Tackling loneliness: a role for policy?

I’ve long seen loneliness as a neglected dimension in the social capital debate.A furry of recent media reports about loneliness and the young, as well as loneliness and the elderly, has made me revisit this issue

At its simplest, the example of loneliness and its damaging effects always seems to me a good reason for ignoring those who say social capital is not worth researching. If loneliness can be so harmful, it follows that decent social connections are a positive resource, at least potentially. So I’ve often wondered why social capital researchers don’t at present have much to say on the topic.

I tried to remedy this in a little way in my social capital textbook. The final chapter considers policy interventions in the area of social capital, and in the third edition I introduced a few ideas about tackling loneliness. Like any intervention in social capital, there are risks and problems, but not acting to prevent loneliness is also an intervention – and one with damaging consequences.

My own view is that thinking of loneliness in the context of social capital is helpful, but you can make up your own mind about that.

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From Social Capital (p 84)

It’s worth adding that fostering public debate over loneliness in itself makes a valuable contribution. I’ve been impressed by the Yorkshire Post‘s long-running campaign over loneliness, for example. Simply hiding the problem is, it seems to me, a recipe for making things much worse.

Adult Learning hits Private Eye

The University of Leicester hasn’t had a great time trying to justify its plan to shut its Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning. Bluntly, it has created a PR shitstorm, which you may think is well deserved given that the University seems to have been rather economical with the truth.

So says Private Eye anyway – and you’d think that keeping out of Britain’s leading satirical news magazine should be high on the KPIs of every Vice Chancellor. Especially if you’ve just pushed through a new strategic plan that claims to prioritise ‘Making a real difference to our city and our region’.

Vaughan College started life in 1862, and was one of the institutions that came together to found the University in 1925. You can read more about its history here and if you are so minded you can join me and thousands of others in signing the Save Vaughan petition here.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Eye article, which I have copied from a Tweet by Chris Williams, who Tweets as @Chris_A_W. vaughaneye

Brexit and lifelong learning after the European Structural Funds

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Withdrawal from the European Union is going to be complicated, not least for the future of adult learning. I’ve written previously about the relationship between Brexit and adult learning, but so far I’ve not really given much thought to the role of the Structural Funds, and in particular the European Social Fund, which provides considerable financial support for adult learning across the UK.

For the period 2014-2020, the UK was allocated €3.5 billion. While it is co-ordinated by the Department of Work and Pensions, much of it is handed over to other bodies for allocation; these include the Skills Funding Agency, the Big Lottery Fund, and the Scottish Government. And while ESF funding is allocated to all regions of the UK, it is worth noting that it is disproportionately sizeable and important in Wales.

The UK’s operational plan for ESF spending between 2014 and 2020 is available online here. Its priority areas explicitly include “activities to inspire and encourage lifelong learning and the consequentbenefits of learning”, with a particular focus on funding provision that promotes employability but does not duplicate existing provision or substitute for private funding.

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From the DWP’s Operational Programme for ESF 2014-2020

The activities supported by the ESF in the UK are remarkably broad, encompassing the Learning and Work Institute’s Festival of Learning, a range of programmes for women workers, and the governmment’s traineeship and apprenticeship programmes. And, above all, ESF helps to fund literacy, numeracy and English learning.

As for the future, the current funding round doesn’t expire until 2020, so there is time to prepare. In thinking ahead to whatever succeeds the Structural Funds, we need to make certain that adult learning is not forgotten. Ideally, the successor programe(s) in Britain will be more flexible and more learner centred, and less bureaucratically cumbersome, than the ESF and ERDF.

As for the future of the Stuctural Funds without the UK, my best guess is that the design work for the 2021-2028 programme has already started in outline. The real work of developing a draft will therefore take place with no UK contribution; and it will finally be negotiated by a European Commission and European Parliament that will look very different in political complexion and priorities to the bodies that agreed the 2014-2020 programme. I’m inclined to doubt whether the post-2020 programme will, then, just be ‘more of the same’.

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Social capital and ethnic diversity at work: the role of language learning

fireI’m extremely interested in the relationship between social capital and ethnic diversity. Put simply, the standard hypothesis is that we find it easier to build trusting relationships with people who share similar characteristics to ourselves. Robert Putnam, the doyen of social capital scholars, wrote in 2007 that residents in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods tend to ‘hunker down’, a contention that he supported with abundant evidence (his article is available here).

And now along comes a rather good study of linguistic diversity in the workplace. People use language in the workplace not just to communicate about the tasks they have to complete, but also to build bridges with one another through small talk, gossip and humour, and displaying trust by disclosing ‘private’ information about themselves.

While linguistic diversity might not disrupt work that involves routine and simple tasks, this study shows that it has wider effects for relationships between different groups of workers. The author, Frederik Thuesen, concludes that ‘in low-skill workplaces characterised by linguistic diversity, communication problems have a small impact on the completion of work tasks but a large impact on social relations’.

So talk really matters.Thuesen concludes that employers and trade unions can and should do more to promote language learning, as well as providing intercultural training for majority workers. He also quotes the example of a supermarket firm which used Facebook to promote inter-cultural dialogue among cashiers. And of course government can help create a supportive environment, not least by promoting language learning and ensuring the quality of provision.

The abstract for Thueson's article

The abstract for Thueson’s article

Of course, workers themselves can also intervene, for better or for worse. I certainly don’t assume that migrants and minorities are passive victims of everything society throws at them; I’ve written before about the attempt to build a mosque that is designed to promote trust and remove suspicion, a development that I very much welcome. But above all it is for the host society, and particularly its government, to ensure that those who come from other cultures are able to contribute effectively, and to build bonds with their new compatriots.

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Benchmarking adult learning across the European Union

The European Union’s latest Education and Training Monitor reports on progress against the 2020 targets, originally adopted in 2010 as part of the EU’s ten-year strategy for growth. There are six targets, all sharing the virtue – and pitfalls – of clarity and simplicity. In respect of adult learning, the target is that by 2020, 15% of Europe’s adults aged 25-64 shall have received formal or non-formal education or training in the four weeks leading up to the annual Labour Force Survey.

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Progress against this target has so far been, let’s say, modest. Participation stood in 2015 at 10.7%, barely a rise on the 9.2% achieved in 2012, and exactly the same as it was in 2014.

As ever, this headline figure masks wide variations between countries. Denmark, Sweden and Finland were Europe’s top performers, with participation rates of 31.3%, 29.4% and 25.4% respectively; bottom were Romania (1.3%) and Bulgaria (2.0%), followed closely by Croatia and Slovakia (both on 3.1%). Of the EU’s big four, France and the UK came above the EU average, while Italy and Germany both fell beneath it.

The report also notes variations within countries, with notably lower participation rates among the low-qualified. It does not report, though, on inequalities of participation by age (we can confidently expect that older workers receive relatively little education and training), gender or ethnicity.

Education is, of course, hardly the only area where the European Commission has set targets which then serve as benchmarks. There are similar 2020 targets for various areas of economic activity, from the share of GDP that is invested in research and innovation to the proportion of the population that lives in poverty.

As Alexandra Ioannidou pointed out ten years ago (see this article), the EU and OECD have developed monitoring and reporting into new policy instruments. The problem for the EU is that, unlike OECD, it has real policy powers in the area of education and training.A failure to meet they targets cannot, therefore, be simply blamed on the weaker member states. In this case, the EU is placing a heavy emphasis on its New Skills Agenda.

As the Agenda was only published in 2016, over half way through the monitoring period, it won’t have much impact by 2020. And of course this benchmark is only one way of measuring adult learning; apart from any other weaknesses, it says nothing whatever about quality.

World class UK universities that are better than Leicester and offer adult education

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From the continuing education pages of Oxford’s website

The Times Higher has released its latest world university rankings, placing the University of Leicester in 172nd place. I’m making the informed guess that the University management is anxious about its position in international league tables, and that this might have something to do with its ill-judged decision to close down its centre for adult education.

So in the interests of open comparison, I thought I’d identify the eight UK universities that come above Leicester in the rankings, and have adult education centres:

Oxford (1st)

Cambridge (4th)

Edinburgh (27th)

Warwick (82)

Glasgow (88)

Sheffield (109)

York (129)

Leeds (133)

In addition, of course, adult education of various kinds is common in north American universities (especially the older, land grant institutions) and several European systems. I was particularly pleased to see that my colleagues at the University of Cologne – which has a terrific programme for older adults, as well as a plethora of seminars and lectures for the local community, and is recognised by the German government’s Excellence initiative – came in two places above Leicester.

So many quite distinguished universities manage to combine scholarly excellence with serious community engagement. Of course, we should take these league tables with a pinch of salt. All of them are flawed to a greater or lesser extent, based as they are on highly selective data, and only a fool would take them seriously. I bet that the Vice Chancellor at Leicester is using them as one of his own key performanc indicators.

 

The ongoing decline in part-time higher education in the UK

Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency confirm that the number of people studying part-time has continued to fall. While the number of part-time higher education students in further education colleges is buoyant, the numbers at HEIs have fallen substantially.

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Over five years, the higher education sector has lost over 14% of its undergraduate degree students, and over 50% of its ‘other undergraduate’ students ( a category which includes people on Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, as well as since modules and accredited short courses).

This continuing decline reflects badly on governments, whose tuition fee policies have slashed demand for a mode of study that allows people to combine work with learning. It also reflects badly on the higher education sector, which has preferred to recruit young school-leavers onto full-time courses (largely because, in my experience, this enables more accurate mid-term planning) and to close down adult education programmes.

Effectively, the four national governments of the UK are presiding over the dismantling of one key plank of the lifelong learning system. The fact that they seem to be stumbling blindly into this policy by default is neither an excuse nor a help.