From education to employment

The Shameful Neglect of Adult Learners is Extremely Detrimental to Both Individuals and Society

Leader of Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable

Launch of Independent Commission on Lifelong Learning. 

When it comes to education, for too long there has been an almost exclusive focus, in terms of political attention and public funding, on the study we do as children and young adults.

While this is of critical importance, the knock-on effect has been a shameful neglect of the needs of adult learners – which we believe has been extremely detrimental to both individuals and society more widely.

It is our belief that this harmful approach has been allowed to continue for far too long, and this is what led to us convening the Independent Commission on Lifelong Learning, which has published a first report of its recommendations this week.

The work of the Commission has considered how we can redress this imbalance, and give parity of esteem between younger and older learners, across academic and vocational settings.

Personal Education and Skills Account (PESA)

The central recommendation of our first report is that Government should establish a Personal Education and Skills Account (PESA). We propose that these accounts would be opened for every adult in England, with the Government providing a total of £9,000 of funding to each one, paid in three instalments of £3,000 when account holders are aged 25, 40 and 55.

Account holders will also be free to make additional top ups to the accounts themselves too, and we would like to see employer contributions become a common workplace benefit, in the same way as employer pension contributions are currently.

Account holders would, under our proposal, then be able to make transfers from the accounts to any accredited learning or training provider to meet the tuition costs of any course they decide to take; supported by careers guidance to help ensure they spend the money in a way which will help them achieve their personal or career development goals.

This might sound like an ambitious proposal – particularly at a time when public finances are strained. But we think the need to increase access to, and opportunities for, adult learning, should be an absolute priority for policy makers. 

On a personal level, not being able to access learning and training opportunities readily throughout life, entrenches disadvantage for anyone who, for any reason, was unable to make the most of educational opportunities available in the early years of their lives.

There are nowhere near enough chances to redress this later  – and when they can be found (our adult education colleges and institutions like the Open University do an amazing job in providing them) – the lack of financial support is nothing like equivalent to what would have existed earlier in life. The hurdles to access are, for many, far too high and too many people miss out altogether.

 Improved Health and Increased Community Engagement

This isn’t just about improving fairness – it is also a question of economic necessity. Our working lives are lasting longer, and rapid advances in automation and AI mean the jobs we do are evolving all the time. We need to give workers ongoing opportunities to enhance their skills, or retrain in a different field altogether.

Increasingly, even people who have accessed a high level of education in their younger lives, might not find that the qualifications or training they received then, are still relevant in their workplace two or three decades later.

There is also clear evidence, that lifelong learning and training opportunities provided throughout people’s lives, have a wealth of other benefits too – from improved health outcomes to more engagement in the community.

Adult Education Remains Terribly Underfunded

However despite all of these obvious benefits – and a lot of warm words from politicians on all sides in recent years – adult education remains terribly underfunded, and if anything, access is being further restricted.

We would argue that, while well-intentioned, none of the current Government’s initiatives to increase access to adult learning, are likely to have a level of funding attached to them which will meet the extent of need across the country.

While PESAs are not a silver bullet, which will fix this historic and deep-seated problem in its entirety, we think they would be a vital step forward – with the potential to help many aspiring adult learners overcome the significant hurdle of cost.

We urge Government and policy makers to give this proposal serious consideration, and to give lifelong learning the attention it desperately needs and deserves.

Leader of Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable and Rajay Naik, Chief Commercial Officer at Study Group


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