Citizens at the Centre

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Mick Fletcher writes about the necessity of a new strategic vision for policy which places the individual at the centre of genuine choice in learning. This is a slightly-adapted version of an article that first appeared in the Summer 2014 edition (Vol. 25, No.4) of ‘Adults Learning’, published by NIACE.

There are few things we can all agree on in relation to education and training, but one of them has to be the growing gap between the lifelong learning system we need for a prosperous and civilised future and what is happening on the ground.

Increasing globalisation requires more investment in the skills that drive competitiveness; the pace of technological change brings a requirement to learn new skills across the life-course; and an ageing and increasingly diverse society requires informed, active and tolerant citizens who can take charge of their own lives and help support others. Meanwhile, investment in training by employers is falling, state funding is in even sharper decline and key institutions are under threat.

This disconnect reflects a serious strategic failure. In large part, this is because lifelong learning policy has for many years been limited to two broad approaches. One has been endless reform of the so-called ‘supply side’, seeking to make institutions ever more responsive to ‘customers’. The other has been the aspiration to put employers ‘in the driving seat’. Both strategies seek to tackle important, but ultimately second-order, issues. Both are wholly inadequate to deal with the cluster of challenges we face.

Although the ‘supply side’ reforms have helped improve choice and responsiveness, it is clear that competition alone cannot deliver the comprehensive lifelong learning system that we need. We need collaboration at a local level to make the most of scarce resources and help avoid people falling through the net. We need institutions that can support autonomous learning, rather than focussing solely on their own recruitment and viability. We also need a national framework that provides clarity and stability, so that individuals and organisations can plan for the future with confidence.

It is also true that we need employers to invest more in training and retraining their workforce and to help identify the skills that will be needed in the future. ‘Employer ownership’ is however in danger of degenerating into a situation where employers merely bid for a greater share of scarce public funding, rather than one that drives increased private spending. Moreover, in a world where more and more people are self-employed, and an increasing proportion of those in jobs are on temporary and insecure contracts, we cannot rely on employers even for all occupationally-relevant training.

Since investment by employers and by the state is likely to be inadequate to meet all our future needs, it is clear that individuals and families will be called upon to meet more of the costs. We need to build a consensus about the share of costs that should be borne by students and put in place a carefully-constructed programme of support to help and encourage people to pay. Unlike HE, however, where the transition from grant to loan funding was phased in cautiously over several years, arrangements for advanced learning loans for those over the age of 24 have been imposed rapidly and without proper preparation. Institutional funding is being withdrawn at an accelerating rate.

It is clear that participation has been damaged by the sudden switch to loans – in relation to adult apprentices, so badly that the move has been abandoned equally suddenly. Nevertheless, the government is now proposing even more radical reforms to apprenticeship funding, again ignoring widespread concerns expressed by colleges, private providers and many small- and medium-sized employers. We cannot carry on with a top-down model of policy development that fails to build a consensus on the way forward.

What is needed is a new and comprehensive settlement for lifelong learning, with the citizen at the centre. Although employers have a vital role to play in training their workforce, and government will always need to support the vulnerable, it is now more often individuals and their families who have to navigate the complex challenges of the 21st century. They are best placed to determine the learning that they need. Therefore, they should have the loudest voice — not least because it is they who increasingly will bear the cost. This means respecting the choices that people make, rather than specifying what is needed from the centre; and extending accountability to communities through more democratic methods of control.

To build a new consensus will not be easy. It needs to have cross-party support if it is to be durable and to achieve buy-in from public, private and voluntary organisations, if it is to be effective. It needs to recognise financial realities – but at the same time, confidently assert the economic and social benefits of a learning society. It needs to cover traditional courses at all levels, but also outreach and guidance and learner support. All this will take time: but since there is so much agreement on the nature of the problem, a shared approach to the solution should not be impossible.

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