It’s time for a national lifelong learning strategy in the UK

With business backing for education declining, the government must invest to ensure that universities can offer a lifetime of learning opportunities, says Jonathan Michie

February 7, 2020

A recent editorial in Times Higher Education warned that the growing need for lifelong learning might bypass universities, and a feature article gave examples of this happening already in the US.

For the UK, there is an even greater danger – that the growing need for lifelong learning might bypass universities, businesses and the country. All communities would be left behind. Indeed, Britain is the only major European country where business investment in education and training is lower today than it was before the 2008-09 global financial crisis.

There are four key reasons why the government needs to ensure that universities are equipped and incentivised to contribute to adult education and lifelong learning.

First, with waves of new technologies, it is inadequate to “train” workers in today’s “skills”. What’s needed are capabilities to think imaginatively when engaging with such developments, to make the most of new opportunities – which will often exceed what was envisaged by the designers of the new technologies. There is learning on the job; absorbing tacit knowledge as well as codified knowledge; and exerting discretionary effort not by working harder or longer but by imagining new ways of utilising technologies, and new ways of configuring and reconfiguring processes. The productivity and success of new technologies will depend on what the workers make of it, and that will depend on the quality of their education – as well as on their motivation, and a work organisation that enables such opportunities to innovate.

Second, this sort of education is usually provided most effectively by universities. Even with a vocational degree, what is learned today will not remain cutting-edge for long. The important learning at university has always been learning how to learn – to think critically, weigh evidence and evaluate arguments. Those skills will remain central to learning throughout life – any education devoid of that, perhaps offered by a company, is likely to fall short when confronted with new realities. Hence John Paul Getty’s response when asked why he employed Classics graduates: “Because they sell more oil.”

Related to this is the danger of overkill with the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which is not necessarily solved by STEAM (the addition of arts, rather than the ultimate online game platform). There should be more to civilisation than economic growth – but even a focus on economic success will increasingly require imagination and creativity, best fostered by promoting the whole range of disciplinary research and study.

The point can be illustrated by Bletchley Park, perhaps with the ultimate need for STEM at the time and where Alan Turing et al. developed the world’s first electronic digital computer – Colossus – to help break enemy codes during the Second World War. Yes, they hired mathematicians such as Turing, but they hired others from across the disciplinary range, to work together collaboratively. My own father, Donald Michie, was a Classics scholar on his way to Balliol College at the University of Oxford when the war broke out. He got diverted to Bletchley, going on to work in artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics.

Third, for those already in work, collaboration between employers and universities can be a win-win for all concerned, not least the employees. For example, Oxford’s part-time master’s in software engineering began more than 25 years ago with IBM wanting its employees to be able to learn while continuing with their careers. That collaboration led to IBM subsequently signing a research agreement with the university. The programme today is more successful than ever, with an associated master’s in software and systems security.

Fourth, growing life expectancy combined with flexible careers means that studying later in life might be for the love of learning, and might also be for employment or entrepreneurship – as captured in the “60 Year Curriculum” being developed at Harvard University and other leading North American departments for continuing education. This recognises that jobs are changing – and people are changing jobs; that those born now might be expected to be physically and mentally active into their eighties or nineties, and will want access to education; and with the changing nature of work, the distinction between labour and leisure makes less sense, and that someone learning for the love of knowledge later in life is increasingly likely to put that to productive use either at work or in the community.

Much of this was prefigured in the Ministry of Reconstruction’s 1919 Report on Adult Education, which sought to map a way out of the rubble of the First World War. That report pointed out that new and emerging industries and technologies meant that training in current skills would be inadequate. The report’s authors also advocated adult education to enable society to tackle the great issues of the day – and today’s climate crisis certainly needs an understanding of the science; of behavioural change; and of how decisions are made in organisations and in society, at local, national and global levels.

Finally, the 1919 report argued that with an extension of the electorate, education was key to enabling electors to think critically, weigh evidence and distinguish between genuine political arguments on the one hand and demagoguery on the other. Sound familiar?

The 2019 Centenary Commission – established to update the Ministry of Reconstruction’s 1919 document and to build on its recommendations – argues in its own report that we need universities, businesses, local authorities and others to collaborate in the provision of adult education and lifelong learning. The increasing need for lifelong learning makes universities more relevant than ever – even in the face of funding pressures, private sector encroachment on their role as educators, and students questioning the value of an expensive university degree, especially if already burdened with debt from a first degree.

This is true for both the US and the UK. Industry needs to raise its sights and invest in learning partnerships for the long term, and the government needs to develop and implement a national strategy to promote such partnerships, with funding to make this happen.

Jonathan Michie is a professor of innovation and knowledge exchange, president of Kellogg College, and director of the department for continuing education at the University of Oxford. He previously held the post of co-secretary of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education.

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