With the main political party manifestos having been published and now available on their websites(*), I’ve read them all, cover to cover, in an attempt to discover their adult education and lifelong learning commitments, so that you don’t have to.
- The Liberal Democrats have the best pledge – to establish a cross-party commission to address the undoubted problems of this part of the education sector.
- The Green and Conservative Parties acknowledge that adult learners exist (explicitly in the case of the Greens and implicitly in the case of the Conservatives). However, both offer at least one policy that will damage their interests.
- The Labour and UKIP manifestos are almost, or entirely free of content on this topic.
Pages 50 – 63 of their 158 page manifesto (a little under 10% of its contents) is devoted to education in general.
Page 62: “We will … Work with university ‘mission groups’ to … enable more part-time learning, and help more people to complete qualifications.” Many adult learners require part-time provision and it’s the only manifesto to acknowledge its existence and value.
Page 63: “We will … Establish a cross-party commission to secure a long-term settlement for the public funding of reskilling and lifelong learning.” There’s no doubt that a long-term settlement is required here and it’s the only manifesto to acknowledge that something needs to be done to address the problems in this sector that goes beyond party advantage.
The Green Party manifesto is an enormous 11Mb pdf file! It becomes clear why that is once you open it – it’s an image document, rather than a text document, making it impossible to read for anyone using assistive technology. They need to do better. However, the table of contents signposts the education section as being on pages 36-40 of the 84 page manifesto.
Page 36: “… the Green Party will make education free for everyone up to and including university or equivalent.” This is a bold promise, but lacking in detail. Does “university or equivalent” include masters and PhD level qualifications, and how many times would you be able to benefit from a free university education? (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t intend to put an age-cap on their promise).
Page 38: “Reverse the trend whereby 45% of apprenticeships, that is, jobs with structured training, are now taken by people over 25.” Wow. This is the only openly hostile policy towards adult education and learning I can find in any of the manifestos. In the Green’s world, it would appear that if you’re over 25 and want to better yourself through a job with structured training, you’d be too late.
Page 38: “Encourage local authorities to use some of the additional money we propose to give them to restore a full range of local adult education programmes.” Also wow. Just four bullet points after the apprenticeships bombshell, they say this – one of the few openly positive policies towards adult education and learning in any of the manifestos!
Page 39: “‘Lifelong learning’ is a phrase that is much used by politicians and educational professionals. Giving people the opportunity to be ‘second chance’ learners should be a crucial part of what universities offer to wider society.” So we have a party that claims to understand lifelong learners. But I’m not sure that ‘lifelong learning’ is a phrase that is used by all that many politicians if I reflect on my own experiences.
Page 40: “The Green Party would address this through … Restoring access to lifelong learning by supporting mature students and their families. We will reverse the 20-year programme of dismantling the lifelong learning sector.” There’s no details as to what kind of support they’re going to offer – free (taxpayer-funded) education? loans? childcare? something else? So beware – fine words butter no parsnips.
There’s a lot to mull over here and some great sentiments in the manifesto – but the openly hostile and ageist approach to apprenticeships they appear to be advocating is hugely concerning.
Page 35: “We will continue to replace lower-level, classroom-based Further Education courses with high quality apprenticeships …” This is bad news for returning adult learners. The policy of diverting funding from the adult skills budget to protect the apprenticeship budget is opposed for good reason by the relevant trades union and adult FE providers.
Page 35: “And we will encourage the development of online education as a tool for students, whether studying independently or in our universities”. Potentially interesting, as many adult learners benefit from the flexibility that the Open University and MOOCs provide, but there’s no detail as to what form this “encouragement” might take.
Disappointingly, there’s no explicit statement in their manifesto that any form of education or learning is needed by individuals and/or the businesses they work for past early adulthood, but I guess that ‘studying independently’ might just be an implicit acknowledgement.
Page 37: “We will protect the entire education budget, including the early years, schools and post-16 education, so that it rises in line with inflation.” So it sounds as if the cuts made by both the coalition and the previous Labour government to adult education funding will remain in place. The context of this sentence is also from an entire section that talks about education being important for “our children”, so I do wonder if post-16 education lasts much past 21.
Page 52: “Labour will do more to increase the amount of time prisoners spend working and learning.” A laudable aim. But I’m not going to suggest that anyone should consider getting locked up to secure access to educational opportunities as an adult!
From the perspective of adult learners, the Labour manifesto is disappointingly content-free.
There’s nothing at all in the 76 page UKIP manifesto for those wanting to understand their policies on adult education and lifelong learning. But that’s ok – their leader will simply make it up as he goes along, as usual!
(*) I’m speaking from an English perspective of course, so I’ve not bothered to read the manifestos of those parties only standing in specific countries or regions of the UK, as much as I’d like to find the time to read Mebyon Kernow’s manifesto.