From education to employment

Reversing the decade of decline in lifelong learning

Joe Dromey is deputy director of research and development at Learning and Work Institute

#LifelongLearning has never been more important

The UK economy has seen a period of stagnation in productivity and pay that is unprecedented in modern times.

Productivity has flatlined over the last decade, and average pay was lower at the end of the decade than it was in 2008.

Improving the skills of the workforce will be vital if we are to boost productivity and living standards in the coming decade.

The UK economy is set to undergo rapid and transformational change in the coming years. Part of this will be driven by technology.

From the artificial intelligence that can better identify breast cancer than highly trained radiographers, to the self-service checkouts contributing to job losses on the high street, technology will lead to a profound change in skills employers need, and to significant disruption in the world of work.

Our adult skills system will need to support workers to keep their skills up to date, and help those who are displaced from the labour market to retrain.

Beyond boosting productivity and supporting people to adapt to a changing world of work, lifelong learning has much wider benefits too.

From supporting health and wellbeing, to facilitating integration, access to learning is vital for a good society.

So it should be a real cause for concern that participation in lifelong learning has fallen to a historic low. Learning and Work Institute’s adult participation survey has measured patterns in participation in learning since 1996. The latest findings – released earlier this week – show that just one in three adults (33%) have taken part in learning in the last three years, the lowest figure on record.

We have seen a decade of decline in lifelong learning. Participation has fallen by a staggering 10 percentage points since 2010. This means that there were 3.8 million fewer adult learners at the end of the last decade than there were at the start.

The new government must put lifelong learning at the heart of an agenda for economic and social renewal, with an ambition to reverse the decade of decline, and to seize the opportunities that the next decade will bring.

1. Public investment in adult skills

First, we need to see a significant increase in public investment in adult skills.

The decade of decline in lifelong learning demonstrated by the adult participation survey coincides with a period of austerity which saw significant cuts to adult education. Between 2009-10 and 2018-19, government spending on adult education excluding apprenticeships fell by 47%.

In their manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to create a National Skills Fund worth £3bn over the next Parliament to provide match-funding for individuals and SMEs looking to invest in skills, but this is less than the cuts we have seen to the adult education budget over the previous decade.

The new government should use the comprehensive spending review as an opportunity to reverse the cuts that we have seen to adult skills and provide the investment we need.

2. Employer investment in training

Second, we need to boost employer investment in training.

The adult participation survey shows that much of the learning adults take part in is work related, and funded by their employer. But the volume of employer provided training has declined significantly in recent decades, and employers in the UK now invest just half the EU average in continuing vocational training.

Introduced in 2017, the apprenticeship levy was a welcome effort to encourage more employers to invest in their workforce, but it has had a difficult first couple of years.

The new government should review the incentives and support for employers to invest in upskilling and retraining their workforce, in order to further increase investment and give employers greater flexibility on how they can use their funds.

3. Access to lifelong learning

Third, we need to tackle the stark inequalities in access to lifelong learning.

Not only in participation at a record low, but we see persistent participation gaps, with those who could most benefit from taking part being least likely to do so. The adult participation survey shows that adults in the lowest social grades, or those who left school at 16 or younger are half as likely to take part in education than those in the highest social grade or those who stayed in education beyond 21.

This has been described as the virtuous and vicious cycles of learning, whereby the well-qualified are more likely to access training opportunities than those who struggled to achieve their potential at school.

The new government should ensure that adult skills policy is focused on closing these inequalities in participation.

4. Cross-government strategy

Fourth, in addition to being a major priority for Department for Education, we need to see a cross-government strategy to boost lifelong learning.

Given the well evidenced benefits for health and wellbeing, the Department for Health and Social Care should put lifelong learning at the heart of its emerging approach to social prescribing.

The Department for Work and Pensions should also explore how it could better support access to lifelong learning, whether that be through better support for jobseekers to address any basic skills issues, or through help for low paid workers on Universal Credit to access the skills they need in order to progress.

The government’s national retraining scheme shows some promise here, but its budget is small relative to the scale of the challenge.

5. Lifelong learning within communities

Finally, we should explore the potential for further devolution to support local areas in boosting lifelong learning in their communities.

The adult participation survey showed yawning gaps in the proportion of adults taking part in learning between different nations and regions.

In the south east, 39% of adults are participating in learning, compared to just 24% in the north east and 22% in Northern Ireland. Local and regional government could play a crucial role in levelling up participation in lifelong learning.

We’ve seen some progress towards devolution in recent years with the devolution of the adult education budget to London and six mayoral combined authorities, and we’ve seen some interesting innovation by local areas using their new powers. The new government should explore how further devolution – backed up by additional investment – could help to both drive up participation in every region, and close the gaps between regions.

The findings of the adult participation survey should serve as a wake-up call. After a decade of decline in which we’ve seen nearly four million ‘lost learners’, we need urgent action, additional investment, and a cross-government strategy to turn things around.

Joe Dromey, Deputy Director of Research and Development at Learning and Work Institute

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