by Susan Pember, Policy Director, HOLEX

Lifelong learning is more than just a few funded modules and  definitely more than an entitlement to a lifetime “loan” for upskilling and reskilling at Level 4, 5 and 6.

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill going through parliament introduces the concept of a Lifelong Loan Entitlement so that adults will be able to access a flexible loan entitlement for tuition costs, the equivalent of 4 years of student loans for higher-level study and training at university or college.

DfE expects these fee loans will open opportunities for more people to study across their lifetime, for full-time or part-time study, for modules or full qualifications, for high-quality technical qualifications and academic education at Level 4, 5 and 6.

Ministers have also badged it as Lifelong. But is that enough - does that make a lifelong learning strategy? I can answer that question with a resounding no - it’s not even a good start!

Lifelong learning covers learning at all ages and all types of adult learning, including vocational, higher education, and community and informal learning. It covers the work of universities, colleges, local authority adult education services and other adult education institutions. And it covers learning at Level 3 and below as well.

Lifelong learning has a wonderful long history which goes back to the adult skills and education reforms and movements of the early 1900’s and is now being seen by many countries as a way out of many of the world issues we are facing right now.

Lifelong learning is the way to improve skills and productivity; to ensure better health and wellbeing; to engage people in democratic processes; to build a fairer, more equitable society; and will if resourced properly underpin ‘levelling up’ programmes.

Lifelong learning as a concept is more than just a basket of separate post-19 skills initiatives. It is about ensuring individuals learn from childhood that learning is a lifetime activity. All individuals whatever their age should manage their own learning plans and not rely entirely on the state. The state should be there to raise aspirations and ensure the infrastructure and landscape that facilitate lifelong learning opportunities is available at the right time and the right place.

Lifelong learning is being used by other governments as part of the solution to a range of pressing global issues including: implementation of net zero climate change policies; recovery from the coronavirus pandemic; supporting retraining needs in the context of artificial intelligence; and rapidly changing economies and labour markets.

We are now seeing lifelong learning re-emerge on the international agenda and will be the focus of the seventh UNESCO International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA) in 2022.

A Joined-Up Lifelong Learning Strategy

We do so much in this country to support the concept of lifelong learning and we should be proud of our record. However, we haven’t described what we do, and we do not have a written policy.

By not having a policy for the post-16 part of a lifelong learning strategy we are not making the most of the different initiatives we have coming out of the separate government departments.

Our productivity is poor in comparison to other nations, our skills levels are low and there is an urgent need to retrain, but the number participating in adult education and reskilling is lower than it has been in last 20 years.

To compensate for the reduction of activity funded by DfE, adult skills and education is now funded from several government departments which has led to a lack of clarity over eligibility, no policy coordination, duplication of provision and the development of costly business processes. There are serious questions about whether money is being well spent and whether there is duplication which leads to confusion and dilution of the offer.

We have a good record in some areas - for example our HE numbers are rising and we now have a good number of our early years children in education, but we do not have a narrative that tells the all-age story, nor do we have what UNESCO calls an enabling environment.

We do not have joined up government policies which means there is costly overlap - for example, Kickstart and Boot Camps - and because there is no single policy, other government departments do not prioritise DfE’s agenda - for example, a lack of procurement traction on the appointment of apprenticeships.

So when we ask for a lifelong learning strategy, it is not about - can we have more informal adult learning (although that would be good) - it’s can government departments work together and produce a single strategy and underpinning framework which sets out the principles of implementation including quality benchmarks.

A lifelong learning strategy should be the bedrock of the levelling up agenda and could make a true difference to people’s lives. It would improve productivity and social mobility while at the same time joining up policy across government, reduce bureaucracy and make government funding go further.

Dr Susan Pember is Policy Director at HOLEX