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’.

Then there is to be a ‘review’ of funding across tertiary education. The aim of the review will be to offer value for money and ensure that Britons develop ‘the skills we need as a country’. While I’m encouraged that the review will cover further as well as higher education, I don’t know what is meant by ‘different routes’ (part-time? MOOCs?), and there is no clue as to what the government is minded to do, how much a changed system might cost, and how it will be funded – these are just plans for a review. 

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.

 

 

Adult learning and the European Social Fund -we need to plan for Brexit

Late last year, I raised the question of how adult learning will be funded once European structural funds no longer apply to the UK. This led me to send a Freedom of Information Request to the Department of Work & Pensions, asking for an estimate of how much funding was allocated to adult learning in the UK from the European Social Fund (ESF). The answer is that a lot of adult learning is funded in this way.

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Under current arrangements, European structural funds run for the period 2014-2020. According to DWP, a billion euros were allocated during this period for adult learning from  ESF Investment Priority 2.1 alone. This does not account for all support from ESF, as the reply makes clear. And adult learning is also supported through other structural funds, incuding the European Regional Development Fund, Leader, INTERREG, and EQUAL. But ESF provides the main route to funding for adult learning.

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From DWP reply, 24 January 2017

Unfortunately, DWP wasn’t able to answer two of my follow up questions. I was keen to know how much of the Investment Priority 2.1 allocation was devoted to (a) literacy and (b) adult English learning. Apparently it was not possible for DWP to isolate figures for these two areas of spending. However, it is reasonable to conclude that some ESOL and literacy is funded through ESF, and that it is probably a significant proportion of their total funding.

All this raises the obvious question of what happens next. In principle, there shouldn’t be any problem: the UK pays far more into the structural funds than it receives, so there ought to be money to spare to tackle the problems that the ESF seeks to address. But in practice, there will be plenty of other priorities, so we need to keep an eye on this issue.

In the meantime, I have sent a copy lf DWP’s response tothe following:

If you can think of anyone else who could helpfully see the DWP response, please let me know.

 

 

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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Brexit and the closure of Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning

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The University of Leicester’s Council has decided to continue with the planned closure of its Lifelong Learning Centre. This has been an unedifying process for the University, which found itself on the receiving edge of criticism from its own staff, as well as from the local councils and MPs.In the process, the University got itself some extremely unfavourable media coverage, particularly after Private Eye exposed its rationale as being less than truthful.

As a governing body which exists to hold the University’s management to account, you’d have thought Council might have asked the Vice Chancellor why he thought it was a good idea to get into Private Eye. If other members of staff had generated such negative publicity, they would have been accused of bringing the University into disrepute. And the Eye exposed flaws in the University’s case that lay members in particular should have found disturbing. But Council showed no such backbone.

The Centre’s supporters, meanwhile, ran a magnificent #savevaughan campaign. Former students, part-time staff and local people all spoke about what lifelong learning had meant to them, and how it had changed learners’ lives. The campaigners made wise use of Freedom of Information legislation to pinpoint inaccuracies in the University management’s case. Following an embarrassing few months, presumably Leicester’s Vice Chancellor will shortly be asking his colleagues in Universities UK to renew their self-interested attack on the Freedom of Information Act.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, I thought I’d check what Leicester University’s management had to say about Brexit. Generally, the higher education sector in Britain is strongly Europhile, and several universities abandoned their usual non-political stance to argue publicly for a Remain vote. Paul Boyle, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, was one of those who signed an ‘open letter to British voters‘ calling for them to vote Remain. After the result was declared Boyle described it as: “a shocking result for the nation and its universities and a dark day for UK science”.

No doubt Professor Boyle, like many other senior academics, now blames ‘British voters’ for their failure to understand the complexities of the EU, and thinks they should never have been asked for their view on its future. But an informed and tolerant citizenry is exactly what the Vaughan Centre existed to support. Closing it is a slap in the face to the city and its people, and it weakens the University’s contribution to and place within the local and national lifelong learning system.

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Self-congratulation – eight years after the event

None of this stops the University management from boasting in their agreement with the Office for Fair Access about their success in attracting and retainng adult learners, and claiming – rather ambiguously – that they will in future ‘work to better understand the student experience for young and mature students’. Nor does it prevent them from inserting the usual guff about local communities into their corporate strategy.

Finally, I suspect that the minor – maybe non-existent – savings from closing Vaughan will do virtually nothing to help Boyle in his proclaimed aim “to pioneer a distinctive elite of research-intensive institutions”. It will simply further detach the University from the community that brought the University into being.

 

 

Has Brexit damaged UK university rankings?

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A number of British universities fared rather poorly in the most recent QS rankings, at least in comparison with previous years. And this matters: while most academics have our criticisms of the ways in which QS and other bodies draw up their league tables, we equally know that it pays to do well in them.

So the declining ranking of several UK universities is serious. And the finger of blame has moved quickly to point at Brexit as the main contributory cause. After all, at a time of largely buoyant funding for the sector and a general round of self-congratulation over our performance in the Research Excellence exercise and the National Student Survey, what else could be responsible?

Koen Lambert, Vice Chancellor of the University of York, laid the blame squarely on Brexit. According to the local newpaper, Professor Lambert (or a press officer writing in his name) said that:

York, along with many other British universities, appears to have fallen in the QS league table because of concerns about the impact of Brexit; specifically, this has been attributed to worries about future access to research funding and whether we will be able to recruit excellent academic staff and students from all over the world.

Journalists were rather more circumspect than Professor Lambert seems to have been. Writing in the Independent, Aftab Ali blamed “Post-Brexit uncertainty and long-term funding issues” for the decline. Later in the same article, he pointed out that the QS rankings were based on data collected well before the 23 June referendum.

Sally Weale, education correspondent for the Guardian, didn’t actually suggest any connection between Brexit and the league table fall, but emphasised that the QS results came out at a time of concern over the fall-out from Brexit.Similarly the Standard, though its headline was unambiguous.

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So blaming Brexit is a lame excuse. It isn’t just a matter of QS collecting its data before the referendum. Key data, such as citations per staff member, are based on activities that stretch back for years. So Brexit didn’t cause the decline in QS rankings, any more than it made England’s footballers so inept (though at least the England-Iceland game came after 23 June), or turned Team GB’s athletes into world-beaters. So on the whole, I think Prof Lambert is having a laugh.

Brexit is certain to have an influence on UK higher education but what it is has yet to be seen. For explanations of our universities’ poor performance in the QS rankings, we should look changes within the higher education sector (including a large-scale and long-term shift of resources into administration), as well as the UK’s failure to match more successful countries’ levels of investment.

Meanwhile, I expect to see a rash of claims that Brexit cause this failure or that success, depending on the claimant’s point of view. Over time, hopefully we will stop supporting these claims based on our own opinions of Brexit, and start judging each one on the basis of evidence and logic.

 

Taking the German citizenship test after Brexit: here’s how I fared

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Following Brexit, the parliamentary leader of the Green Party has asked the German government to adopt a “generous” approach to British immigrants. Usually, immigrants must wait eight years, or six for someone has made a special contribution to German life and three for those married to Germans, before aplying. Katrin Göring-Eckardt has asked the government to to allow applications from those who have lived here for less than six years.

Regardless of the waiting time, British immigrants would still need to take the citizenship test and prove their command of the language. So far as the language is concerned, you can take a standard test, or you can present other evidence, such as a degree from a German-speaking university.

The language test aims to see whether you can speak German well enough to handle everyday situations, including work. For those who know their language education, it involves demonstrating that you have reached European Language Proficency Level B1. I took a written test, missing out the oral and spoken sections as I did it from home, and found B1 reasonably easy.

Given their backgrounds and occupations, most Brits should easily pass the citizenship test. Since 2008, the test has been administered by the Federal Bureau for Migration and Refugees, and developed by educationalists at the Humboldt University of Berlin. It comprises a battery of 310 multiple-choice questions; each applicant has to take 33 questions and must pass at least 17.

The questions are concerned with establishing the candidate’s knowledge of Germany society, culture, and political arrangements. A small number of questions will concern the Land in which you live. There are four possible answers to each question, and you have to select the correct one.

As an example from the current catalogue, here is a question about the constitution:

Which right belongs to the constitutional rights in Germany?

  • owning a weapon
  • the right to fight with fists
  • freedom of opinion
  • taking the law into your own hands

And here is one from recent history:

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Which was the coat of arms of the German Democratic Republic?

None of these is likely to trouble the average British immigrant. I took the test and passed with 31 out of 33. My incorrect answers were to do with constitutional matters (how long between elections in North-Rhein Westphalia?) and I guessed some (how many MPs in the federal parliament?). I should add that I took the tests out of interest, and won’t be applying myself.

So for Brits this is likely to be a straightforward process. You have to pay €255 per person for processing your application; and if you go to an adult education centre or similar for your language test, they will charge you a small sum, usually €25. And then you wait. At the moment there is a bit of a queue, but at least citizenship applications are dealt with a lot more quickly than asylum applications, which can drag on for over a year.

Why the Greens have made an issue out of British immigrants is something of a mystery. There isn’t a clear issue of principle, as Britains in Germany are hardly seeking asylum from persecution; for the most part they are highly educated middle class professionals who are here to work.

Moreover, the Greens’ request will have no practical impact on government policy, not least because the processing of citizenship applications is devolved to the sixteen Länder. And even if all British immigants became Green voters overnight (improbable), there are too few to make much difference in elections.

Frankly, there are many more pressing and deserving groups of migrants in Germany right now than the Brits. My personal view is that the Green intervention was a bit of self-indulgence; but in fairness the Greens have consistently pressed for faster and more effective processing of asylum applications as well as citizenship applications. I’ll save writing about why I think asylum processes in Germany are in such a mess in another blog.

On being European. Or: where is Iceland?

I love Iceland, a country of majestic and sometimes awe-inspiring beauty. On most criteria, it is also a good place to live. In the OECD’s Better Life Index, Iceland ranks at the top in jobs and earnings, and above the average in social connections, subjective well-being, health status, environmental quality, personal security, and education and skills.

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A volcanic crater in the Grimsnes area, and cold enough in June for me to need a hat. Shortly after this photo was taken, though, a naked couple jumped in for a swim.

But is it European? This thought originally struck me during the global wave of laughter that greeted England’s humilating defeat by Iceland in the Euros. Don’t think I have the slightest interest in soccer, because I don’t. And I’m certainly not demanding that the Euros be replayed just because Iceland isn’t really European.

This isn’t a matter of EU membership. Europe is not identical with the European Union, and it is perfectly possible to be European and outside the EU.It’s ironic, though, that newspapers and others greeted England’s ignominious defeat with cries of “Brexit2”, conveniently forgetting that Wales was still in the tournament while Iceland had never been in the EU.

Then I remembered visiting the area around Þingvellir (or Thingvellir), a marvellous national park that includes a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This means that Rejkyavik, and therefore most of Iceland’s population, live in America rather than Europe.

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Not that this geological argument carries much weight with Icelanders, who like to think of themselves as Europeans and definitely not Americans. That got me brooding on why they might think of themselves in this way. And why so many other nations seem to be really keen to enjoy such symbolic markers of Europeanness as – wait for it now – the Eurovision song contest.

I enjoy a bit of pedantry; it can be a lot of fun. In this case, though, the question of Iceland leads me to ask what we mean when we say we are ‘European’, and who we then define as the non-European. The non-European unperson can be the refugee facing the enormous steel fences that Europe (= EU) is erecting along its borders, or the supposedly uneducated and insular Sun-reading cultural dopes who voted for Brexit.

The ‘European’ by contrast is cultivated and cosmopolitan. In a piece of desperately bad timing – or good, depending on your point of view – one academic published a piece in mid-June that celebrated the European (=EU) student mobility programmes as the modern Grand Tour.Well, Erasmus+ schemes certainly take the most privileged full-time, young, white undergraduates, though that wasn’t what he meant to pount out.

This world view rather neatly encapsulates a certain condescending mindset, which celebrates the cultural and educational construction of a cosmopolitan elite, the winners of the Euro-globalisation race. By contrast, the ‘other’ – the loser from globalisation – is constructed as brutish, stupid, and hopelessly provincial.

 

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