Alan Tuckett

If you look hard and are resourceful you can find places for adults to learn in Britain today. But you do have to search them out. Yet the need for a fresh commitment to easily accessible lifelong learning has never been greater. For fifteen years outside of higher education, policies have concentrated more and more resource on schools, and on the immediate learning needs of 16–18s. The impact on adult learning has been stark. Two million fewer adults (among them the poorest and least skilled) get access to publicly supported further education than in 2003. In what John Benseman called the Fourth Sector, community-based adult education, the impact has been stark. Meanwhile, over the last five years, more than half of all mature students have disappeared from universities, as prohibitive fees put part-time study out of the reach of many, and public policy focuses remorselessly on full-time young undergraduates. As a result, the Open University is in crisis – despite the fact that overall university budgets have risen by a quarter over the last five years, as further education (TAFE and AE) have fallen by a quarter. And employers in the UK, alone among our European partners, invest less in training staff than they did before the 2008 financial crisis, in part because public policy has taught too many employers that the state pays for training.

Contrast that with the need for learning opportunities at work and in the community. The World Economic Forum calculates that Artificial Intelligence and robotics combined will cut a swathe through white collar jobs in the way that expansion of global trade wiped out so many manual manufacturing jobs a generation ago. Adapting to the challenges and opportunities created will require flexible and creative work, backed by opportunities for adults to learn new ways of working and to master new skills. Every significant new technology developed brings with it the need for imaginative new forms of learning, and technological changes proliferate rapidly.

At the same time, we are a rapidly ageing society, one where the date of retirement disappears steadily over the horizon, where people need the opportunities to downscale in work, but also need opportunities for learning in life after the labour market. For the educationally confident, the University of the Third Age branches have done much to make up for the loss of public provision, but for the less educationally confident there is little on offer. Creative innovations, like the work of Learning for the Fourth Age, which take volunteer tutors to work one to one with residents of care homes demonstrate the case for learning right through to the latest stages of life. Indeed, at a care home in Derbyshire, when a range of classes were introduced, including exercise, the home saw a fall of 75% in the use of incontinence pads in the daytime, and a 50% reduction in the use of daytime painkillers.

As the UN Sustainable Development Goals made clear, adult learning touches a wide range of the policy agendas that touch our lives. There is in the UK an exponential rise in poor mental health, which is a major cause for days lost at work, as well as a source of private distress. Adult education, of course, offers a safe space to rebuild relationships for people recovering from mental illness, quite apart from its role in preventing the onset of depression in the first place. With a National Health Service bursting at the seams and struggling to balance budgets, you would have thought the modest cost of investment involved in expanding the small scale existing Prescriptions for Learning initiatives would attract policymakers. But policy-making silos, particularly at a national level, inhibit such decisions.

That is one of the reasons that the Learning City movement is gathering pace again in the UK. An earlier generation of initiatives petered out just after the turn of the millennium, just as neo-liberal policies focused more and more on a narrow utilitarianism. But the new initiatives, led by city mayors, working in tandem with education initiatives, businesses and voluntary and community sector bodies have a great deal of energy. The Belfast learning city, for example, links closely with local health services and uses learning festivals to take the concept to the communities it serves. A key characteristic of learning cities is their willingness to embrace the range of formal, non-formal and informal learning.

On top of all these developments, we have the fresh challenge that Brexit – leaving the European Union – will mean for the lives of British people. It is clear that all the options under discussion about how we leave will lead to a weaker economy and people will be significantly worse off. Yet the result of the referendum stands, at least in part, as evidence of our failure as adult educators to engage in effective education for democracy, since none of the emerging data was made accessible to voters at the time.

The current crisis is, however, recognised, at least in principle. The OECD’s PIAAC study on adult skills showed that England was alone amongst developed country respondents in its 16-year-olds having no better literacy skills than those of people leaving the labour force in their mid-60s. Its England country study recommended a shift of investment from higher to further education. PIAAC found more widely that after initial training, the greatest impact of learning on productivity came where people learned something they were passionate about – a conclusion borne out over thirty years by Ford UK’s Employee Development Scheme. The House of Lords Economic Committee has also been concerned that policy should recognise the more than half of young people who don’t go to university, and argue that this needed proper funding, as does the needs of adults who missed out the first time around. Finally, the Government has established a review of post 18 funding, to which adult educators have given robust evidence, and received a sympathetic ear. Whether any positive outcome survives the narrow, short-term focus of Treasury thinking is, however, a less sympathetic prospect.

Despite all this, the annual Festival for Learning (renamed by the Learning and Work Institute, formerly NIACE, in 2015 except in Wales and Scotland where the Adult Learners’ Week name survives) shows every year the resilience of the movement, its continued capacity in straitened circumstances to transform lives, and to inspire others to join in. Whilst there is only the tiniest cause for optimism that things will change in a hurry, there is a long history of evidence that adult learning is like the weed ground elder. You can try and kill it, but it bounces back reinvigorated, despite the vagaries of public policy. However, it remains true that it is easier to organise new initiatives in resilient communities, or with confident and experienced learners. To achieve the UN mantra, ‘no one left behind’, needs serious public investment. So the need to make the case for adult learning – soberly in committee rooms, and with flair in public places has never been greater.

Professor Sir Alan Tuckett OBE is Professor of Education at the University of Wolverhampton, and Honorary Fellow of UNESCO’s Institute of Lifelong Learning. He was for 23 years Director and CEO of NIACE, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

This article was published in the ACE Aotearoa Spring Newsletter 2018.