Adult learning and the UK election (1): The Conservatives

Lifelong learning has played a much larger part in the 2017 UK election than I’d expected. All of the major parties have spoken about it during the campaign, and all allude to it in their manifestos. In looking at their policies for adult learning, I am going to start with the Conservatives. This is simply because it looks as though they are all but certain to form the next government, and their thinking is therefore rather more important than that of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens.

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Overall, the Conservative manifesto has two characteristics that strike me as unusual. The first is that it is more centrist than I’d have anticipated, and more open about the role of government in securing well-being and prosperity than the Conservatives have been for some decades. Short of putting Arthur Scargill forward for the House of Lords she seems to have done everything to signal that the Conservatives under her leadership are non-ideological, and if anything represent the Disraeliite tradition of One-Nation Toryism.

The second unusual feature of the manifesto is the lack of practical detail. Almost none of the proposals have been costed, and so we have no idea how they will be funded; and there are very few timetables. This matters in the field of lifelong learning, as the manifesto has a number of interesting ideas in principle, but no indication of how they will be taken forward.

The first group of proposals on lifelong learning come in the section titled ‘A Modern Industrial Strategy’, which essentially carries on where the Government’s consultation over its Green Paper left off. Like the Green Paper, it emphasises that innovation and growth must be nation-wide, with an important role for skills alongside research, infrastructure and productivity growth.

There is to be a National Productivity Investment Fund of £23 billion, but no mention of where this will come from. It will be devoted almost entirely to the supply of skills, infrastructure and research, with no mention of the demand side.

Britain has in recent years used immigration to reduce the costs of skilled labour supply. The manifesto proposes that in future, companies employing migrant workers should pay a levy of £2,000 per worker, which will used to fund higher level skills training. This is potentially significant: some 93,843 Tier 2 skilled work visas were granted in the year ending September 2016, and Brexit is likely to lead to a rise in non-EU migration.

Potentially, then, the Conservatives’ promise looks rather similar in scale and purpose to Train to Gain. Unlike Train to Gain, it looks as though the new scheme will be developed on a UK-wide basis, at least in principle. Whether it is subsequently implemented across the UK or devolved to the four nations (and regionally within England) are good questions, which the manifesto does not answer.

There are also unanswered questions about the future replacement for the European Union structural funds. The new UK ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ is designed to promote the government’s industrial strategy, but with lower administration costs than the Euroean schemes it will replace. As its name implies, the UKSPF is intended to cover the whole UK.

As the UK contributes far more to the structural funds than it receives, in principle the UKSPF should be far more generous, and have a greater impact. But the manifesto does not say how much it will allocate, and all practical and strategic details – including possible differences between the four nations – are to be left until after a post-election process of consultation. Little wonder that the Learning and Work Institute sees this as a prime area for post-election lobbying.

Then there are the proposals for apprenticeships. The manifesto confirms the target of 3 million apprentice places by 2020, which is welcome, but misleadingly claims that these will be for ‘young people’. Pointing out that almost a quarter of last year’s new apprentices were aged 35 or over, and that many are in existing rather than new jobs, Nick Linford has dismissed the Conservative claim as ‘a lie’.

Finally, the manifesto sets out Conservative proposals for ‘career learning’. These come in a chapter on education which is rather self-importantly titled The World’s Great Meritocracy. In respect of ‘career learning’, this promises:

  • A ‘new right to request leave for training for all employees’, but does not say how this will be enforced, nor what happens if requests are rejected. If it is simply an extension of existing rights to ask for time off to train, then it is hard to see how it will make any real difference: good employers will implement it, others will ignore it, and the costs of appeal to a tribunal will deter the vast majority from pursuing a rejected claim.
  • A ‘national retraining scheme’ will be established to help workers stay in secure jobs, funded by the state; while the manifesto says that firms will be able to pay employee wages from the apprenticeship levy while they retrain (creating considerable deadweight), it does not say how government will decide which workers are eligible.
  • A ‘right to lifelong learning in digital skills’; again, this is uncosted, and there is no hint as to its scale or how eligibility will be defined. And it is unclear whether this ‘right’ will be implemented across the UK, or solely in England.

Finally, it is worth adding that the ambition is to create nothing less than the best programme of learning and training for people in work and returning to work in the developed world. This impressive aim is not, though, accompanied by any reference to any actually existing programme of learning and training in any other country.

Nor has the manifesto anything to say about the existing adult learning landscape. It simply ignores the contribution of family learning and part-time higher education to social mobility, and says nothing about protecting the current adult skills budget. And – though no one should be surprised by this – its focus is on work-related lifelong learning.

Overall, the Conservative manifesto shows some obvious weaknesses, and is largely silent on detail. Nevertheless, it is more positive about lifelong learning than many of us might have expected, and several of its proposals are heading in the right direction – so much so that if the Conservatives form the next government, we should remind them frequently of their promises.

 

 

Funding adult learners – the case of Singapore

I’ve posted in the past about financial support for adult learners in Germany and in France. These are both fellow large European countries, and there are some interesting lessons for other similar countries like my own. After a brief Twitter exchange with Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute I thought it might be a good time to look at the case of Singapore, a country with a similar population in terms of size (5.6 million) to Scotland or Yorkshire.

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In 2015 Singapore introduced a virtual voucher system, known as SkillsFuture Credit, which forms part of a wider national SkillsFuture strategy for lifelong learning. Open to all national citizens aged over 25, SkillsFuture Credit involves an initial government injection into your account of S$500, followed by periodic top-ups over time.

SkillsFuture Credit pays for courses provided by a range of eligible, largely publicly-funded institutions, including the arts, sports and so-called ‘lifestyle’ courses offered through the state-sponsored People’s Association, and the courses for seniors offered through the National Silver Academy network.

Initially channeled to the citizen to pay fees, from 19 May 2017 SkillsFuture Credit has been disbursed to training providers, with the exception of course fees for overseas MOOCs. This follows a decision to take enforcement action against 4,400 individuals who have reportedly submitted false claims.

Otherwise the system seems to be working well. More than 126,000 Singaporeans used their SkillsFuture credit by the end of the scheme’s inaugural year in 2016. The most popular area for using the credit was information technology, including a large number of older adults who were learning basic IT, often for the first time; second most popular was foreign languages. Some 6% of claims were in respect of MOOCs.

It is probably too early to make any confident claims about Singapore’s system as a model for other countries. The administrative procedures have been revised several times, and taken with the allegations of fake claims this suggests that there have been teething problems. And some will find the range of eligible courses too restricted, with its strong – but far from inclusive – emphasis on skills for innovation.

Yet the scale of take-up is impressively large for a relatively small state, and the financial commitment is admirable. So at the very least, Singapore confirms what can be done by a government determined to promote a culture of lifelong learning.

 

Funding skills in Germany: financial support for adult learners

An article in BildungsSpiegel sets out the different arrangements for financing adult learners in Germany. Although resonsibility for education lies mainly with each of the 16 states, all of these forms of support are available from the federal government.


Education vouchers, issued by the Labour Agency, cover 100% of the costs of participation, including transport, accommodation and food. They are available to those in, seeking, or planning to change jobs. The training must, though, promote return to the labour market, help avoid the risk of redundancy, or enable the learner to take a vocational qualification.

Bonus coupons, part of the educational coupons programme, fund training with a total cost of up to €1,000, of which the programme contributes up to €500. It is available to anyone who is over 25, works for 15 hours a week or more (either in paid work or in a caring role), and earns under €20,000 a year.

Savings coupons, also part of the educational coupons scheme, enable people to withdraw savings from long term accounts before the date allowed in order to fund training.

Career enhancement support, providing loans and grants for longer courses of at least 400 hours of instruction, covering 40% of the course fee and examination fee.

Career development stipendium aimed at skilled workers who scored 1.9 or above in their trade qualification and who want to develop their skills through a first degree. Independent of income, students can receive full-time up to 815 euros. If you study part-time, you receive €2,400 per year.

Continuing education stipendium for skilled employees under 25 to take part in professional continuing vocational training, for example as a specialist, or a transversal qualification, for example a language course. The maximum available is €7,200 over three years, with the stipendium holder ipaying ten per cent of the training itself. Candidates must have shown ‘special achievement’, either in their apprenticeshi or in the job.

WeGebAU, which stands for “Continuing Education for the Low-skilled and Employed Older Workers in Enterprises”, is aimed at unskilled workers or those who have not been in a skilled job for at least four years, as well as employees in small and medium-sized enterprises. In the case of low-qualified persons, the federal government assumes the full training costs if the advanced training leads to a vocational qualification. In the case of older employees, it contributes 75 per cent, provided that the training period falls partly into working hours. In other cases, it promotes further training with a maximum of 50 per cent if the employer pays at least 50 per cent of the costs.

The article does not mention financial support for learners at state level. The 16 Länder interpret their responsibilities for adult learning differently; for example, the laws providing for paid educational leave (Bildungsurlaub) vary considerably by state. Nor does it cover employer support, which can be considerable. And I would add that as well as fundin learners at federal level, provision is also generously funded in most (but not all) of the states. 

From a British perspective, two things are striking. First is that these are federal schemes, operating across the 16 states; most of our funding for adult learners is handled separately by the four nations, and perhaps in future by English regions. I’d be interested to know whether the benefits of a coherent system-wide scheme outweigh the advantages of adapting to local and regional circumstances.

Second is the important role of vouchers to fund adult learners. And voucher based funding is also significant in Austria. How come government in these countries can apparently make vouchers work, while we either abolished them following scandals (as  with ILAsin England) or restricted their use (as with ILAs in Scotland)?

Is Ireland heading for an integrated tertiary education policy?

The Republic of Ireland is busy reforming the administration of third level education. Having brought training into the Department of Education and Skills, and bringing training and further education under a single strategic agency (SOLAS), it is now planning to merge the units dealing with third level education – further and higher education to use UK terminology – into one.

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National University of Ireland Galway

Inevitably, this provokes reflection on the potential for an integrated strategy for third level education, encompassing training, further education and higher education. This is certainly compatible with the aims of Ireland’s National Action Plan for Education, though it also goes beyond it.

Objective 3.4 of the Plan is to “Promote high quality learning experiences in Further Education and Training and Higher Education”. It also proposes to “work with further education and training and higher education providers to provide a broader range of flexible opportunities for learners and to support an increase in lifelong learning”.

Ireland’s further and higher education system is widely seen as rather successful by international standards, though it shares with the UK a general cultural preference for higher education over further education, and the high participation rate in the former (54% of 18-20 year olds in 2014) is marked by pronounced socio-economic inequalities. It  is a relatively small country (the Republic’s current population is around 4,640,000) and lines of communication are comparatively short.

A unified tertiary system therefore seems very achievable and, from the outside, it looks potentially desirable. It could help to remedy inequalities, particularly if it could overcome the reluctance of universities to accept credit transfer that has marred Scotland’s somewhat half-hearted attempts at a unified tertiary system. It could help reduce popular prejudices against further education, supporting upskilling while alleviating pressure on higher education places. And it could benefit strategically from the strengths of adult learning in Ireland while broadening the lifelong learning system.

Of course it is one thing to rearrange the civil servants and quite another to develop an effective, integrated policy for all post-school education and training. So I’ll be watching this particular space with interest.

Declaration of Interest: I am an adjunct professor at the Higher Education Research Centre, Dublin City University

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Loneliness and social capital in later life

Loneliness poses an enormous challenge to those experiencing it, and in our society it seems particularly prevalent among older adults. It is easy to understand why this might be so: on the one hand death and physical decline rob us of our friends, and on the other our society has become more individualised and fluid so that making new friends is harder. The question then is what should be done.

This issue came up clearly at a conference I am currently attending on Transitions in the Life Course. It was organised by an impressive new doctoral school called Doing Transitions at the Universities of Frankfurt and Tübingen, and I will blog more about the conference and its background in the next couple of days. Meanwhile, I wanted to report back on a paper that impressed me, by Nan Stevens, a researcher on loneliness in later life.

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Stevens started by outlining the positive benefits of friendship networks for older people undertaking transitions, before moving on to explore issues of loneliness in social networks. She then asked whether it is possible to improve friendships in later life, and then reported on the effects of a particular friendship enrichment programme for older women.

Based on feminist therapy and reevaluation counseling, the programme comprises 12 weekly lessons focussing on self-esteem, relational competence, and friendship formation and maintenance, as well as the practice of relevant social skills. Stevens’ studies are available online, so all I will say here is that (a) she has reasonably good evidence for their effectiveness for those who participated and (b) I encourage you to read them for yourself.

I did wonder, though, whether much the same impact could be achieved by promoting self-help educational programmes that do not focus on friendship per se, but instead pursue the interests of older adults themselves. By the time people reach later life they are often sick of being told what they need to learn by other people, and one reason why the Universities of the Third Age and Men’s Sheds movements are so popular is that they consist of people doing their own thing.

For me, the issue then is how we go beyond the existing constituencies of these self-help forms of adult education, and engage those in later life who are simply not attracted to the U3A or Men’s Sheds. Although I tried exploring this in my book on social capital, I’m still not really certain what the best way of doing this is. Given the benefits of friendship and the penalties of loneliness, extending the reach of learning opportunities for older adults does seem to me an important part of the policy toolkit.

How progressive is Progressive Academic Publishing?

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I recently read a paper by two academics on the governance of lifelong learning – an important topic, that has been widely debated in western nations but not nearly so widely studied in the very different African context. The authors are academics from Botswana, and their paper examines the challenges and potential of promoting a complex field like lifelong learning in their own country.

I enjoyed the paper, and tweeted a link to it. I was, though, concerned about the journal in which it appeared, and about the pricing practices of its publisher, Progressive Academic Publishing. The journal is called the European Journal of Research and Reflection in Educational Sciences, and a glance at its content suggests that the papers appear in a very basic format. It is hard to see what value is added, other than giving the papers a volume and issue number for the journal.

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All journals published by Progressive Academic Publishing are open access, meaning that the contents can be read for free online. And the website claims that they are peer reviewed, though I’m not sure what that actually means. You won’t be surprised to learn that EJRRES, like all other journals from the same publisher, charges an author processing fee of $90 or over per paper, which for African academics is a hefty sum.

I wouldn’t mind knowing more about this journal and the high quality standards it claims to maintain. The editor-in-chief is said to be a Dr. Elizabeth Kilbride from the UK; I’ve tried a Google search, and found no academics with that name in the UK, though there is one lab technician at a Scottish university. One other UK person, from Coventry University, is said to be on the editorial board, but finding him on Coventry’s website proved beyond my abilities. The company’s postal address is on a business park just off the M42. It was included by Jeffrey Beall in his list of predatory publishers.

Of course, none of this necessarily tells us anything about the quality of individual papers appearing in Progressive Academic Publishing’s journals. But it does help me answer one of my own questions about this type of journal: who writes for them? And if it is academics from Africa who choose this way of reaching an audience, what does this tell us about the opportunities they have for publishing in more established and – frankly – reputable journals?

 

Lifelong learning and social mobility in Europe – a blank page?

 

One of the European Commission’s agencies has just published a very interesting and informative report on social mobility in the EU. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has drawn on existing studies and surveys to provide an overview and comparison of the EU member states. It finds that European societies have generally converged in this area, with marked changes in gender patterns; it also suggests that recent trends in social mobility vary considerably by country and gender.

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I found this a valuable contribution, and as you would expect with a state agency it concludes with a series of policy recommendations. It rightly calls for further research to help shed light on national differences in recent trends, as well as for further debate over which indicators might best help us understand patterns of social mobility.

Its call to prioritise men in Generation X is likely to be controversial, but is based on evidence showing decreasing life chances among men born after 1964. It identifies early selection in education and residential segregation as major causes of  social closure, issues of particular concern in the UK.

This is all well and good. But I was shocked to see that lifelong education appears precisely twice in the report, both times in respect of policies for opening up labour market opportunities. There is no mention of evidence on the social mobility benefits of family learning or adult retraining or second-chance entry to higher education. Some of the findings around family learning interventions were summarised in our recent report for the UK Government’s Foresight project on the future of skills and lifelong learning, so it isn’t exactly inaccessible.

I suspect that the authors of the Eurofound study – and their distinguished advisory panel – simply didn’t see lifelong learning as much of an issue. They should have done, but I also think we can and should do much more to make sure that the benefits of adult learning are much more widely acknowledged. In this case, “we” comprises both the adult learning research community and the large number of reflective practitioners in our field, both of whom need to engage much more systematically with (a) policy-makers and (b) researchers in cognate disciplines. Insularity does none of us any favours.