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.
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.