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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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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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.