Lifelong learning can give agency back to students and universities

Recommendations set out in Labour’s lifelong learning report aim to make learning a universal right, explains Graeme Atherton 

March 14, 2020
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As the UK Labour party makes its way through the aftermath of its worst election defeat in over 80 years and selects a new leader, what will this mean for their higher education policy?

The leading candidates already appear committed to abolishing tuition fees, but they will need to do more than that to explain how what they are proposing is going to work if they are to win over a public and higher education sector sceptical of the party’s credibility.

Fortunately for Labour, the foundations of a distinctive, forward-looking policy agenda are in place if they are prepared to make the right commitments.

In 2019 Labour convened a Lifelong Learning Commission made up of representatives from higher education, further education and the skills sector. I was part of the commission.

The commission had a wide remit. Lifelong learning has always been a key concern for Labour but its thinking on the concept needed updating. It also needed to square with the party’s commitment to abolish tuition fees as well as the introduction of the National Education Service.

Our final report, The future is ours to learn, was released in November. Some of its recommendations made the Labour election manifesto, but there was no wider discussion around the report because it was released alongside a flurry of other policy announcements. 

The recommendations cover what policymakers, institutions and employers can do to support greater lifetime engagement in learning. Rather than appearing as an add-on, the social benefits of lifelong learning are central to the report, sharing equal billing with the economic benefits.

The report sought to shift learning from being something owned by the state or a provider that is  “offered” to students, to something that is a universal right.

The goal was to recast the relationship that those who have been failed by the system usually have with learning. It also recommended shifting the relationship between lifelong learning and government, calling for a new duty on policymakers across departments to consider the impact of their policies on lifelong learning.

The commission did not retreat from the concept of education being free at the point of need, but it placed parameters around it, recommending a minimum entitlement to fully-funded provision up to level 3 (A level or equivalent) and the equivalent of six years’ publicly funded credits at level 4 and above.

In addition, it recognises that a right to learn is meaningless unless you realise you have it. Hence, a new approach to delivering information, advice and guidance was outlined based around a personalised digital platform that allows learners to track the use of their learning entitlements and engage with providers.

There is much in the report that the higher education sector should welcome.

Committing to a funded right to learn is seen by many in the sector as a challenge, especially when demand for higher education among younger students is set to rise.

But there is an opportunity here. Higher education is in grave danger of becoming the preserve of the young. A right to learn prevents this.

It also gives the higher education sector a better chance to shape its own vision of what participation would look like in the early 21st century. The freedom provided by the present system is, for the majority of universities, an illusion as they fight desperately for students just to survive.

Central funding can enable universities, and in particular their staff, to return their focus to the real value of higher education: learning, teaching and scholarship.

Unless the sector can develop a strong, coherent set of alternatives, the government’s idea of what a degree is worth will continue to narrow leading to more course closures and, perhaps soon, institutions.

There is much work to do in the coming years to build on the foundations laid by the work of Labour’s 2019 Lifelong Learning Commission.

A standing group or network drawn from across sectors, including higher education, like the commission, is needed to lead the thinking and discussion necessary to turn the report’s recommendations into fully developed policies. What is also needed, however, is political commitment from Labour to build a new vision for lifelong learning.

The commission has recently written to all the leadership candidates asking them to support the proposals in its final report.

Higher education institutions, their leaders, students and thinkers should strongly encourage the new leader to support the commission’s proposals as well. It would be in their best interests to do so.

Graeme Atherton is the director of the National Education Opportunities Network and was a member of Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission.

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