The UK’s centenarian lifelong learning provision needs rejuvenation

Universities, local authorities and others must heed the Centenary Commission on Adult Education’s recommendations, says Jonathan Michie

November 18, 2019
A female student holding a pile of books
Source: iStock

Like many Western nations, the UK faces huge challenges. Unknown technologies on the horizon mean that training for today’s skills will prove inadequate. And there are the great issues of the day that need to be understood and discussed in an informed and critical way, such that voters do not succumb to demagoguery. Investing in adult education and lifelong learning could play a vital role in tackling these issues effectively.

I would hope most would agree that the above description is an accurate assessment of the world we find ourselves in. In fact it is taken almost word for word from the 1919 Report on Adult Education, published by the Ministry of Reconstruction – which had been established by Prime Minister Lloyd George to set out how a country and society might emerge successfully from the debris of world war.

“Homes Fit for Heroes” was the best known pledge; equally well known is the failure to deliver. Still, while the 1919 report’s compelling vision was largely ignored by Lloyd George’s government, it did set in train tremendous growth in provision of adult education and lifelong learning over the subsequent decades. This culminated in the successful launch of The Open University in the 1970s, enrolling hundreds of thousands of students who otherwise might not have had the chance of accessing such education.

Successive governments funded “responsible bodies” to provide adult education in collaboration with universities, local authorities, the Workers’ Educational Association and other voluntary and educational groups. The 1919 report had recommended that every university establish a department for continuing education, and despite lack of government support, every university did.

But from the 1980s onwards, adult education and lifelong learning has suffered from government interference. One example is requiring courses to be run for credit, even where that might not be appropriate or helpful. More recently, increased fees have been an issue: these are far more off-putting for adult students than for someone going to university as part of the natural progression to a career. 

Local authorities lost their statutory requirement to deliver adult education, and austerity cuts have left them struggling to deliver even their remaining legal obligations, such as library services. The cuts have similarly diminished the capacity of further education colleges and the WEA to deliver. And along the way, many universities have given up on providing their local and regional populations with the adult and community education they deserve.

One hundred years on from 1919, the Centenary Commission on Adult Education’s report, published today, calls for a renewed commitment to adult education and lifelong learning. 

The great issues of the day are more vital than ever, with the climate crisis requiring an understanding not only of the issues but of what we can each do, individually and collectively, to effect change. With the burgeoning of artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning, the need for an educated workforce with capabilities of imagination, innovation and team-working increasingly trump the relevance of “training” in today’s “skills” – it’s tomorrow’s challenges we need to be ready for. And the need for an electorate to think critically, weigh evidence and distinguish between genuine political argument and demagoguery is becoming more important with the role of social media, fake news and the rest.

So, the need is there, but what about the political will? The Centenary Commission has been well received by the governments in Scotland and Wales. The Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry have also been supportive; commission member Lord Bilimoria is today speaking at the CBI annual conference in his capacity of president-elect. Our report includes a preface from the Bank of England’s chief economist, describing the recommendations as “powerful and compelling”. And in the current general election campaign, both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have pledged significant increased spending on adult education and lifelong learning.  

This is all welcome. But it will need to be followed by action if we are to make good the damage of the past few years. Government support is necessary, but local and regional collaborations will be vital to deliver what is wanted and needed. Local authorities need their funding restored to be able once again deliver adult and community education in collaboration with universities and colleges, employers and educational and other voluntary groups as part of a national strategy.

And while the University Association of Lifelong Learning brings together those universities that are still delivering fantastic provision, this needs once again to be a requirement of all. The UPP Foundation Civic University Commission’s report earlier this year was a welcome call to arms on taking the needs of local communities seriously. Now we need universities to deliver.

Jonathan Michie is president of Kellogg College, University of Oxford and co-secretary to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, whose report is published today.

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