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Why lifelong learning matters for London

Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher and a Commissioner on the Lifelong Learning Commission
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It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that us Londoners get twitchy when we hear talk of levelling up. That’s because we know that this agenda isn’t really about London and it serves present-day policymakers well to think of London as the place of opportunity that other cities and regions need to measure up to.

Granted, on the outset, London seems to do quite well for itself: for a long time, the capital has been the engine room of the UK economy; it’s responsible for one third of taxes raised across the nation; and it accounts for a quarter of the country’s economic output while only home to 13 per cent of the UK population.

When it comes to higher education, graduates in the capital have historically enjoyed higher salaries and employment options than those elsewhere in the country; and Londoners are generally more likely to have a higher level of qualification to their name than the average British citizen, with young people from London also more likely to go to university than those from the rest of the UK.

But that’s only half the picture. Behind the headlines lies a very different story.

As a region, London is a bit like Jekyll and Hyde and, unfortunately, we tend to hear less about the large, poor city behind the rich, productive one.

Where you find prosperity in London, you also find poverty, and there’s a yawning gap between the opportunities, outcomes and life experiences of the most advantaged and disadvantaged Londoners.

With every stop you make eastwards on the Jubilee line out from Westminster, you can expect to knock nearly a year off the life expectancy of Londoners in those areas.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated intra-London disparities and the city with the greatest wealth inequalities in the UK is now also suffering from the heaviest job losses in the country and the highest rate of redundancies anywhere in the UK.

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The truth is that, despite all the tales of wealth and fortune, there are a lot of people in London right now that need help to skill, upskill and reskill into work, so that they too can access the opportunities that living in a city like London can and should bring. Although many of these individuals may already hold an existing higher education qualification, perhaps this is now related to an industry that no longer exists or the pace of technological change has made their skills redundant.

Moreover, as London embraces the ‘green’ agenda and looks set to play its part in the world as a carbon-neutral city, Londoners are going to need ‘green’ skills to retrofit the city’s estates and infrastructure. Others are going to need ‘green’ business and leadership skills to help the capital adapt to a sustainable future. A four-year lifelong learning entitlement could well give the city’s workers the means they need to ensure their skillsets are fit for purpose for the future as the world around us changes.

For the lifelong learning entitlement to work for diverse cities like London, however, we cannot afford to play God with the subjects people study. A city powered by the creative industries – not just in terms of performance and dramatic arts, but also design-led research and innovation – needs people to be able to study the disciplines that are critical to the way London’s economy works. This could mean empowering an engineer or medic to take a design course later in life to come up with the innovations we need to power our NHS or transform teaching in our schools. Or it could mean allowing an office worker to take a course in technical theatre to boost London’s West End revenue.

Art and design aren’t simply a “nice to have” in London, but a “must have”. That’s why it is vital we get rid of the restrictive Equivalent and Lower Qualification (ELQ) rule, which prevents people from studying subjects that are essential for maintaining our capital’s economy and vibrant research ecosystem. To exclude such disciplines from any future lifelong skills plan will see us fall short of the vision we have to improve the skills local Londoners need and will stifle innovation at a time when we need it the most.

What we need now is not just a lifelong learning plan but a local lifelong learning plan – one which understands the intricacies of different places and does not try to impose a ‘one size fits all’ model on unique cities and regions. A plan that works for local people and local industries and addresses the local challenges that matter.

With a city Mayor and over forty universities and higher education colleges, London should be well-placed to lead a local lifelong learning revolution. Yet, without a localised approach to skills from Government, we risk levelling local Londoners down and exacerbating the very inequalities we are striving to ease.

Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher and a Commissioner on the Lifelong Learning Commission

Adapted from a speech given at the launch event for the first lifelong learning report in Manchester, 4 October 2021

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