Lifelong learning plans ‘must be broader and more generous’

Author of centenary report on UK adult education says plans as they stand unlikely to undo decades of neglect

November 16, 2022
adult education
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The Westminster government’s view of lifelong learning is too “narrow” in focus and plans to introduce dedicated loans are unlikely to undo decades of neglect for adult education, according to the architect of a landmark report on the issue.

Jonathan Michie, professor of innovation and knowledge exchange at the University of Oxford and chair of the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning, told Times Higher Education’s THE Campus Live event that the record of the UK’s three major political parties was “shameful” when it comes to encouraging people to turn to formal education throughout their lives.

Professor Michie, whose Centenary Commission report published in 2019 sought to instigate a push for lifelong learning similar to the post-war effort 100 years earlier, said that the past decades had been “devastating” for adult education.

He charted a series of reforms from the Labour Party’s introduction of the equivalent or lower qualification rule – that prevents funding being provided for students seeking to study a qualification at a level they have reached previously – to austerity and the tripling of fees under the Conservative and coalition governments that had harmed the sector and were the cause of many of the current financial problems at specialist providers such as Birkbeck, University of London.

Promises made by former prime minister Boris Johnson during the last general election campaign in 2019 had “unfortunately not been followed through”, Professor Michie said.

He said that when talking to ministers now, he got the impression “it’s just skills for jobs and that is all that matters”. Long-held plans to offer adults a lifelong loan entitlement (LLE), allowing people to borrow up to four years’ worth of student loans over the course of their working lives, “suffers from that rhetoric of being so narrow”, he added.

Potential students may also be put off by the fact that it is a loan, rather than an allowance or grant, on offer, Professor Michie said.

“For adult students in their thirties or forties, the idea of taking on additional debt is likely to be weighed up against whether the family should have a holiday that year, or whether the family car that no longer works should be replaced,” he told the event in London.  

Professor Michie, president of Keeble College, Oxford, added that he felt the government’s constant tinkering with the terms and conditions of the undergraduate student loan had also given student finance “an increasingly bad name”.

“You can take it on and are stuck with it for another 30, or now 40 years,” Professor Michie said. “Interest rates change, terms and conditions change. Adult education will be wary about the lifelong loan entitlement for that reason as well.

“You are thinking about not only taking on debt but what will the interest rate be, and can you trust the government not to increase it?”

Despite his reservations, Professor Michie said the higher education sector should be positive and lobby for the proposals for the LLE to be made “more generous and creative”.

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