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House of Lords Hansard
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12 September 2016
Volume 774

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government how their policies are supporting and encouraging lifelong learning.

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My Lords, I make no apology for accepting the opportunity to renew the debate on lifelong learning, which has often been addressed in your Lordships’ House. I thank all noble Lords who have signed up to speak at very short notice, including those who will speak in the gap. I regret that the late introduction of this debate in the business means that many champions of the subject may have missed the opportunity to take part and encourage the Government to greater efforts.

Lifelong learning has been defined as the ongoing, voluntary and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. It enhances social mobility, active citizenship and personal development, all of which are surely of benefit to individuals, the community and the country. It is often considered learning that occurs after the formal education of childhood, where learning is instructor driven or pedagogical, and into adulthood, where the learning is individually driven or andragogical. I had never come across the term “andragogical” before, so my own lifelong learning has already been enhanced. This could be because without any training I drifted into teaching with just a degree. I discovered at first hand how different were the skills required to obtain a halfway decent degree from those required to engage young people in learning. As a result, I am deeply convinced of the importance—indeed, the necessity—of teacher training and will listen with interest to my noble friend Lord Storey’s debate after this.

However it is perceived, lifelong learning is dependent on people developing a love of learning, being excited about acquiring knowledge and skills, and having the confidence to take the risk of tackling new challenges. I have not limited this debate to adult education—although the focus is likely to be on continuing adult education—and I should like to begin at the beginning. As was touched on in the earlier Statement, the early years are crucial. Children’s learning starts in the home. We have all seen the joy on the face of a young child who takes their first step, catches their first ball or recites their first nursery rhyme. This is the sort of satisfaction that lifelong learning should continue to generate.

From the time of formal schooling, the Government have a major part to play to ensure that a love of learning forms part of education. Will the Minister tell us what importance the Government give to love of learning and fun in the curriculum? What place is there to generate enthusiasm, spontaneity and curiosity in the midst of the remorseless assessment, strict curriculum and constant competitiveness that is to be found in primary schools and, even more so, in secondary schools? In secondary schools, the dead hand of academic league tables drives teachers remorselessly to concentrate on tests and exam syllabuses.

I always feel that there is a valid analogy with carrots. You do not grow bigger and better carrots by pulling them up every day to check and measure their growth. Similarly, you do not grow better-educated youngsters by formally assessing and measuring them at every moment of their learning. With the overemphasis on formal measurement, our dedicated and hard-working teachers have little time or incentive to introduce innovation and excitement into the business of education.

As an aside, the great grammar school controversy, of which we heard more in the Statement earlier today, is an unnecessary distraction from the very real issue of engaging all young people, regardless of intelligence or aptitude, in learning.

In promoting lifelong learning, careers information, advice and guidance play a key part as a motivator, and as an introduction to the relevance of school learning to future life and work. This is especially important to those young people whose interests, talents and skills lie in practical learning. Enthusiasm for learning can be generated in the most unlikely pupil if they can see a purpose and a practical pathway, and can grow in confidence and self-respect that they too can be achievers. It is vital that the value of vocational and practical skills is given as much status and encouragement as academic achievement. Dare I ask the Minister to impress on his colleagues the immense value of good careers information at the earliest stage in education?

Schools can, and do, aim to encourage learning of all sorts, but are often held back by oft-changing government policies; what my former colleague Lady Sharp of Guildford referred to in her brilliantly insightful valedictory speech as the “churn of government”. It is pernicious that incoming Secretaries of State seem to feel it imperative to enforce their own new bright ideas, regardless of the impact and unproductive workload on teachers, and regardless of the fact that these very same bright new ideas might well have been tried, tested and found wanting in previous generations. Can the Minister persuade his education colleagues to hold fire, to consult, and to undertake cost and benefit analysis before making changes that are, all too often, politically driven and have little to do with improving life chances for all young people? After all, experts are sometimes right.

I mentioned league tables. They are the public face of achievement for GCSE and A-level results. What steps are the Government taking to incentivise schools over apprenticeships and other work-based skills by celebrating pupils who achieve in those areas?

After school, further education colleges play a vital, if underappreciated, role in taking forward provision for learning. Alas, the adult skills budget has been reduced by 35% over the last seven years with the proportion of adult learners over the last 15 years dropping from 50% to 15%. Gone are so many of those life-enhancing evening classes that can broaden minds, enrich lives and promote aspiration in a wide variety of ways. It is well proven that learning as an adult, including non-accredited learning, brings benefits such as better health and well-being, greater social engagement and increased confidence, as well as better employability, and benefits to family and community life. I remember years ago teaching French to adults in a college. What a contrast it was to some of the school pupils I was faced with. How exhilarating it was to have students with a sense of achievement and enjoyment at learning something new. They had rediscovered the joy of learning that we see in the very young.

On the employment side, the country is facing acute skills shortages. There are an estimated 31 million people in the current workforce of whom 12 million are due to retire in the next 10 years with only 7 million in the education system to replace them, so on numbers alone we need to be encouraging reskilling and retraining even before we consider the specific skills where shortages are most acute, such as science, technology, engineering, mathematics and languages.

Further education colleges are essential to this progress, with valuable contributions too from great institutions such as the Open University and Birkbeck College. The services that they provide enable adults to fulfil potential but also to contribute to the economy. All are currently too concerned about funding, qualified teachers and certainty about the future to enable them to plan their work to full benefit. Part-time learners have been heavily hit with changes to funding and colleges have struggled to keep up staffing numbers along with the wide range of courses they are expected to provide.

I flag up two issues. The first is funding for ELQs—equivalent or lower-level qualifications. Some exemptions have been made, but relaxing the rules would give great benefit in meeting shortages in the workforce. The second is individual learning accounts, where individuals contribute to their training costs alongside contributions from employers and tax exemptions from government. The scheme fell apart over fraudulent mismanagement, but the basic idea was sound and would be well worth revisiting, obviously with much tighter oversight to avoid the previous pitfalls.

We have yet to see the impact of the apprenticeship levy on adult education, but the signs are worrying. I urge the Government to consult and monitor to avoid adverse unintended consequences of this new initiative. Lifelong learning is an essential component in providing long-term flexible career prospects and for creating a more productive workforce. I hope that the Government will listen to all those who work to enhance learning and will provide more generous and more reliable funding to ensure the fulfilment of individual potential and the prosperity of the country.

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My Lords, one focus of this debate is the continuing upgrading that we all need if we are to adapt to a fast-evolving labour market and cope with the bewildering changes that we will encounter in the coming decades. Information technology and robotics are transforming our working environment and rendering many skills obsolete. That is well known and much bemoaned. But I want to highlight two things. The first is that the same technologies that disrupt the world of work offer more effective ways of dealing with it. That is the upside. The downside is that our tertiary education system is not flexible enough to respond optimally to these opportunities.

We are entering what is sometimes called the second machine age. Employment levels are being eroded in manufacturing. Robots will take over call centres, lorry driving and so forth. But it is wrong to conclude that blue-collar work is especially vulnerable. Some skilled manual jobs are very hard to automate—gardening and plumbing for instance. In contrast, machines plus big data will invade a whole range of traditional middle-class jobs, such as routine legal work, medical diagnostics and even surgery. There is surely a need for a massive redistribution to ensure that the money earned by robots does not stay with the elite, but instead funds the currently unmet demand for service roles and provides carers, custodians and so on with the secure and dignified employment that has been eroded by automation.

In this fast-changing context there is a growing need for flexible part-time education, not just for young people seeking to qualify for gainful employment but also for those in later life wishing to update their skills, and for those in the third age simply wishing to follow intellectual interests. There has been a huge and welcome expansion in tertiary education since the student days of most of us in this House. However, this has mainly been in higher education, with more than 40% of each cohort now going to university. A degree has become a prerequisite for many jobs for which it was not needed in the past. In consequence, social mobility may have been impeded. Young people who have been unlucky in their schooling do not have a fair chance of university access at the age of 18, even if they have great potential. Worse still, they generally have no second chance. And, of course, many people in their 50s and upwards never had the chance because far fewer went to university in their younger days,

Universities can ameliorate this problem by being more open to mature and part-time students. For instance, why cannot our most selective universities earmark a proportion of places for students who do not enter straight from school but have gained credit through study at another institution or through part-time or online study? Moreover, we must recognise that there is nothing magic about the level achieved in three to four years. An American will say, “I had two years of college”, regarding the experience as positive. Some drop-outs may return later while others may pursue part-time distance learning. Even those who go no further should not be typecast as “wastage”. Credits, even if they are not sufficient for graduation, are worth while in themselves and should be formalised into a system that more readily allows for transfers between institutions and between part-time and full-time study. The demand for part-time and distance learning will grow, speeded of course by the high fees now imposed on students at traditional residential universities.

There is surely also a need for more diversification among universities; they should not all try to compete in the same league table. There are, for instance, no counterparts to the high-quality American liberal arts colleges. The curriculum that most universities offer is too specialised and inflexible for many students. Moreover, there is too sharp a demarcation between further and higher education, aggravating concerns about our skill levels, apprenticeship quality and so on compared with other advanced countries. As the noble Baroness has just said, that is because it is further education that has been starved of funds. In further education the proportion of mature students has also fallen. This highlights the importance of reducing the financial impediment to further study or training at any stage in people’s lives. Perhaps there should be a rethink of the so-called individual learning accounts.

We know from the Higher Education and Research Bill that the G want to encourage private providers. This could be welcome provided there is an adequate accreditation procedure. Realistically, however, these profit-making providers will focus on the cheaper courses, which means social science rather than STEM subjects, for which on-line material has to be supplemented by hands-on practical work. Languages may also suffer. But the overall good news is that the advent of advanced IT offers massive new opportunities for lifelong learning. I am probably not the only person who looks back on their formal education and is depressed by how little of durable value I absorbed over so many years—and I was fortunate in my teachers. Understanding how we learn now matters more than ever because it is the key to harnessing the huge potential of the IT revolution for education and training.

Top universities in the US are developing online courses. UK academics should surely seize similar opportunities to widen their impact but, rather than getting locked into an American platform such as edX or Coursera, they should contribute content to the Open University and support the further development of its FutureLearn platform. The OU is surely ideally placed to take a lead in the worldwide dissemination of online courses.

There is a huge amount of other stuff on the web, the primary aim of which is educational. A pioneer was the so-called Khan Academy, with several thousand videos, each of just five to 10 minutes, explaining key concepts in maths and other subjects. This was created by a scientifically educated financier, Salman Khan, and is an amazingly cost-effective way to enrich the regular curriculum of millions, especially in the developing world. This online material will supplement rather than replace the teacher at school level and in most of further and higher education. However, online courses are a genuine stand-alone option for mature and motivated students studying part-time at home, whether seeking vocational qualifications or studying for its own sake.

If we are living longer, and especially if we move towards Lord Keynes’ nirvana of a 15-hour working week, we should not downplay the importance of lifelong learning for its own sake, as already stressed by the noble Baroness. The older among us may recall the era of the dedicated WEA lecturer, speaking to a few devotees in a village hall. The huge volume of stuff online today would generate amazement and envy in that generation. We can all freely access wonderful material on the OpenLearn website prepared jointly by the OU and the BBC, two institutions with a global reach. Of course, the personal touch has not been eroded—quite the reverse. There has been massive growth in live events, with hundreds of literary festivals around the country, the U3A et cetera.

Incidentally, another benign spin-off from the internet is the democratisation of research as well as of learning. There has been a long-standing tradition of amateur involvement in some sciences, such as botany, but the scope for citizen scientists is much wider. Many archives are now available on the web. For instance, amateurs are now studying ships’ log books from the 18th and 19th centuries. These are a fascinating social history as well as containing important historical data for climate science. In my subject of astronomy, eagle-eyed amateurs can access the data from spacecraft and themselves discover new planets.

So there are huge opportunities, but to exploit them for maximum benefit our system needs a more diverse ecology: a blurring between higher and further education, between full-time and part-time, and between residential and online. We need to remove the disincentives from mature students. We can exploit the benefits of IT to offer a better second chance to young people who have been unlucky in their earlier education. We can offer new opportunities to older people who never had them when they were young, and we can promote lifelong learning for us all.

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My Lords, I am most grateful to my colleague and noble friend, Lady Garden of Frognal, for securing this debate. I declare an interest as an academic employed at the University of Cambridge. It might sound a little surprising, having just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Rees, that somebody from an elite university must none the less declare an interest in lifelong learning, but even at the University of Cambridge there is the possibility to engage in lifelong learning. I will come back to that in a moment.

First, I pay tribute to my own mother. I am the sort of student who went straight through school, university, a master’s and then a doctorate; my mother left school at 16 with O-levels and always felt that she had not achieved her potential. When she got to 48, she stopped and thought, “What do I really want to do?”. At that time you needed to apply to university before you were 50 in order to get a grant, so she gave up work and went to university aged 48. I am not sure about your Lordships, but the last thing on earth I would want to do now is stop work and start an undergraduate degree. It would be far more nerve-wracking at 48 than it was at 18 for many of us. For those people who stop in their tracks during their working life and say, “Now is the time to go into higher or further education”, it is hugely important that those opportunities are there.

That was a personal anecdote, but there are so many people for whom university is not the right thing to do at 18. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees, indicated, there is a tendency now to assume that it is almost a rite of passage: people stay at school until they are 18 and then they go to university. They may or may not benefit from going to university at 18. Some people do; others do not. They may find that at 18 they want to go out and earn money, travel the world or do other things. The last thing on earth they should be doing is going to university just for the sake of saying, “I’m going to university”. That would be true whether or not they were incurring £9,000 a year or more of debt in tuition fees. It is a question of what is right for people at certain times in their lives.

For many people, going back in their 20s or 30s can be far more beneficial for their self-confidence and the skills they need to engage in the workforce. There are opportunities through further education colleges to gain the sorts of skills and re-entry qualifications that might enable people to do foundation courses and then go into higher education. It would be enormously beneficial if the Government would think about ways of encouraging people back into education at certain levels, rather than assuming that if you have not done it at 18, you have stopped.

I said I had an interest to declare. That is because my day job at the University of Cambridge for many years has been teaching master’s and undergraduate students who are at Cambridge full-time, but there are two other aspects that I think are of interest. One is a temporary thing that is worth mentioning, partly because it brings back the memory of Lord Garden. In Cambridge we have a link to the military and every year our master’s programme in international relations has five or six students who are funded by the MoD. One of our alumni was the late Lord Garden, who came as a mid-career member of the military. Each year we have people from the Army, the Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Marines. They add hugely to the quality of the courses because they bring a different perspective, and that is true of people coming back into higher education.

If you come to university at 18 and everyone in your cohort is 18, you have an understanding of learning and you carry on as a cohort, but people who come back into higher education at a later stage bring a range of life experiences that are beneficial to the whole group—and the lecturers. Again, if all you do is go to university and become a teacher in higher education, you do not necessarily have the breadth of understanding that is brought in by people who come in from the outside world. Teachers as well as other students can benefit from people coming in mid-career.

But that is a very niche thing. From the end of September, I will be teaching a part-time master’s programme, which begins to speak to the sort of thing that the noble Lord, Lord Rees, was talking about. Our part-time master’s programme in international relations brings in people who may have come straight from university—or they may be high-flying bankers or businesspeople, or they might be people who have decided to take a career break or mothers who want to come back into education and then the workforce. The course, including admissions, is structured on the basis of taking into consideration not just GCSEs and A-levels but what people have been doing in the intervening five, 10 or 20 years. What you have done in the workplace or your other life experiences can be taken into consideration when it comes to admissions. For people who may not have thought about coming back into higher education—or who may have switched off—there is an opportunity to do that even at somewhere like the University of Cambridge.

In addition, there are courses run by the department for continuing education that allow people who have left education, and not thought about skills for many years, to come and do them at weekends. They get a sense of what it is like to study again and ask themselves whether someone at the age of 25, 35 or 55 could come back into education.

Those opportunities exist in many universities. Over the years, we have seen an expansion of university education right across the United Kingdom: Bedford, Chester and the Highlands, for example, all have universities. The opportunity for people in local communities to go in and work, so as to gain experience through some taster or access courses provided by universities, could be a way back into higher education. It could also be a way of learning skills which link back to the local employment environment.

Such things are hugely important, but for too long the focus has been on academic education that goes through to A-levels at 18 and straight to university. It is hugely important that we think of education as something that people can come back to at whatever stage is appropriate to them. From their personal experiences, what matters to them for their self-fulfilment? Also, what will matter in terms of jobs? Increasingly, people are not taking on jobs for life; they may need to change careers or reskill. We should think increasingly about how people can move through further and higher education, and other types of study, so that at every stage of life they are fulfilled and equipped to take on the sort of jobs that a 21st-century economy offers.

What opportunities does the Minister envisage for 21st-century lifelong learning? How far can the Government encourage people to think about going into further or higher education at a time which suits them? How does that fit into wider understandings of apprenticeships and the other training that the coalition Government, and this Government, have been dealing with very well over the last six years?

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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Garden of Frognal for enabling us to have this debate, which is important for encouraging the personal development of individuals and for identifying the skills needed by the country as a whole, which will of course change over time. She rightly pointed out that lifelong learning depends on a love of learning. For many, that love of learning is not there when they are young, so opportunities for those individuals to develop and continue to learn later in life become very important. As we have heard in this debate, too, vocational skills can be as important as academic knowledge and achievement.

For as long as I can remember, this country has had a skills shortage. There will always be one unless we can forecast better what skills we shall need a number of years ahead. If we look back 30 years, the world of work in this country was very different from now. In 30 years’ time—or indeed in 10—it will be very different again. But identifying in what ways it will be different is extremely important. We need to understand better what education and training we need to put in place. For that reason, the decision of the Government Office for Science to look at what changes in technology and work could mean for education, training and lifelong learning is very welcome. Its aim, as I understand it, is to look ahead for up to 20 years, and its report will include the levels and mix of skills needed and, in particular, the kinds of digital skills that will be required. The context for that will be the critical factors that will influence learning over a lifetime.

I will talk about some of those factors in a moment and make some suggestions. First, however, a few days ago I was very pleased to receive a copy of the University Alliance report Developing Productive Places: the Role of Universities in Skills Ecosystems. I thought about the use of the phrase “skills ecosystems”. I rather like it. I find it helpful because it tells us that this is all about partnership working between the different levels of our education system and the large number of public and private bodies responsible for skills development, training and lifelong learning—and, in turn, for increasing productivity at local and regional level. The report is right to remind us that, as we have already heard in this debate, part-time study declined by 45% in the five years from 2010 to 2015. I hope the Minister will understand that that matter needs to be addressed urgently because, for those who are in work but who need to develop new skills, full-time study may be impossible. I hope the Government will look very carefully at ways of enabling everyone who wants to develop their skills to do so, be it on a part-time or full time basis, because the changing nature of work surely makes this essential.

I now go to the barriers to individuals successfully developing themselves. My noble friend Lady Garden of Frognal mentioned some of them. They relate to funding, information and support. Adults who want to learn need to be enabled to do so, and that implies personal, portable funding opportunities and easier access to advice and guidance. In this respect, I want to draw attention to union learning schemes, which provide a very positive means for individual union members to gain confidence in their learning and widen their horizons. Such schemes, of which there are a number, are based in the workplace with workplace mentoring and have demonstrated significant success in giving individuals with entry-level skills the capacity to progress further.

A few days ago, I read in my local morning paper, the Journal, about a report from City & Guilds which suggested that many teenagers in the north-east of England lack confidence in their future, with fewer than half expecting to be in a career they actually chose 10 years from now. I looked at this because I wanted to see the report as a whole. I hope the Minister will be able to read it because I found it extremely instructive. It is called Great Expectations. I shall quote three little pieces from the foreword. The report is,

“an exploration into the career aspirations of 14-19 year olds”.

City & Guilds interviewed more than 3,000 young people who were making decisions that would shape their future. It came to the conclusion:

“Rather than giving careers advice based on real local labour market intelligence, 14-19 year olds are being exposed to a narrow range of careers, with a one-size-fits-all education route to get there”.

Successive Governments have tried to address the issue of how young people can understand the routes available to them, be they routes through university, vocational routes or a combination of the two. But we have to do better at matching real local labour market intelligence with the careers advice that young people are getting. I understand that Ofsted has a role in this, and I hope that the Government will continue to pursue the issue. Otherwise, a number of young people may well end up making the wrong decision. City & Guilds reached the conclusion:

“The research backs up what we’ve been saying for some time: young people need better and more consistent exposure to employers and the workplace throughout their education”.

I subscribe to its view.

In conclusion, I think that what I have said demonstrates that investment in lifelong learning from the cradle to the grave is central to building young people’s confidence and widening their horizons, thereby helps to reduce social inequalities later in life. So I hope that the Government will look carefully at how they can expand adult education and part-time opportunities, including community learning, and will look in detail at the suggestion that my noble friend Lady Garden of Frognal made about individual learning accounts—I was going to say something similar. There were some problems with ILAs at the time, a few years ago, but the principle, as my noble friend pointed out, is still valid. So I hope very much that the Government will look at all of these issues, and understand how part-time learners have been affected by budget cuts and that for the economy to be successful, people need continued personal and professional development to be available through their lifetimes. With luck—maybe in the Bill that is coming to the House before long—we may be able to explore some of these issues in a little more detail.

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My Lords, I thank noble Lords for allowing me to speak in the gap. I shall be brief. This is a very important debate, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for highlighting some issues which matter so much to all of us.

I have been very inspired by the work of one or two organisations in developing these programmes and ideas which improve the opportunities for adults to take up learning, particularly in later life. One of them is United for All Ages, which aims to build stronger communities by bringing people of all ages together and promoting a Britain for all ages. This is what I want to focus on, and a key part of it is obviously lifelong education and learning. We know that employers could make much more use of older people’s experience, knowledge and skills, but often not only do they encounter ageism but there is a shortage among these people of the skills required in modern society. They need to be trained, but face many obstacles in achieving those ends. It is very important for responsible businesses, and employers generally, to create opportunities for their employees to learn throughout their careers and to take up opportunities for learning, nationally and locally.

There are of course opportunities in our society, and some are inspiring. One that inspires me is the University of the Third Age, which has been mentioned and in which I have been involved since its inception. One of the good things about it is that, locally, it is managed by older people themselves. As a result, it varies tremendously around the country, but it is a brilliant initiative.

Another initiative is Ransackers, of which I am patron. This gives opportunities to older people who missed out completely on higher education when they were young and enables them to do pieces of research. It was started at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, but now there are other centres as well, where people who had no opportunities in education can learn how to do a piece of research. That is an absolutely wonderful initiative.

The other one I will mention is the Second Half Centre at the St Charles Centre in London. That centre is managed by an organisation called Open Age, which is a brilliant charity offering opportunities for older people, and the range of activities provided there is phenomenal. They are not just educational; they are physical and artistic. They are everything that you could want to think about in later life, and it all happens in one magnificent centre, of which we need many more.

I would also like to pose a question to the Minister. The Government, and indeed many of us, are now looking at secondary schools with great interest. Many of them are in rural or semi-rural areas and are quite difficult for people to get to, except for local people who live around them and have very few opportunities to get the sort of educational opportunities that we are talking about. Would it not be possible for some secondary schools to be opened up to adults, particularly when learning something like modern languages? After all, you learn languages now in a language lab; you do not have to be the same age as the person next to you because you are wearing headphones and a mike and you learn your language on your own, although you can still discuss it with other people. We do not need to have age restrictions in many areas of learning nowadays, and this would be a way of opening up opportunities for adults in many schools. I think at least some schools would welcome such opportunities. I would like to know if the Minister would consider this approach, helping people of all ages to play a part in fulfilling their own destiny through education.

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My Lords, lifelong learning should be the central element of our future educational strategy. It would apply to every citizen and constitute a completely new way of rejuvenating and perpetuating knowledge in the present and bringing fulfilled lives to all our citizens.

I declare an interest as president of Birkbeck. Lifelong learning exists already in London’s only specialist provider of part-time higher education. Some 13,000 of Birkbeck’s 15,500 students are part-time because they have full-time jobs. Over 8,000 of those students are over 30, some are over 60 and one or two are even over 80. They manage to mix a life of work and earning with study and application. I went along to a session where a lot of young people—at least, people younger than me—were studying accounting, having come from accounting companies. The way that they learned was to interrogate the teacher as much as the teacher interrogated them, because they brought to their learning the background of their daily job. That is a wonderful way of perpetuating the skills of one generation and confronting the dilemmas of the next. This revised way of learning might well change the way that the human psyche learns and passes on information. It is only when that has happened for the whole population that it will be successful.

The people who come to Birkbeck have full-time jobs yet study for full-time degrees. The master of Birkbeck often says he wonders what other students do with their days because our students graduate with honours to full-scale university degrees. Indeed, it is a commonplace that an employer who gets a CV that says “Birkbeck” on it will put that CV pretty near the top of the list, because Birkbeck students want to learn, are highly motivated and combine their jobs, their incomes and their working experience.

I have a vision that, in future, working life throughout the country will include regular financially supported breaks for further learning. That should be built into the expectations of today’s schoolchildren and graduates as it has the potential to bring fulfilment to the whole population. What matters crucially now, not least for the Minister, is finance. It is difficult to finance these enterprises, but the Government have said that they support part-time maintenance loans. There is to be an official consultation on this, and I ask the Minister when that can begin. It cannot be too soon.

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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, on introducing this important debate, in which we have had contributions of very high quality.

On a personal level, having the opportunity to close for the Opposition in the debate to an extent represents the wheel turning full circle. That is because my first job on leaving university in the 1970s was as a tutor/organiser with the Workers’ Educational Association. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, mentioned trade union courses. During that period with the WEA, I was a distance tutor for courses for trade unionists, many of whom went on to further study. I echo the noble Lord’s remarks about how valuable they were and, in many cases, still are.

I spent three years with the WEA. They were enjoyable and, I hope, productive, years, helping people who had in many cases returned to education after a lengthy absence and were determined to begin a new phase in their lives. That may have meant a new direction in employment or simply an extension of knowledge to use for their personal benefit or that of their family or community.

Whatever the reason, often that first step into adult education was the most difficult, and the WEA has for more than a century opened such doors for millions of people. It continues to do so and last year it published the results of a survey of its students entitled Changing Lives. It revealed the extent to which adult learning impacts on so many areas of an individual’s life. The survey found that more than half of those under the age of 60 gave improving communication skills as a specific skill developed on a WEA course. Four months after completing their course, almost one in four reported having found employment.

Also last year, the WEA felt compelled to mount the Save Adult Education campaign. A petition, signed by more than 10,000 people and calling on the Government to stop further funding cuts to adult education was presented at 10 Downing Street by the WEA chief executive Ruth Spellman. It highlighted the fact that everyone deserves a second chance and a route back to learning. As Ms Spellman stated,

“it is essential for our economy and society that we continue to provide high quality education for adults”.

For many people living in low-income communities, adult education is a lifeline. It helps individuals and their families break cycles of deprivation by getting the skills they need to forge better lives for themselves. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said in her opening remarks, the adult skills budget has been reduced by 35% since 2009, and funding for adults over the age of 19 on non-apprenticeship courses was cut by a further 20% in 2015-16. I ask the Minister to explain the rationale behind what is patently short-term thinking.

A report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published as long ago as 2011 concluded that,

“adult learning contributes to other government policies by improving health and wellbeing”—

especially that of older people, and their ability to access digital technologies—

“cultural development and active citizenship, all of which can potentially decrease the burden on public finances”.

I would not refer to public services being burdened, but I welcome official recognition of the real benefits that flow from adult education. However, the years since have not demonstrated that the Government listened to their officials in BIS, because there has been little to suggest that they really value adult learning’s contribution to the growth of the economy.

The Association of Colleges has highlighted the extent to which funding has been shifted from adult education to apprenticeships. The levy on employers has the aim of increasing the quantity and quality of apprenticeship training, but there is a real fear that some employers will offer only the lower-end apprenticeships and may even use the people filling them to replace existing staff. Why should all the burden fall on employers? The whole country will benefit from a better educated and skilled workforce, so the Government should be prepared to provide additional funding to ensure that more apprenticeships are at the higher level.

The situation in higher education is everything bit as concerning, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, eloquently demonstrated, speaking from her experience as an academic at Cambridge. If I may say so as a bit of an aside, I owe the noble Baroness an apology. I had not looked at her title closely enough and thought she was Baroness Smith of Newham, thereby associating her with the University of East London rather than Cambridge. I now know better and certainly found the information she imparted to noble Lords based on her experience at Cambridge invaluable.

It is a fallacy to assume that young people will learn more effectively than older people. No matter the stage they are at in their adult lives, part-time higher education is essential in delivering flexible learning for people. The Open University is one of our great institutions. Statements it has issued have often made the point that part-time higher education is a cost-effective way of raising skills levels and training so that students can earn and learn at the same time. It may surprise some to learn that 75% of Open University students come into that category, and of course the benefits of new skills are felt immediately by both the individual and their employer.

It should be a matter of great concern to noble Lords that there has been a significant fall in numbers of part-time students in recent years. The signs are that that decline could continue for some time yet, particularly among those studying for foundation degrees, where the number of part-time students has collapsed by almost 50% since 2011. Of course, foundation degrees are the means of opening doors to higher education, so perhaps the Minister can say what the Government propose to do to counter that trend.

Les Ebdon, the head of the Office for Fair Access, has warned that if sustained action is not taken it may be too late to reverse it, meaning that many talented people who missed out on the traditional route into full-time study at 18 will find their route to a second chance at study cut off. A step change in approach by the Government is needed if the potential of lifelong learning is to be fully exploited. When success is measured, it must be done for all, not simply 18 to 20 year-olds.

The data and assumptions underpinning the Higher Education and Research Bill, currently in Committee in another place, focus primarily on young, full-time students, without taking into account the value of other flexible learning options, such as part-time, especially for mature students. It seems to have escaped the DfE’s notice that 38% of all undergraduate students from disadvantaged groups are mature, but it will need to take that statistic on board if it is to have any chance of delivering on the commitment to double the number of disadvantaged students entering higher education by 2020.

Employers and individuals could be encouraged to invest in education through personal career accounts, where public funding is used to match investment by individuals, with a bigger top-up for those on the lowest incomes. This could operate in the same manner as the Help to Buy ISA scheme. Over time, these could develop further to offer career review and development opportunities, assisting people to make informed choices to deliver training and development.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, and the noble Lord, Lord Rees, mentioned, the feasibility of a digital credit system could be examined, allowing people to bank their credits in digital accounts, should personal circumstances mean that they are required to suspend their study or skills development for any reason. A good example is the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, which integrates work-based and lifelong learning. The benefits are widely acknowledged, from promoting social mobility and employability to supporting employer collaboration and driving up quality.

Part-time higher education could be included in the scope of the new employer levy by broadening the scope of apprenticeship levy funding. Ensuring that the levy can be used for other forms of skills training would give more flexibility to the employer, without affecting existing employer-led initiatives, such as employer-sponsored degrees. An apprenticeship, as currently defined, might not be for everyone; one size certainly does not fit all.

Education is a powerful tool for tackling economic and social disadvantage because it raises aspirations and helps people create their own life changes. Lifelong learning and adult education should inform government policy aimed at improving the country’s poor productivity and closing skills gaps, to improve competitiveness and economic performance. Potentially it is a win-win situation, and for that reason I look forward to hearing a positive response from the Minister to the thoughtful contributions from noble Lords today.

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My Lords, I too am hugely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for securing this debate. I too wish that more notice had been given for it. The noble Baroness and I had the privilege of serving in the coalition Government together on the Front Bench, and I know that she brings much knowledge to this particular portfolio.

It is often the case in these debates that we hear of the backgrounds of noble Lords, and I was particularly interested to hear today of the work that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, did in the past for the WEA and everything else that he mentioned. I should declare my own interest in the subject of lifelong learning. My background is in industry and the City as a human resources generalist, including career management, so I have always had a great deal of enthusiasm for this subject and the contribution it can make, and I hope I come with a little knowledge.

Let me start by attempting to define what lifelong learning is; I think that the definition chimes to some extent with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees. It focuses on, first, giving people opportunities for progression and maintaining employment by upskilling; secondly, giving those who have underachieved academically earlier in life the opportunity to update their skills and increase their earnings; and, thirdly, enabling those who have been out of work to reskill and enter employment. I was interested to hear one or two anecdotes, particularly from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about her mother—maybe she falls into the third category or maybe it is the first; I am not entirely sure.

Like many noble Lords, I have read Hansard for the debate in January, when the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, offered an apt and succinct definition of lifelong learning, calling it the “life of the mind”. I thought that was rather interesting. Lifelong learning supports people to take control of their lives in a world of rapid economic and technological change, to meet the challenges and opportunities that increasing automation brings. In the recent past, we have seen the job market change substantially in places such as Teesside, and before that Corby. In the last recession, we saw a surprising number of people moving from their financial careers to take up teaching as part of the Teach First programme. It is therefore important for government to encourage people to take up new skills—a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, made in encouraging more people to come back into education, and indeed to higher education.

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, asked how the Government are helping students to fulfil their destiny. In reply, I would say that the Government have a number of programmes to help students to fulfil their destiny, and I shall summarise them in a moment.

This topic was the subject of a debate in January, which included Lady Williams’s valedictory speech. Lady Sharp spoke to us in this place of the Government’s groundbreaking reforms in technical and professional education, and now I would like to update the House further on those matters. We have accepted all the recommendations made by the Independent Panel on Technical Education, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, to establish routes of progression up to the highest levels of professional competence as part of a new world-class system. This represents quite a change: in the recent past in England, technical education has tended to start at lower levels and end at level 3. We know that the best systems start from the opposite end of the telescope; they ask what world class looks like and then work backwards. As a result, in the best continental systems, a young person starting has a clear line of sight through to the very highest level of technical excellence. That is something that, despite the best of intentions, previous Governments of all parties have failed to offer young people in our country, and it is a situation that all parties agree now has to change.

An example of this type of situation comes within engineering and manufacturing technologies, where there is an annual shortfall of 40,000 with level 4 skills. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, raised that point very eloquently in her speech. Yet the proportion of adults in the workforce undertaking higher vocational training—that means beyond level 3 but not a degree—is 7% in England, while in Canada it is 34% and in Germany 20%. In England, technical education virtually stops at level 3, with all the waste of potential that that involves. These reforms take that potential further and, as the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, has stressed, it is vital that the new technical routes are open to learners at any age.

The noble Lord, Lord Rees, made a point about the importance of internet skills and robotics. This Government are committed to delivering a programme of national colleges and institutes of technology, which will address gaps in the high-level skills needed by employers. They will be well placed to respond to the challenges of increased levels of automation in the workforce. As I live quite close to Milton Keynes, I am well aware of the project on driverless cars taking place there, which the noble Lord, Lord Rees, may know about. A very high level of skills is needed for that project, which is just one of many. Around £80 million of government funding has been announced to support the five national colleges.

I turn to apprenticeships, which have been mentioned and which are an integral part of the new technical routes as an existing all-age programme. Noble Lords will know that we are expanding apprenticeships, with a commitment to 3 million starts in the current Parliament, and raising the quality by putting employers directly in charge of the reforms. However, noble Lords may not know that more than 3,000 people aged over 60 began an apprenticeship in 2014-15. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, spoke about the important link between higher education, further education and apprenticeships. We are carrying out two reforms in technical education at the same time. This gives us the best opportunity to ensure that they are complementary and that young people can benefit from the changes as soon as possible. Higher and degree apprenticeships are widening access to the professions and developing the higher level technical skills needed to improve productivity—as was mentioned earlier—and support British industry to compete internationally. This point has been much trumpeted in recent days with the move that we are making with our departure from the EU.

As noble Lords will be aware, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, stated, finance is an important consideration at any level. The Government recently expanded advanced learner loans, so that those aged 19 and above can obtain financial support for studying qualifications at levels 3 to 6 at a college or training provider. For those wishing to study at university, we have introduced loans for postgraduate master’s students, with doctoral loans to follow in 2018-19. For the first time ever, we will provide financial support to part-time students, equivalent to the support we give to full-time ones, which we will also introduce in 2018-19. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, raised this point to ensure that those who want to develop skills full time or part time can do so and I acknowledge his comments. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, spoke about the decrease in the adult skills budget. The spending review was a good settlement for skills and the further education sector. A combination of the levy, the protection of the adult education budget, the extension of loans and the introduction of the youth obligation means that, by the end of this Parliament, the cash value of core technical education funding to support participation will be at its highest level.

However, we are, of course, considering whether there is more we can do, and the Government are currently undertaking a review into lifetime learning. Its aim is to ensure that people who wish to study part-time later on in life, or wish to retrain to change career, are able to do so. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, spoke briefly about community learning. This makes a powerful contribution to supporting access to learning and progression in its widest sense, particularly for people who are disadvantaged and least likely to participate. It supports groups who can really benefit from lifelong learning—adults who are unemployed, low-skilled or have few qualifications and individuals, families and communities who are socially disadvantaged. The noble Lord, Lord Rees, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised the question of the ability of a student to transfer. We called for evidence and I will follow up with a letter giving more detail on that issue.

For those who fall below the basic skills, we fully fund all adults to achieve their English and maths GCSE as well as other qualifications which help them achieve that level. We are also funding English for the speakers of other languages to enable integration into society, and to support more inclusive communities and jobseeking. Jobcentre Plus work coaches provide information about programmes that help people prepare for, find and stay in work. The National Careers Service offers people of all ages free and impartial advice regarding career and training options, including advice on the local job market. Citizens Advice offers advice about learning at all ages, as does our very own GOV.UK website.

Once again, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to and expertise in this debate. It is a shame that it was laid at such short notice, because otherwise I am sure that other Peers would have wanted to get in. In the very short response that I am able to give, I confirm that the Government are committed to providing learners with comprehensive support for their learning in an era of unprecedented job-market change and higher skill needs. As we seek to improve our country’s record on social mobility, lifelong learning will have a vital part to play.