Research, Policy, and Practice in Lifelong Learning

uall-lifelong-learning

The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning has chosen to focus on ‘Research, Policy and Practice‘ for its 2018 conference. You will find the call for papers on the UALL website, and it promises to be a lively and constructive event. Given the poor health of adult learning across the four UK nations, it also seems particularly timely.

I’ll be interested to see how researchers and practitioners now understand and address this triangular relationship. Ideas of evidence-based practice have not often found an enthusiastic reception in adult or further education, partly because of a (not unreasonable) suspicion of outside experts floating in to a field where expertise so often draws on experience, partly because ‘what works’ can change dramatically between one context and another, and partly because some academics are rather precious about avoiding a whiff of application.

Now might be a good time for moving beyond such unproductive refusals and to develop further the existing dialogues between research and practice over the types of evidence we need, and how best to use it. Academic researchers are now under considerable pressure to show that people read and use their findings, and practitioners are often required to justify their practice. This offers quite an opportunity.

As for policy, though, where do you begin? Evidence for the benefits of adult learning is not hard to find. My own overview of UK longitudinal studies – which show marked gains for individual learners and their communities, as well as gains for employers – is far and away my most frequently downloaded publication. The OECD survey of adult skills, usually known by its acronym of PIAAC, provides an international insight into these effects. UNESCO devoted its Third Global Report on Adult Learning to a review of research, and found clear support for positive effects on health and well-being, employment and the labour market, and community life and social capital.

So in principle it should be easy to persuade policymakers to consider treating adult learning as an intervention with a proven record of success. In practice, this has not been easy. The evidence base is still not as strong as it could be (for example, is adult learning more effective and less costly than other ways of achieving the same effects?), and I’m not sure we have still figured out what the distribution of benefits might mean for funding the system.

A second problem is, bluntly, the reluctance of policymakers to listen to the evidence and discuss the implications. Very few politicians, employers or senior civil servants have much direct experience of adult or further education. There are exceptions, of course: David Blunkett was an unusual Secretary of State in that he had been an adult student, is an alumnus of the Huddersfield postgraduate certificate in further education, and taught in Barnsley College. And among current MPs, Chi Onwurah and David Lammy for Labour and Caroline Dinenage for the Conservatives have all actively promoted debate over greater public support for adult learning.

So there are grounds for hope, but any chance of effective influence on policymakers will require a much stronger and long term commitment than most researchers in adult learning have shown so far. It will also require dialogue with politicians while in opposition, rather than contacting them for the first time when they are in power. In England, this is something that NIACE used to be very good at, and I hope that the Learning and Work Institute can build on this. But the issues are too important for researchers to hope that they can leave the job to others.

 

Can you promote social mobility without supporting adult learning?

Last December, the Government invited Universities UK to lead an investigation into improving social mobility through higher education. UUK duly created an advisory group on social mobility, chaired by its chief executive Nicola Dandridge, which aims to deliver its report to the Government, outlining a series of strategic goals for 2020, in May 2016.

The advisory group has now held its first meeting. It started by defining its remit, which is now probably rather broader than the Government initially intended. It has decided to explore not just who gets in to university, but also how they get on at university, and what happens to them after they graduate. This reflects a growing awareness that non-traditional students are not only disadvantaged at point of entry, but continue to be penalised throughout the student life cycle and beyond.

New Picture

Published record of the Advisory Group’s first meeting

The group also decided that it needed to consider ‘all underrepresented groups in higher education, including mature and part-time students’. Again, there is some evidence that mature and part-time students face continuing penalties beyond graduation, though this is an area that requires futher research. And of course, mature and part-time students are more likely to be parents themselves, whose commitment to lifelong learning provides a model for their children.

What the net effect of this is on social mobility, though, is largely unknown, not least because part-time and mature learners tend to be most numerous in those universities which have the least prestigious images. Nevertheless, I expect and hope to see some strong proposals around mature and part-time study, both of which have declined significantly in recent years.

The advisory group proper includes a number of people who have experience and expertise in adult and part-time learning, including Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access; Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton; Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University; and Prof Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

The practitioner reference group, chaired by Mary Stuart, also includes a number of members with adult education backgrounds, notably Nadira Mirza, Director of Student Success at the University of Bradford and Treasurer of the Universities Association of Lifelong Learning. While it is harder to spot similar expertise among the researcher reference group, they are bound to be concerned over the absence of much systematic analysis of post-graduation outcomes for mature and part-time learners.

Of course, the report is only of direct relevance to England, though the problems it is tackling are equally relevant in Scotland and Wales. Even in England, the Government may not be delighted that the UUK group has widened its remit in this way, and institutional managers may also try to resist any shift of focus away from the most low-maintenance groups of students (namely young entrants straight from school). Clearly there is still a lot left to play for.

To answer my own question, it is perfectly conceivable to develop policies for social mobility that do not involve adult learning. My own view is that this would be short-sighted, and that targeted support for second and third chance learning is a good way of promoting fairer access to top positions. So far, the signs are promising.