Adult learning and the UK election (3): The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are conventionally seen as the UK’s third party, though they have far fewer seats than the Scottish National Party. On the basis of the current opinion polls, it is possible that the Lib Dems will have an influence on the next government, either as coalition partners or as holders of the balance of power. They also have a strong if regionally uneven presence in local government. So along with my earlier analyses of the Conservative and Labour proposals for lifelong learning, I thought I’d add my two-penn’orth on the Lib Dems’ manifesto.

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Like the two main parties, the Lib Dems favour an interventionist industrial strategy supporting innovation and skills. In respect of skills, the party’s industrial strategy will include a major expansion of high-quality apprenticeships, including advanced apprenticeships, backed with new sector-led national colleges, to be accompanied by a national skills strategy for key sectors. There is also a general commitment to build digital skills.

Demand for skills will presumably arise as a result of the industrial strategy, and it is accompanied by the idea of a ‘good employer kitemark’. But the skills section of this strategy is considerably less specific than the manifesto commitments of the other two parties, both of which set a numerical target for apprenticeships.

Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems prefer to avoid the distinction between apprenticeship starts and completions. Other than renewables they do not specify what sectors will form the basis of the strategy. It is unclear whether ‘national colleges’ will be created in England only, or across the UK.

In fact, I cannot imagine why they favour new national colleges given that we have plenty of colleges in existence already, most of which are gasping for investment. And of the three main parties it is the Lib Dems who have the least to say about further education, with colleges meriting little more than a cursory mention in passing.

The Lib Dems reserve their principal proposals for education for a section titled Children First. They signal their support for family learning as a means of raising child attainment, with plans for a new online Family University, supported by leading organisations such as the BBC and Open University, to provide every family with advice and guidance for learning and parenting at home.

This sounds like a good idea, but as will be obvious to every adult educator, the devil is in the detail. Left to its own devices the Family University’s ‘natural’ audience will be middle class mums and dads with ambitions for their kids, rather than those whose kids are systematically failed by the schools system as it stands.

More conventional university education receives detailed attention. The manifesto promises a review of higher education finance, in the light of evidence on access, participation and quality, as well as the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants, and a requirement that all universities work to widen participation across the sector. Not a word about the collapse of part-time learning in higher education – most of which took place while the Lib Dems were in the ruling coalition.

The Children First chapter does include a section on what it calls ‘lifelong opportunities to learn’. It offers a paragraph of rationale for lifelong learning, but this is confined to the need for career-long upskilling. Most of it is not particularly concerned with lifelong learning, but instead restates the party’s proposals on apprenticeships and national sector colleges.

Nevertheless, it does offer some specific plans for learning in adult life. These are:

  • Aim to meet all basic skills needs including literacy, numeracy, and digital skills by 2030. This is clearly a Good Thing, but I have no idea what it means in practice; who is to do the ‘meeting’, how they will be funded, and how the results will be measured, are not spelt out.
  • Create individual accounts for fnding mature and part-time adult learning and training, and provide for all adults individual access to necessary career information, advice and guidance. There are plenty of models elsewhere, such as the interesting skills credits scheme in Singapore, so this is a feasible policy if carefully designed. Who will be eligible for the Lib Dem accounts, what types of learning will they cover, how much will they be worth, how will the government avoid fraud, and how will they be paid for? And is the Party really proposing an entire new adult guidance service, or something much more modest?
  • Facilitate across the UK an effective and comprehensive system for credit transfer and recognition of prior learning and qualifications. We already have such a system in place across the EU and beyond (ECTS), and the simplest thing would be for the four nations of the UK to commit to observe it after Brexit. It is, of course, a matter for each of the four nations to decide its own policy in this area. However, the problem is not creating a system; rather, it is to ensure that education providers and employers (including government bodies) actually use the ones that exist.

The Lib Dems make no proposal for replacing the European Structural Funds after Brexit. This is in keeping with the over-arching policy of continuing to oppose Brexit, and in keeping with that they are economic will the truth, predicting ‘the loss of £8.9 billion of European Structural and Investment Funds’, failing to mention that the UK pays far more into the Funds than it receives (and in principle, therefore, will have more funding available for these purposes). As these Funds, especially the Social Fund, are a major source of support for adult and community learning, this isn’t a minor issue. Nor is their decision to keep quiet about reinsertion programmes for the unemployed. 

Before reading the manifesto I wanted to like the Lib Dem’s policies more than I did afterwards. Leaving aside the dishonesty about the Structural Funds (dishonesty was the dominant motif of the Brexit debate, on both sides), I found the manifesto disappointingly thin on specific plans, and lacking crucial detail where it did include concrete proposals. Nevertheless, there are some constructive ideas, and the Family University proposal has real potential for innovation, so there is plenty of fodder for lobbying and development after the election is over.

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Adult learning and the UK election: (2) the Labour Party

At the time of writing, the Labour Party looks set to come second in the election. If so, it will form the main opposition to the government, where its thinking on lifelong learning will inevitably have an impact on public debate, and will continue to develop in opposition. And Labour is still a major force in local and regional government, as well as forming the largest single party in Wales. So its ideas on lifelong learning matter.

New Picture

I’ve already summarised and criticised the Conservatives’ ideas on adult learning in a previous post. I’ll turn my attention to the Liberal Democrats and Greens in the next few days; UKIP can safely be ignored, as its manifesto says nothing about post-school education other than to call for lower student numbers in higher education and to propose a German-style (ironically) of dual system for apprentice training.

Like the Conservatives, Labour is using the manifesto to set out its broad industrial strategy. Labour’s manifesto says little directly about the role of skills in industrial strategy, other than proposing that public sector procurement should be used to leverage high employment standards, including providing training. Rightly, in my view, their industrial strategy focuses on growing the number of high value jobs, and thus increasing the demand for skills.

Skills supply is dealt with mainly in the context of Labour’s proposals for a National Education Service. What exactly is ‘National’ about it is unclear; Labour evidently intends not to remove education from the devolved administrations, but the manifesto underplays the fact that this would be a ‘National (English) Education Service’.

While this Service will somehow be ‘unified’, the manifesto does not suggest abolishing university autonomy or reducing the role of local government, and it does suggest devolving skills budgets to city regions, so at the moment it is completely unclear to me how and in what sense this will be a ‘National’ service, comparable to the NHS.

Labour’s plans for an NES have huge financial implications: the Service, it says, will ‘move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use’, incorporating ‘all forms of education, from early years through to adult education’. I guess (because it isn’t stated) that Labour believe or hope that higher skills will produce higher growth and thus raise the tax take.

Over two pages are devoted to a chapter on Skills. On further education, the manifesto calls for an end to constant structural change in the sector, and proposes investing in the sector through such measures as rebalancing the funding allocations between colleges and schools sixth forms, restoring Educational Maintenance Allowances, replacing tuition fees with a direct grant, and requiring all FE teaching staff to have a teaching qualification. It also proposes to restore cuts to UnionLearn, and to establish a Commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with integrating further and higher education.

On the whole this sounds like an attractive package, but there are several unanswered questions. Leaving aside the lack of clarity over the cost of these proposals, it is unclear who might be covered by the requirement to have a teaching qualification (what about part-time staff, for example?), and the rather general idea of ‘integrating further and higher education’ could mean anything from encouragement for local collaborative arrangements through to a fully-fledged tertiary system.

Most of the proposals for apprenticeships seem eminently sensible, and indeed are not a million miles away from Conservative thinking. Shifting the emphasis from recruitment targets to achievement at Level 3 is consistent with the aim of a high skills workforce. The idea of targets for ‘people with disabilities, care-leavers and veterans’ is worthwhile, though they will raise concerns about box-ticking and bureaucracy. And some will explode with fury over the very idea of incentives for large employers to over-train numbers of apprentices to fill skills gaps in the supply chain and the wider sector.

So far as higher education specifically is concerned, the manifesto limits itself to proposing free tuition and the reintroduction of maintenance grants. While this may be electorally popular, particularly among the better educated young voters, free tuition in particularly is highly socially regressive, especially as in England fees are not paid up front, and their repayment is means-tested. Nor is it clear how these measures will apply to part-time and distance students.

As the Learning and Work Institute rightly points out, the absence of any discussion of work insertion programmes for unemployed people is a massive gap, even allowing for the manifesto’s emphasis on the creation of good work: strikingly, neither the word ‘unemployed’ or ‘unemployment’ appear even once.

Nevertheless, this manifesto suggests that someone in Labour’s inner circles has been thinking hard about further education and adult learning. As the Party is likely to spend at least another five years in opposition, there is much to build on in a manifesto that offers plenty of encouragement for those of us involved in adult learning.

The challenges facing Irish higher education: taking a long view

Mary Daly is a distinguished historian and the first female President of the Royal Irish Academy. It was a great pleasure to hear her Presidential Discourse, held in Academy House last night, on the topic of Higher Education and Irish Society: From Independence to today.

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The audience waits (I’m the grey-haired one in the bottom right)

Daly’s aim was to give a historical perspective on where we – the Irish higher education system – are today. I found it a fascinating account which helped me make sense of much that I have observed over the years; the RIA will certainly publish the talk, so I won’t reproduce it here, but it is worth singling out a few of the highlights.

Looked at over the past century, Daly identified two challenges that had long term roots. The first is a tendency for the sector to continue expanding without securing additional funding, a pattern that she traced back to the founding of the new state. There was little public provision for research funding until the 1990s, and the system’s role was primarily concerned with teaching. The modern research university in Ireland is, she said, a mere twenty years old. Socially, participation rates are deeply unequal; but she believed that any serious attempt to remedy deep-rooted inequalities would be at odds with the meritocratic principles of selection that have dominated hitherto.

Second, the sector lacks a strong and unified voice. Since the 1970s, Daly noted that much of the expansion had taken place in new HEIs rather than the established universities, and this institutional diversity has accentuated the levels of competition and further weakened the sector’s ability to articulate its place in Irish society, and make a case for investment. From a policy perspective, moreover, the funding model has been very effective in delivering growth for limited costs, so why change now?

As well as these two long term challenges, Daly identified an emerging and significant threat in contemporary attitudes towards science and expertise. Those working in higher education need to engage with the wider public and make the case for the relevance of their disciplines to people’s lives, while keeping sight of the importance of pure research.

Daly’s research hasn’t been centrally concerned with the history of education, but for me it was valuable and stimulating to hear someone speaking on this topic who has a strong grasp of the wider social and political history, and who has a well-developed capacity for analysing evidence of long term change. The RIA took its time in electing its first female President, and in this sense it was a privilege to hear history being made.

I only got to attend in my capacity as adjunct professor at Dublin City University, representing my colleague Maria Slowey who was on her way home from California. All in all, then, I had an enjoyable and very worthwhile evening while Maria sat in some god-forsaken airport.