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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Skills and the growing number of older workers

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I recently attended a European research conference on the education and learning of older adults. It was held in the charming southern Swedish city of Jönköping, and was attended by a decent network of researchers who function well together. I’ve been to previous meetings of this group and always found them stimulating.

I presented on the role of education and skills in supporting older workers. My argument was that demographic aging poses a much wider set of challenges to workplaces than is usually supposed; that older workers should be seen as part of the solution to these challenges and not just as their cause; and that the challenges and solutions were multi-dimensional, involving a wide range of actors, so that the government ministry for education may well be a relatively minor actor. In these circumstances those who support learning for older workers will need to build coalitions and partnerships outside the traditional educational arena.

Since then, the Department for Work and Pensions has just published an analysis of older workers that reinforces my view of the importance of this topic. Drawing on the Labour Force Survey, the DWP report shows that the employment rate for older workers is rising sharply. In the last thirty years in Britain:

  • the employment rate for 50-64 year olds rose by 14.2%, from 55.4% to 69.6%;
  • the employment rate for workers aged 65 or over has doubled, rising from 4.9% to 10.2%
  • the largest increases have been for women workers aged 60-64 and 55-59

This growth has been faster for older women workers than men, producing much greater convergence between the two in terms of their employment rate (though not necessarily in their experience of work or the rewards they receive).

And the growth in employment for the over-65s began in the early 2000s and has continued until the present. This suggests that financial hardship is not the principal driver of the turn to work. Those who reached state pensionable age in the early 2000s still included significant numbers with decent occupational pensions; and the New Labour government adopted a number of measures at this time to reduce pensioner poverty, including rises in the basic state pension.

Of course, some older workers are looking to make ends meet still, and their numbers may increase with the tightening squeeze on welfare. But more likely explanations are (a) the expanding number of older adults as the baby boomers reach their sixties; (b) the relatively good health of people who reach the state pension age; (c) a slow change in attitudes among at least some employers who are more willing to take on older workers; (d) the growth in precarious job contracts such as zero hours arrangements, which may cause less difficulty to people who can also draw on pensions; and (e) people’s desire to maintain a relatively high consumption lifestyle.
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What does all this mean for skills and education? Here we enter the realms of speculation, albeit that we do have some evidence. First, the growing number of older workers is creating new demands for upskilling and other forms of training, which employers will need to take on board.

Second, a number of older workers will be well able to fund their own learning, at least partly; and indeed for some, the more commercialised forms of learning (study tours, heritage cruises, and so on) will be part of the lifestyle that they are working to maintain.

Third, human resource managers – including trainers – will need to take an increasingly multi-generational workforce into account, with generational differences being superimposed on other factors such as gender and ethnicity. This means planning development and training activities that meet the needs of mixed age groups and balance the different learning styles and preferences of different cohorts, from recent school-leavers to those over state pension age.

There are important roles here for adult learning providers, but not necessarily as instructors – or not just as instructors. There are other roles as brokers, partners and advocates to be filled, working alongside trade unions and employers and trainers. It is, though, unlikely that providers will play much of a role if their expertise is limited to working with young adults and providing a second chance of improving basic skills, important though these are.

And finally there is a role for government, if it has the political will to intervene, in helping to secure equity. I mentioned above the question of gender and workforce participation among older women workers; their location in and rewards from the labour market will only match those of men if there are measures in place to avoid discrimination and provide targeted skills. The same goes for ethnicity and – with knobs on – for dis/ability, particularly as those older workers who are working because they need the money will also be those with the lowest savings, poorest health and the fewest skills.