The Association of Colleges has this week reported that the Skills Funding Ageing has asked colleges to make further cuts to adult learning. The 3.9% cuts come on top of a 24% hit to budgets and follow long term falls disinvestment in spending on adult learning.
The announcement was made just after the Government Office for Science published a very good piece of work by Hyde and Phillipson (1) which explored the future role of lifelong learning.
On the surface there is strong evidence of the case for investing in learning across our lives. Hyde and Philipson highlight significant evidence of the benefits of lifelong learning to individual health and the health of wider society.
Addressing the UK’s productivity puzzle is likely to need investment in skills as well as infrastructure. Keeping older workers skilled up so they can remain active in the economy will be vital to economic growth. And without more older workers, some sectors of the economy will face severe shortages of staff over forthcoming decades.
But despite the importance of learning, the authors point to a “sharp decline in rates of participation in learning activities for all age groups over the period from 2005 to 2010”.
Hyde and Phillipson highlight how as we age, we are less likely to receive (or indeed request) work related training. Their report also highlights the growing trend of older people working as self-employed, pointing out that those who are self employed are actually less likely to access learning and training than those on company payroll.
Hyde and Philipson paint a worrying picture of a future where only limited groups of older people are engaged in learning activities. As the graph below shows, participation in learning by those aged over 50 is highest for the wealthiest and lowest for the poorest in our community.
So, what needs to be done?
Whilst there is undoubtedly evidence of the value of lifelong learning, we are less convinced by the assertion from Hyde and Philipson that “The economic benefits of lifelong learning are also well established”. Pointing to the Leitch Review of Skills (Leitch, 2006) they argue that addressing the skills gap could generate “an additional £80 billion for the economy over the next 30 years, alongside a 15% increase in productivity and a 10% increase in the employment rate”. But investing in lifelong learning may (and often should) actually deliver more by the way of soft skills than technical ones.
The 2007 Sabates Commission of Inquiry on the Effects of Adult Learning on Social and Economic Outcomes (2) found evidence on employability, income and wages but highlighted a selection effect which might be influencing this evidence. The concluded that it was “not possible to establish the causal effects of adult learning on economic and non-economic outcomes.
So firstly, we need to find ways to better evidence the relationship between adult learning and economic return. And given the potential importance of this area, it is worrying that we are relying on data which is in some cases a decade old.
Hyde and Phillipson point to studies which show that older employees may be reluctant to engage in workplace training and NIACE has found that our desire to participate in learning declines with age. We need to find ways of actually getting people of all ages to demand learning. We also need to create a “Social norm” of learning across the lifecourse. Why don’t we run major campaigns akin to those run on healthy ageing encouraging everyone to get learning?
ILC-UK has previously argued for a citizenship model of “rights and responsibilities” in retirement. If we are to expect older people to volunteer, care and work longer, we also need to empower people with the skills to do so. We need to create an expectation that we learn through our lives but ensure that access to learning is possible for all who want it.
Technology is rapidly changing the opportunities for learning and we must ensure older adults benefit from these new opportunities. There is now a huge number of online courses available freely. Peer to peer learning (e.g. skype language learning) is opening up new opportunities. And with the right platforms, the sharing economy could bring together people of all ages to learn.
In their report, Hyde and Phillipson highlight that 86% of educational spending is allocated to those aged under 25.
It is right that the (vast) majority of spending should probably go on younger people. But at the same time it seems hard to justify why we spend so little public money on learning targeted at adults and particularly older adults. It sends a message that we don’t value learning in old age which also implies we don’t value the contribution people in old age still have to make.
(1) How can lifelong learning, including continuous training within the labour market, be enabled and who will pay for this? Looking forward to 2025 and 2040 how might this evolve? (Dated December 2014, Published July 2015) Dr Martin Hyde and Professor Chris Phillipson University of Manchester
(2) Sabates Commission of Inquiry on the Effects of Adult Learning on Social and Economic Outcomes http://www.niace.org.uk/lifelonglearninginquiry/docs/WBL-EoE-review-of-evidence.pdf