply rising participation. If you get the chancd, Austria certainly merits a second look.





Training policy – a return to the tripartite system?

Skills featured prominently in the budget debate this year. At least, they did on the Government side of the debate: Philip Hammond, the U.K. Chancellor (or Finance Minister), made skills a central plank in his strategy for improving productivity and growth. The leader and other senior figures in the Labour Party have so far focused on other issues, notably housing, poverty and unemployment, though they may get around to addressing the skills proposals later on. And I will also try to blog on the issues of productivity and skills in the next few days.

Meanwhile I wanted to draw attention to Philip Hammond’s mention of the trade union movement and employers’ representatives. Apparently the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress have formed a partnership with the Government over the design of a National Retraining Scheme. It will start relatively modestly, it seems, with investment in digital and construction skills. And it includes continuing support for UnionLearn, which seems to me a good idea.

To be honest, I found myself rather surprised by this section of Hammond’s speech. Three-way partnerships in training policy between state, employers and unions are well established in many European countries, including Germany and the Scandinavian nations. And they were once normal in the U.K., particularly after the 1964 Industrial Training Act set out a national system of tripartite sector-based Industrial Training Boards. Hilary Pemberton argued that this legislation failed to transform deep rooted cultural attitudes, making it easy for the Thatcher Government to do away with it.

Whether Hammond’s National Retraining Scheme will do any better is a moot point. It clearly represents a much more modest form of tripartism than the ITBs, but perhaps this will prove an asset – particularly if the Retraining Scheme is linked firmly with measures to promote skills utilisation. The history is less than promising, but if the Government is able to persist with the Scheme, it might prove very interesting indeed.

Research, Policy, and Practice in Lifelong Learning


The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning has chosen to focus on ‘Research, Policy and Practice‘ for its 2018 conference. You will find the call for papers on the UALL website, and it promises to be a lively and constructive event. Given the poor health of adult learning across the four UK nations, it also seems particularly timely.

I’ll be interested to see how researchers and practitioners now understand and address this triangular relationship. Ideas of evidence-based practice have not often found an enthusiastic reception in adult or further education, partly because of a (not unreasonable) suspicion of outside experts floating in to a field where expertise so often draws on experience, partly because ‘what works’ can change dramatically between one context and another, and partly because some academics are rather precious about avoiding a whiff of application.

Now might be a good time for moving beyond such unproductive refusals and to develop further the existing dialogues between research and practice over the types of evidence we need, and how best to use it. Academic researchers are now under considerable pressure to show that people read and use their findings, and practitioners are often required to justify their practice. This offers quite an opportunity.

As for policy, though, where do you begin? Evidence for the benefits of adult learning is not hard to find. My own overview of UK longitudinal studies – which show marked gains for individual learners and their communities, as well as gains for employers – is far and away my most frequently downloaded publication. The OECD survey of adult skills, usually known by its acronym of PIAAC, provides an international insight into these effects. UNESCO devoted its Third Global Report on Adult Learning to a review of research, and found clear support for positive effects on health and well-being, employment and the labour market, and community life and social capital.

So in principle it should be easy to persuade policymakers to consider treating adult learning as an intervention with a proven record of success. In practice, this has not been easy. The evidence base is still not as strong as it could be (for example, is adult learning more effective and less costly than other ways of achieving the same effects?), and I’m not sure we have still figured out what the distribution of benefits might mean for funding the system.

A second problem is, bluntly, the reluctance of policymakers to listen to the evidence and discuss the implications. Very few politicians, employers or senior civil servants have much direct experience of adult or further education. There are exceptions, of course: David Blunkett was an unusual Secretary of State in that he had been an adult student, is an alumnus of the Huddersfield postgraduate certificate in further education, and taught in Barnsley College. And among current MPs, Chi Onwurah and David Lammy for Labour and Caroline Dinenage for the Conservatives have all actively promoted debate over greater public support for adult learning.

So there are grounds for hope, but any chance of effective influence on policymakers will require a much stronger and long term commitment than most researchers in adult learning have shown so far. It will also require dialogue with politicians while in opposition, rather than contacting them for the first time when they are in power. In England, this is something that NIACE used to be very good at, and I hope that the Learning and Work Institute can build on this. But the issues are too important for researchers to hope that they can leave the job to others.


Change and resistance in the German apprenticeship system

VERDI members in Deutsche Post demonstrating over wages

Deutsche Post, the postal service best known outside Germany through its courier arm DHL, has found itself in hot water over proposed changes to its apprenticeship scheme. Currently, the enterprise annually takes 1,400 young people through the much-admired ‘dual system’, combining supervised workplace learning  with formal education in a trade school, working towards a qualification in delivery services. In future, it plans to reduce this number to 750 a year, and take a further 750 who will be trained through work-based learning.

This decision has been sharply criticised by the public service labour union VERDI (or “ver.di” as it prefers to be branded), which described the decision as ‘intolerable’. The ground for VERDI’s objection is less the introduction of a three-year work-based route than the reduction in the number of two-year dual system places, which it described as ‘withdrawing from responsibility for young people’.

For me, what matters about this dispute is the light it sheds on attempts to reform apprenticeship in Germany. According to Deutsche Post, the aim is to open up its reruitment to adult workers with experience in other occupations who wish to retrain as skilled courier, express and postal workers. It argues that the new pathway has the same quality as the dual system, and will equally end with an examination administered by the national Chamber for Industry and Trade, who will then similarly award the certificate. The advantage of the new scheme, it claims, is that it will allow the firm to widen the scope of its recruitment to include adults.

And there lies the rub. Germany’s dual system has a global reputation for quality – something that VERDI deploys as a reason to resist change. But in our fast-moving labour market, the dual system with its focus on school-leavers moving into their first (and lifelong) job can also be understood as too rigid to form an effective component of a lifelong learning system.

Deutsche Post’s initiative is therefore well worth watching as a possible sign of increasing flexibility in the dual system. And as the firm has more employees outside than inside Germany, then it might be worth asking what the implications are for DHL delivery staff in other countries.





Doctor Who and my own little social media bubble 

Preparing the latest edition of my textbook on social capital, I became particularly interested in the way that social media are shaping our social connections. Judging by the research available, social media play a complex role in which they sometimes complement and sometimes compete with face to face relationships. And sometimes they mirror each other.

One way in which social media mirror face to face interaction is a tendency towards homophily. Most people like to follow others on social media who are broadly similar to themselves – just as they do in other social interactions. Yet the main benefit of social media is the opportunity they provide for interacting with those who are very different from yourself. And if you think that being challenged by different perspectives is beneficial, as I do, then you try to build social media networks that are broad and diverse.

And I thought that was what I had done. During the Scottish referendum I managed to get attacked by Tweeps from both sides; I follow UKIPPERs, Corbynistas, Remainers, Welsh Nats, Lib Dems, some Tories and a Cornish independence campaigner; I follow people from different countries and speakers of four European languages. Some even follow golf and motor racing, which I hate with a vengeance. I don’t think I follow any racists, and certainly none who are overt, but I do follow some people who think all whites are at best deeply inclined towards racism. So it’s hardly an echo chamber – but clearly I’ve been too smug by half.

The new Doctor Who

Today I woke up to aTwitter storm over the new Doctor Who. The long running BBC series will now be led by a woman, played by the wonderful Jodie Whittaker, and my timeline was full of people protesting vociferously against others who had complained about the role going to a woman. But not a single tweet appeared from the protesters, not a single one. 

UNow it is possible that actually hardly anyone is really upset by a female Doctor. This is hardly radical casting: we’ve had feminist sci-fi for decades – why would one more female lead bother anyone? I can imagine that one or two of the usual rent-a-pen journalists might perform anger in order to generate a bit of click bait for their employer (I’m not going to name them, because that is what they want). But perhaps they are on their own this time.

Or perhaps I’ve stumbled across the boundaries of my own social media bubble. And even this bubble reflects face-to-face bonds, because I realise that I don’t actually know anyone who watches or even cares a fart about Doctor Who. On reflection, though, I am inclined to return to my smug default setting: what Twitter has done is connect me with a community that was previously unknown to me. How diverse is that? 

Is a university education really a public good? 

Following our inconclusive general election last month, the issue of higher education funding has again come to the fore. Both the main parties came in for criticism, with the Tory minister Jo Johnson defending the current tuition fees in the Guardian, and Labour’s shadow education minister Angela Rayner admitting that wiping out student debt, as trailed by her Party leader, might not be realistic. And along came Andrew Adonis, former Labour minister, pointing out that vice chancellors had taken the £9,000 yearly tuition fee as a baseline rather than a cap, and had used the income not to create grants and bursaries for poorer students but to award themselves generous salary hikes (a view generally thought by vice chancellors to be massively unfair) and hire research “stars”.
My Twitter feed quickly filled up with people proclaiming that Johnson was wrong to depict higher education as purely a private investment. Rather, they suggested, it was a public good – a point usually illustrated by short lists of the nice people who graduate, such as doctors and teachers and . . . Well, that was usually it.

Doctors and teachers are of course Good Things (though some of them skip off, after their publicly funded training, to work for private hospitals and schools). But universities also educate accountants, estate agents, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, management consultants, and those people in university admin who draft regulations requiring external examiners to produce a passport. In short, we can draw up our own list of nice and less nice graduate professions to suit our beliefs. 

The case for higher education as a public good has to run a lot deeper, and it probably can’t easily be made on Twitter. It cannot be selective but has to cover the entire teaching function. It has to take in the research side of our work (quite a bit of which – let’s be honest about it – is funded from tuition income). It has to examine our role in our communities. And it has to be based on evidence.

Where I stand on this debate is straightforward: I think higher education has a mix of private and public good outcomes. And I think these are skewed, with the majority of benefits accruing to those who are already relatively advantaged by parentage and by circumstances. For me it follows that free tuition is socially regressive as it mainly benefits the middle and upper social strata, and also implies a cap on student numbers; while high fees damage society and economy alike by building up massive debt. 

My preference is for some kind of graduate endowment, as proposed by the Cubie Committee in Scotland in 1999, payable after graduation once the graduate’s earnings reach a defined point above the national average earnings. And I’d accompany it with means-tested living grants for disadvantaged students. In today’s polarised debate this might seem a long way off, but it is clear that neither free tuition nor the current fee level are sustainable, so change is going to come. And while we are at it, we might also look for a student funding system that promotes part-time higher education for people in work.