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’.

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.

 

 

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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Lifelong learning and social mobility in Europe – a blank page?

 

One of the European Commission’s agencies has just published a very interesting and informative report on social mobility in the EU. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has drawn on existing studies and surveys to provide an overview and comparison of the EU member states. It finds that European societies have generally converged in this area, with marked changes in gender patterns; it also suggests that recent trends in social mobility vary considerably by country and gender.

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I found this a valuable contribution, and as you would expect with a state agency it concludes with a series of policy recommendations. It rightly calls for further research to help shed light on national differences in recent trends, as well as for further debate over which indicators might best help us understand patterns of social mobility.

Its call to prioritise men in Generation X is likely to be controversial, but is based on evidence showing decreasing life chances among men born after 1964. It identifies early selection in education and residential segregation as major causes of  social closure, issues of particular concern in the UK.

This is all well and good. But I was shocked to see that lifelong education appears precisely twice in the report, both times in respect of policies for opening up labour market opportunities. There is no mention of evidence on the social mobility benefits of family learning or adult retraining or second-chance entry to higher education. Some of the findings around family learning interventions were summarised in our recent report for the UK Government’s Foresight project on the future of skills and lifelong learning, so it isn’t exactly inaccessible.

I suspect that the authors of the Eurofound study – and their distinguished advisory panel – simply didn’t see lifelong learning as much of an issue. They should have done, but I also think we can and should do much more to make sure that the benefits of adult learning are much more widely acknowledged. In this case, “we” comprises both the adult learning research community and the large number of reflective practitioners in our field, both of whom need to engage much more systematically with (a) policy-makers and (b) researchers in cognate disciplines. Insularity does none of us any favours.

 

Mine’s an espresso! Learning with the Popup College

I’m a fanatical coffee drinker, so it was inevitable that I’d get excited about adult education classes in Costa. The courses are the brainchild of PopUp College, founded in Cambridge in 2015 by Jason Elsom as a response to the collapse in publicly funded adult learning, and which now claims to be providing 240 courses in 55 locations across the country.

So far as I can tell, most of the courses are provided through public bodies, mainly colleges. PopUp’s website lists seven partner colleges or college groups. Local Costa stores provide the space; presumably the coffee chain, which is owned by Whitbread, benefits from favourable publicity. 

Courses aren’t cheap: ten sessions of holiday Spanish at the Greenwich branch of Costa will set you back £120, while you’ll pay £75 for Art History & Appreciation at the Altrincham branch. Compare this with the £80 for a local authority ten week Spanish course in Scarborough, or £94 for Art Appreciation with the WEA in Reading, and you’ll see that the prices are broadly comparable. Unlike the WEA or local government provision, there is no pressure for accreditation or assessment. 

The topics and prices suggest that the initiative is aimed at the traditional adult education market, albeit one that has embraced the ‘cappuccino culture’ that now permeates large parts of the urban middle class socio-cultural milieu. It is obvious that the PopUp concept will appeal less to those who find ‘cappuccino culture’ a bit posh and poncy, or who simply can’t afford the fees.

It is also geographically limited. Perhaps predictably, the vast majority of PopUp courses are in London, with smaller clusters elsewhere. At present there are none at all in Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales.

Will the PopUp concept endure, or is it a brief fad? I rather hope it lasts: it seems to me an imaginative attempt to keep part of the adult education system alive and well, and I will watch its development with interest. I’d love to know what others make of this

 

My top books of 2016

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By this time of the year I’m heartily sick of “best of” lists. Sporting moments, movies, dead celebrities, kitten GIFs – there’s no end to the things that can be turned into an annual league table.But books are the oppositive of trivial, and when the Times Higher invited me to nominate my top two books of 2016, I jumped at the chance.

My first choice was related to my interest in the way that education shapes social mobility – a relationship that cuts both ways, as education (including adult learning) produces and legitimates privileges and inequalities, while at the same time providing a pathway for the least advantaged individuals and groups to improve their life chances and access rewarding careers. My sense is that the social mobility debate has been rather Brito-centric, so it was a real pleasure to recommend a set of case studies that applies a shared approach to the issue of social mobility in quite different types of economically-advanced societies.

Second, I opted for a biography of the Frankfurt School. I found Stuart Jeffries’ study conceptually astute, and historically aware, as well as highly readable. He has the ability to place his subjects in their wider socio-cultural context, while also attending to aspects of their everyday lives. I was utterly persuaded of the importance of family and ethnicity in the formation of the first generation: Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer were typical, sharing an upbringing in comfortable Jewish suburban homes, and rebelling against those very capitalist virtues that had made their families rich. Jeffries evokes this milieu beautifully, while quietly insisting that Benjamin was the outstanding intellectual of them all. Habermas doesn’t emerge from the story well, and Honneth merits barely a mention.

Other than sharply analytical curiosity in cultural practices, the book left me wondering how much of the Frankfurt School legacy will survive. We don’t need Benjamin’s soilt tantrums (apparently he was unable to make a cup of coffee well into his thirties), and I certainly hope that their political pessimism and aloofness doesn’t linger, as the next year or two will require inspiration and organised action. We can seek some pointers for that journey in a book I didn’t recommend, Linden West’s Distress in the City: Racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education. While I found this a stunning study of contemporary social solidarities and sharp divisions, set in Linden’s native Stoke, the author is a friend and I provided the foreword, so I felt obliged to leave it out.

What I would say is that reading the book certainly helped me understand the anger, alienation and despair of so many of our citizens. West explores the life worlds of working class people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and political traditions, and both genders; and he does so with humanity and sympathy. West’s compassion and integrity are a long way from the demeaning stereotypes of the post mortem on the Brexit referendum, and he concludes with a call for adult learning and democratic renewal that can make the most of the ‘resources of hope’ that he discerns among those he interviews. I hope he reaches the wide audience that his argument merits.

I was similarly impressed by Jan Etienne’s study of first generation African Caribbean women in Britain.explores the learning lives of a group of older women. As well as analysing these accounts in solid academic manner, Etienne represents them in a creative and imaginative way as scenes from a drama.And she does so with humour (including her interviewees’ mocking of her as a middle class academic), drawing on a rich variety of spoken and written English.

While I don’t buy into the idea of a distinctively ‘womanist’ way of learning, the book develops a black feminist perspective that celebrates sisterhood while never shying away from experiences of oppression. I didn’t feel able to include Learning in Womanist Ways in my Times Higher selection because I examined the doctoral thesis on which it draws, but I found it absorbing and informative, and it makes a major contribution to the literature on learning in later life – as well as to our understandings of what it means to be senior, female and black in contemporary Britain.

From the Times Higher Education, 23 December 2016

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.

 

 

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.