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Reforming adult learning is the pathway to unlocking the levelling up agenda

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Earlier this month at the Conservative Party Conference, the Lifelong Education Commission – on which I serve as an independent commissioner – launched its first report into the British education system.

This report, titled The Pathway to Lifelong Education, contains a smorgasbord of recommendations for the government on how to reform adult learning so that traditional barriers to later-life education can be knocked down. 

Having had twelve years front line experience as an FE College Principal in Hertfordshire, London, and Bristol, I am deeply aware of how vital such reforms are if the UK skills system is to remain future-proof. 

Over the next decade, major structural changes in the labour market will find thousands of individuals unable to get stable work in their original professions. In order to keep pace with a fast-paced and unpredictable economy, these individuals will have to upskill and retrain to stay afloat. 

In the Prime Minister`s own words: ‘skills, skills, skills’ are the key to the future. Of course, if Boris is to counter the sceptics who argue that levelling up is more Red Tory rhetoric than concrete policy, he will have to go further than simply repeating the word like a Buddhist mantra. 

What the government needs now is a clear and definitive vision for what levelling up will achieve, with a fully articulated path forward for decision-makers in all parts of British society. In the realm of education, engaging with our recommendations in The Pathway to Lifelong Learning would be a good start. 

Traditionally, discussions of post-18 learning have tended to focus on investment in Further Education provision; pumping money into apprenticeships, Higher National Diplomas (HNDs), and other technical qualifications to meet growing demand. Whilst supporting these options is certainly part of the puzzle, policymakers should be wary of adopting a one-track approach to reform. 

For many adult learners, the benefits to be gained from re-entry into Higher Education will exceed any they might get from FE alternatives. This is particularly true for those looking to switch to professions which require an undergraduate degree. For many others, the key to career progress will be to add to their HE qualifications by acquiring specific technical or professional skills in FE. 

Such learners often find themselves unable to pursue the qualifications they need unless they can navigate the complicated eligibility rules between FE and HE and have ample money tucked-away. The upshot is that many of those most in need of reskilling are unlikely to be able to access it or afford it. 

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This has resulted in a partition in our education system, in which most adults are confined to a handful of FE options, whilst university remains largely the territory of young middle-class learners. The first step in levelling up our education system must be to abolish this unnecessary barrier to social mobility in later life.

One way to do this would be to open up access to student loan entitlements to all citizens, regardless of whether they hold a previous degree. This would mean reassessing the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) rule, in which graduates are barred from funding support for qualifications on or below their current level of education. 

In addition, the government could offer means-tested maintenance grants to those mature learners who may struggle to cover living costs whilst studying. For too often, the spectre of debt has been a millstone around the necks of many who are looking to retrain as adults. 

By offering a Lifelong Loan Entitlement alongside maintenance support, the government could level the Higher Education playing field by removing all economic and age-related barriers. This would create a far more flexible skills system in the UK, in which each person’s job prospects are not needlessly restricted by the educational decisions they made in early life.  

However, these measures are not sufficient in themselves if the goal is to radically reshape post-18 learning. To do this, policymakers should rethink how higher education courses might be structured differently in order to maximise the flexibility and accessibility of the sector. 

This could be done through the creation of a unified credit-based funding system which does not discriminate between different modes of study, or between courses delivered in a FE or HE setting. This system would offer support to learners regardless of whether they are studying full-time, part-time, online, or face-to-face. 

It would also allow the transfer of credit between institutions and across modes of study; allowing individuals to build up their qualifications over time without being anchored to one learning pathway. For a demographic that has far more practical limitations and time-constraints than their younger counterparts, such a system would open up HE as never before. 

The Pathway to Lifelong Learning is the first of many reports set to be released by the LEC in the coming years, each dealing with a different aspect of education. Each will offer a set of recommendations for how to achieve concrete reform in the UK`s education sector, based on a lively and open dialogue between policy makers and practitioners.

If the much-vaunted soundbite of levelling up is ever to have real teeth as a driver of social mobility, the government would be wise to watch this space. 

Andy Forbes is a former FE College Principal in Hertfordshire, London, and Bristol, and an independent Commissioner on the Lifelong Learning Commission

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