Vince Cable’s lifelong learning commission – a missed opportunity?

An under-reported part of Vince Cable’s first conference speech as Leader of the Liberal Democrats was his announcement of an independent commission on lifelong learning. Being a lifelong learning geek, this announcement thrilled me far more than anything else he said that day. Lifelong learning has shamefully been political tumbleweed for far too long. It’s not a topic that the Conservatives or Labour have seriously engaged with over the last decade or more. It’s to Vince’s great credit that he’s the first national party leader to take lifelong learning seriously in the modern era.

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It’s been a long wait since last Autumn’s speech, but yesterday the TES revealed the twelve-strong commission. They are:

  • Chair: Rajay Naik – Chief Executive of Keypath Education
  • David Barrett – Associate director of fair access and participation, Office for Students
  • Stuart Croft – Vice chancellor of the University of Warwick
  • Stephen Evans – Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute
  • David Hughes – Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges
  • Simon Hughes – External adviser to the Open University (and former Lib Dem MP)
  • Shakira Martin –  The current president of the National Union of Students
  • Polly Mackenzie – Director at Demos (and former Lib Dem SpAD)
  • Ruth Silver – President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership
  • Ruth Spellman – Chief Executive / General Secretary of the WEA
  • Matthew Taylor – Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts
  • John Widdowson – The principal of New College Durham

I have no doubt that they will do their job to the best of their abilities, but I can’t help but feel incredibly disheartened and annoyed at the lack of balance on this commission.

With due respect to the NUS president, there’s not a single member who represents the “consumers” of lifelong learning opportunities. There’s also no-one who directly represents the needs of industry. Concerningly, the representatives of the educational providers and regulators are all (very) senior managers. I do wonder precisely how much time they will have to devote to this task. A sprinkling of talent from elsewhere in the education hierarchy would have been a very good thing indeed.

In my view these omissions are a huge missed opportunity. Without effective challenge, the commission is in real danger of delivering something bland, seen primarily through the eyes of education providers. While I trust that evidence will be taken from lifelong learners and industry, it’s not the same as having these voices directly shaping the commission’s recommendations.

Hopefully, it’s not too late to address these flaws. There are lots of talented people who understand what it’s like to be a lifelong learner, juggling the demands of family and career to ensure their skills stay up to date. There are people who understand what it’s like to be an employer and how difficult it can be to persuade people to take up learning opportunities.

I’d volunteer, but I probably won’t get a call now that I’ve written this!

But please Vince, address these issues. Otherwise you won’t get the radical proposals that you’re looking for, or what lifelong learners need.

Are we at the bottom yet? Further falls in Open University enrolments recorded during 2016/17

Today’s first release of HESA’s official student enrolment data for 2016/17 shows a further decline in part-timers. This is against a background of slightly rising numbers in higher education overall. As I’ve tracked the Open University figures since the publication of the 2008/09 data set, I’ve updated my graph. It excludes the (currently 225) students who live outside of the UK for consistency with previous years. The graph demonstrates that the institution and its students are by far the biggest loser from the changes in university funding made over the last decade.

The headline figures:

Overall student enrolments down 5,225 from 2015/16 – a fall of 4.1%

Undergraduate students down 5,830 from 2015/16 – a fall of 4.9%

Postgraduate students up 645 from 2015/16 – an increase of 8.6%

Open University Student Enrolments

Open University enrolment figures for 2008/09 to 2016/17

HESA have also provided some additional detail in the data set this year. Of the 113,285 undergraduate enrolments, 98,740 represent students working towards their first degree, representing 87% of the cohort. The remaining 13% are classed as ‘other undergraduates’ – presumably people studying for a new undergraduate qualification. Although the data isn’t there to interrogate, I suspect that this is a very different split to that during my own Open University experience some years ago.

If you want to explore the data for yourself, HESA have thoughtfully provided an interactive mechanism for doing so this year. You can get to it by clicking on the image below.

Open University Enrolments 2016/17

Open University Enrolments 2016/17

Given that the decline in part-time study is still continuing, something needs to be done, as they say. So here are three of my ideas for encouraging a return part-time study, especially among mature learners.

Three ideas for encouraging lifelong learning

Following on from my recent post about the decline of lifelong learning in England over the last decade, I’d like to offer three broad suggestions that could help to reverse this depressing trend.

1. (Re)introduce greater flexibility in course choices

One impact of the changes made over the last decade has ensured that more funding goes to institutions whose students register for and complete pre-defined qualifications (for example, an undergraduate degree). While this makes some sense for students enrolled on full-time qualifications, as it’s a good idea to encourage universities to do all they can to try to ensure these students don’t want to give up, it makes little sense to insist on a rigid qualification framework for part-time, mature learners.

For example, prior to the 2012 funding changes, Open University degrees were almost a side-effect of taking a number of courses. There was no expectation that registering for a course would always eventually result in a degree. You could tackle their courses in (almost) any order you chose. If you were a confident learner you didn’t have to make up your 360 points for an honours degree from specified difficulty levels, provided that you had obtained enough points at the higher levels.

Current Open University procedures mandate a far less flexible approach. You have to register on a degree pathway when you first enrol. You must then obtain 120 points at level 1, before being allowed to study at level 2 and then at level 3. The expectation is that you will study for a degree, rather than taking a couple of courses that you might need to help your development. Had these rules been in force when I had been studying with the Open University, I would probably never have taken the management course I did in 1990, nor the course I took 15 years later (at level 2) which eventually led me to gain a psychology degree in 2011.

So the first change I’d make is to ensure that funding for part-time students with further and higher education providers isn’t contingent on a multi-course qualification being nominated or achieved. Successful completion of a single course would be sufficient to release the ever-decreasing proportion of direct funding from government.

2. The “Open” qualification

Since the Open University was founded, one of its more interesting innovations has been the Open degree. An Open degree allows a student to study any subject offered by the university, across faculties and disciplines. In the context of lifelong learning this is an excellent approach, as it is another way of rewarding continued study. I’d like to see more FE and HE institutions offer the equivalent of “Open” qualifications as an incentive to learners.

3. Paying for lifelong learning

The current student loan system is broken for part-time students in general, and even more broken (yes, that is possible!) when considering the needs of mature, part-time students. Mature students have voted with their feet over the last decade. A lifelong learning account might help to address this issue.

For example, an account that allowed contributions from individuals and employers, match-funded by government, but used as and when individuals saw fit would be a good starting point for discussion. It should be possible to use this account towards any recognised vocational, FE or HE course – including equivalent and lower qualifications – to support re-skilling.

 

The consequences of kicking the can down the road

Kicking the can down the road is sometimes a useful tactic for avoiding short-term political pain, but often results in significant long-term damage. If a politician can kick a particular can far enough away, they may avoid personal damage for poor decisions, laziness and lies. Instead it’s the people in the can that’s being kicked who suffer. I’m fairly certain that’s the strategy of the current government when it comes to finalising the exit process from the European Union. When it proves to be the national disaster everyone with any foresight predicted that it would be, the culprits will be long gone from office. No doubt they’ll manage to scrape the odd book deal or two from the wreckage. As for the rest of us, we need to make whatever contingency plans we can.

The EU exit can appears to have been successfully kicked away for a few more months. However, one that’s been kicked down the road by politicians of all parties for the last decade or so and has largely been forgotten about has been found hiding in the long grass by the National Audit Office (NAO). Their report into the higher education market makes grim reading and not only because of the seemingly unstoppable trend towards the marketisation of HE. Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), remarked that “There is a world of difference between buying a tin of beans and making the right decision about higher education“. Quite.

Far and away the biggest losers from the last decade of funding changes in HE in England have been part-time, mature students. The charts in the NAO report show the scale of the disaster for this group of learners since 2011, but in truth, the damage to this group had already started under the previous Labour government with the withdrawal of funding for equivalent and lower qualifications.

Since 2010/11, the number of part-time students has fallen dramatically, both in real terms and as a proportion of learners:

Figure 4

Part-time enrolments for undergraduate study in England have declined markedly since 2010/11.

… with mature, part-time undergraduates feeling the brunt of these changes, through policies that have created an especially hostile environment for this group.

Figure 14 - Mature students

Mature and part-time undergraduate student entrants in England 2011-2016.

Peter Horrocks, the Open University vice-chancellor tweeted this morning that the fall in part-time mature learners had mostly hit “… the career learners who need new skills”, adding “This is an own goal for government’s aims on productivity and social mobility.”

He’s right, of course. This is a can that the government needs to stop kicking. Proper policy and investment in lifelong learning will be essential if the UK – inside or outside of the EU – is to thrive in future.

Why education shouldn’t be a treadmill

I can understand why some people say that education is a treadmill that you get on as soon as you’re born and eventually fall off, presumably when the speed of the belt goes beyond your capacity to keep up. There’s a brilliantly amusing and thought-provoking post over at Jo Sandelson’s Heir Raising blog which makes this point.

I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Jo writes. Play is important and we need to make time for it. Hot-housing students does no-one any good. Much of the over-testing that successive governments have introduced in schools is counterproductive. All of us (children and adults alike) need to be free to explore and follow our passions, whether that’s racing cars, looking after pigs or becoming a priest. Working for a software company is perhaps an even weirder choice, but that’s a different blog post.

But (and there’s always a but) some of us rather like the challenge that formal education provides. When I was young (a long, long time ago) nothing horrified me more than being forced outside to play, especially if team games were involved. The more academic stuff I could do, the better. In sixth form I willingly gave up my Wednesday afternoons on the football pitch to spend a few more hours in the strange little storeroom between the physics labs. There were four or five of us in there, working towards getting an additional qualification in electronics.

An education system without examinations or assessment seems utterly pointless to me. They need to be viewed positively as the chance to get recognition for all of the work that goes into study. We have to encourage children and adults to think of examinations and assessments like that. Tackling the fear that assessments are a nasty, stressful hurdle to get over with negative consequences if you fail is therefore really important. It’s up to all of us to change that discourse, to take the pressure off, one child, one subject, one assessment at a time. (Now, I’m well aware that the former education secretary, Michael ‘loose lips’ Gove, did much to set this more enlightened view back several decades when he removed resits at the same time as denigrating vocational subjects, piling yet more unwanted pressure on students. Hopefully however, after his alleged leaking and misreporting of a conversation he heard someone else having with the Queen, he’ll be off to the tower soon).

If you want to be happy in life with a comfortable standard of living, education is essential. A good education, with the certificates and grades to prove it remains the most important enabler of social mobility. While we should encourage everyone to follow their dreams – I have two amazingly talented daughters doing exactly that in the precarious world of writing and acting – it’s much easier to do that if you have qualifications to fall back on. I see very few happy people who have none at all … they’re probably even rarer than people like me who have always enjoyed study.

So how can we help to alleviate some of the pressure that children feel and make education seem less like a treadmill? In my view, education is so important that there needs to be a way for people to take second, third, fourth … or any number of chances to succeed. Sadly, recent governments have unthinkingly dismantled much of the support for ‘second’ chances by slashing further education budgets and forcing up the price of higher education – putting many mature and part-timers off.

Providing ways to ensure that adults can access FE and HE at any point during their lives is needed to break the tyranny of the treadmill. However, it’s only if people value education (academic and vocational), focus on the positive joys of learning and the benefits that a good education brings longer-term (socially and financially) that this type of provision will become a political spending priority again. It isn’t at the moment, and a sea-change in attitudes is required.

Education, examinations and assessments – not a treadmill, but a gateway to a happier future.

In praise of Baroness Sharp – the Lords debate adult education and lifelong learning

Last week, the House of Lords debated the current state of adult education and lifelong learning. I’ve now taken some time to read through the transcript and I’ve picked out a number of highlights from the excellent contribution made by Baroness Sharp. The debate was also notable for providing a vehicle for the farewell speech of Baroness Williams to be delivered, which was well reported on Liberal Democrat Voice.

That aside, the motion debated (and agreed) was:

That this House takes note of the role of adult education and lifelong learning and the need to develop the skills needed to strengthen the United Kingdom economy.

and was moved by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sharp of Guildford. In opening the debate, she said:

The trends [concerning adult education] are not good at present. Since the introduction of the full-cost £9,000 fee at universities in 2012, while the number of full-time undergraduates has increased, part-time numbers have plummeted by 58%. Today, there are 244,000 fewer part-time students studying at our universities than in 2010-11. This has hit the Open University and Birkbeck hard, but it has also led to course closures elsewhere because part-time courses become unviable. We know from the research undertaken by Universities UK that part-time students are indeed a somewhat mixed bunch, but we also know that a large number of them are mature students, many from disadvantaged homes and often with existing debt and family obligations, which makes them much more wary than their younger counterparts of taking on the debt obligations. Part-time study has been a powerful access tool. For those wishing to retrain and take up a new career, the ELQ rule, which excludes those who already have an equivalent level of qualification from getting grants and loans, has proved a substantial barrier to course take-up.

Yes, we’re definitely a “mixed bunch”! Baroness Sharp made a very pertinent observation about ensuring that the provision of adult education opportunities isn’t solely employer-led, but also considered the needs of individual learners.

I am calling for a more comprehensive skills strategy which addresses helping the over-24s improve their lot if they want to. What happens now if you are made redundant and cannot find an employer who will offer you an apprenticeship? What if you are self-employed, the fastest growing sector in the labour market at present? Who is responsible for training you if you are one of the army of people working as agency staff in one of the many areas in both the public and private sectors where work is now subcontracted out? If you are on a zero-hours contract, who is responsible for your training? There has been much talk about training needing to be demand-led, but demand in this case is always referred to as employer demand. I argue that the individual is an important part of demand.

In concluding, Baroness Sharp made three recommendations:

First and foremost, we need a more comprehensive approach that pulls together adult education and skills. This requires much closer working between colleges, universities, the independent training providers and not just employers but the local authorities and other public sector organisations, such as the NHS and DWP, as partners at a local level.

Secondly, we need to empower the individual to take more control over their own training. … given the risk-aversion shown by many mature students to loans, how about allowing 40 year-olds to draw down a proportion of their pension funds to meet training costs?
Thirdly, we need some incentive for the individual to invest in themselves. It is time, I believe, to look again at the idea of individual learning accounts … At the very least, it would be good to allow the individual to claim tax relief on the money that they invest on bona fides education and training courses.

The response from the government at the end of the debate came from Baroness Evans of Bowes Park. It was interesting that significant chunks of her response focused on pre-21 education, training and the provision of full-time apprenticeships, perhaps showing that despite the encouraging noises being made by her, there is still a failure at the heart of government to understand the needs of part-time, mature adult learners. She did, however, conclude that:

The Government recognise that there is more to be done to ensure that the UK has the skills and flexibility it needs to grow in the global economy and that all people in this country have the skills they need to do what they would like to in life.

… which is encouraging, but fine words butter no parsnips. Until there is a greater focus by government and politicians of all parties on the needs of part-time, mature students and an understanding of the value generated by people treading this path, then the decline in this sector can only continue.

Post-40 Bloggers

Why #PartTimeMatters

A copy of the 2015 edition of the Open University’s magazine “OpenMinds – for enquiring alumni” was waiting for me when I arrived home this evening. There’s some great content in it – for example, articles on the Philae Lander, driverless cars and research into social exclusion, all of which OU academics and alumni have contributed significantly to. All this success makes the leading article written by the OU’s new vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, a particularly disturbing read.

Peter points out that five years ago before the changes to university funding in England (a.k.a. the trebling of undergraduate tuition fees), more than 580,000 people across the UK were studying for a degree part-time. In 2014 this number fell to just under 370,000. England has borne the brunt of the decline, with a 41% decrease. Even though the OU says that it has managed to grow its market share, the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate OU students is down by approximately 60,000 in this period.

The obstacles being put in the way of access to part-time learning in England come at a point in history when the 9-5 job for life has gone, replaced more typically with 5-9 jobs during a working lifetime. The ability for adults to learn new skills has therefore never been more important. However, the costs for those who have a degree that needs updating or who dropped out of university first time around are becoming increasingly prohibitive. The OU does provide excellent value at £2,700 per 60 credits (£16,200 for a degree instead of the more usual £27,000 at a ‘brick’ establishment), but four years ago, OU students in these categories would have only needed to find around £4,000-£5,000. One of the consequences of the last few years (in England, at any rate) is that university level education is no longer seen as being a public good – but a cost to the taxpayer that must be avoided, as education only benefits the individual receiving it. Which is a political choice of course, but utter nonsense. Just ask the Germans.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, employers, who should be significant beneficiaries of investment in part-time learning, now appear reluctant to directly fund their employees. Figure 14 on page 26 of this Universities UK report shows that the number of employer-funded part-time undergraduate students dropped from just over 40,000 in 2011-12 to around 22,000 in 2012-13.

For someone without a degree there have been some crumbs of comfort, as non-means tested loans have now been made available to part-time learners in England. However, part-time students are still not treated equally, as their repayments start after four years of study (2/3rds of the way through a three-year degree), rather than after graduation.

The tuition fee reforms of the coalition government were bad enough for the part-time sector and those who wished to use it. However, the apparent intent of the current Conservative government to go back on their promise to uprate the £21,000 salary threshold for student loan repayments (in effect increasing the financial burden on recent graduates and nearly-graduates still further), along with their manifesto pledge to divert FE funding for mature learners to apprenticeships, look set to damage the interests of part-time, mature students still further.

In his article, Peter Horrocks asks all OU alumni to “… join the whole OU community and help fight for part-time eduction. [and to] Tell friends, family and anyone of influence about the frightening fall in part-time numbers and create an imperative to tackle the problem.

I’m fairly sure that the contents of this blog, from when I started it in 2008, witnesses to the power of part-time education in my own life. And as this video says, the most important thing that everyone learns at the OU is what they’re capable of.

Lifelong learning = political tumbleweed

Having failed to engage any of the five political parties through twitter on the subject of lifelong learning and what their policies might be, the next stage of my quest has led me onto their websites and the search capabilities that they offer.

The first problem I encountered with this approach was that both the Conservative Party and UKIP don’t appear to have this rather important function on their websites. (This is 2015 and not 1995, right?) I can only assume, at least, until their 2015 manifestos are formally published, that they have no policies in this area that they’d like people to be able to find easily.

However, the Liberal Democrats, Green and Labour party websites all have prominent search functions. And all three sites seem to have it delivered by an embedded Google search engine, which probably means that it’s likely to work.

So I thought I’d try half a dozen different search terms that someone interested in policies for lifelong learning might use and see what they turned up. The table shows the search term I used and the number of times it appears in connection with a policy document, consultation or manifesto (I’ve excluded hits on personal biographies and other items that contain the search term).

 

Search Term Liberal Democrats The Labour Party The Green Party
Adult education 0 0 1
Lifelong learning 0 1 5
Mature student 0 0 0
Older student 0 0 0
Open University 0 1 0
ELQ 0 0 0

(Note: I included ELQ – Equivalent or Lower Qualification – as it’s a technical term much-loved by many policymakers. However, it didn’t return any hits.)

At this stage in the process, I therefore (with regret, as Lord Sugar might say when firing an apprentice) added the Liberal Democrats onto the “wait until the 2015 manifesto is published” list too.

The Labour party website turns up the same document for both the lifelong learning and Open University search terms. It’s their 2008 “Partnership in Power – second year consultation document” and so probably doesn’t reflect current policy.

The hits for the Greens turn up an eclectic selection of local election manifestos (from Brent in 2005, Enfield in 2010, Camden in 2010 and London in 2012) plus a 2006 report on all manner of topics from one of their MEPs. These documents are therefore too old, too general, too local or all three of these things to rely on.

My conclusion is that I’m therefore going to have to wait a little longer until the General Election manifestos are published to see definitively what the parties are seeking to attract the lifelong learner vote with in May.

 

The US government “gets” lifelong learning – so why don’t our politicians?

After I wrote about the fall in OU student numbers for a fourth consecutive year last Saturday, I decided to see if I could get a reaction from the five largest (by membership) UK-wide political parties by asking them about their policies for promoting lifelong learning.

My first attempt was on Sunday. I sent this tweet to @LibDems, @Conservatives, @UKLabour, and @TheGreenParty. I even held my nose and sent it to @UKIP – after all, who knows what May will bring.

 

 

I didn’t get a response (or even a click on the link to my article) from this. But it was Sunday. Maybe those who run political party twitter accounts take the day off. I can understand that. So undeterred, I tried a similar tweet on Monday: 

 


… and it got exactly the same result. Nothing. Yesterday, I tried to introduce an element of competition:

 


… and no-one has responded to that tweet.

Which is a shame. Because the lack of investment in lifelong learning, at all levels of study, directly impacts our ability to compete as a nation. It means we continue to fail to make the best possible use of our greatest resource – the people who live and work here.

By contrast, the Obama administration seems to genuinely “get” lifelong learning. Their latest proposal is to provide free access to two years of higher education through their network of community colleges for eligible students. This is in addition to what seems to be a well thought out and employer supported workforce training programme.

I’m going to keep on pestering our politicians about this. I’m particularly disappointed, but not wholly surprised,  by the lack of any kind of response so far from the political party I belong to.

 

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