Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress is being made in developing a sustainable lifelong learning culture in England.
My Lords, I make no apology for reintroducing a debate on lifelong learning. It has not been long since the previous one, but the Minister and I agreed that we would not simply rehash our previous speeches, because life moves on and different factors have come into play.
It was heartening to hear the Prime Minister in February announcing a wide-ranging review into post-18 education, with a remit to include lifelong learning. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some encouragement now and not kick all our questions into touch pending the review. I thank all those who are speaking today. We have wide-ranging expertise in our speakers’ list. I am very sorry that we have lost the noble Baronesses, Lady Bottomley and Lady Warwick, who are unable to stay until the end of the debate and have had to scratch. I have apologies from my noble friend Lord Storey, who has a family commitment. I also had apologies from the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, who is celebrating her birthday today. It is in the papers that this is a most venerable birthday, but it is certainly a well-kept secret how she manages to appear very many years younger than her actual age. Perhaps it is down to lifelong learning. Whatever the cause, we are delighted that she will now be speaking in the gap and I am sure that we all wish her many happy returns.
I start with a word about Birkbeck, which was founded in 1823 when Dr George Birkbeck championed the importance of educating the working people of London. It continues its evening teaching to enable working people to study and progress in their life goals. It is a noble aim, good for social mobility and the economy, yet Birkbeck has seen a dramatic fall between 2010 and 2015. Degree take-up has fallen by 64%, sub-degree by 68%. This should set alarm bells ringing. How can such a worthwhile institution find its numbers so reduced?
A similar vision led to the foundation of the Open University in 1969 for part-time students. The OU has been transformational for many people enthusiastic about learning and self-improvement, yet over the same five-year period, there was a 63% fall in its number of entrants. With the resignation of its vice-chancellor, the OU is facing turbulent times as it conducts a radical overhaul to face the challenges of the next half century. We have to wish it success in that exercise and hope it can find ways of enhancing people’s lives in the future, as it has in the past. These two unique institutions report the difficulties for the very people for whom they were set up, who now find them inaccessible because of the financial barriers. What is the Government’s answer? I trust we will hear more about the WEA—another great institution and key to adult education—in the course of this debate.
In the March report from the Sutton Trust—The Lost Part-Timers: The Decline of Part-time Undergraduate Higher Education in England—the findings make grim reading. Current funding is undoubtedly one of the major factors that prevents adults from upskilling or reskilling. Part-time study in England has been decimated over the last decade, with numbers collapsing by over half. The tuition fee changes of 2012 have affected participation in the part-time sector. Those reforms abolished means-tested fee and course grants and introduced fee loans and reduced teaching grants, leading to big increases in tuition fees. For many, the alternative to loans is not paying up front, but deciding that study is not for them. Studying later in life is an important second-chance route to social mobility. Part-time learners are more likely to be from less well-off backgrounds. The tuition fee rise is a serious blow for those who missed out on university as teenagers. Can the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to review the fee changes in the light of the detrimental impact they are having on disadvantaged groups?
At school, children’s enthusiasm for learning—their natural curiosity—is systematically curtailed to meet the needs of a remorseless testing and assessment system. Learning should be fun and exciting. If children associate learning with failing exams and coming bottom of the class, this will do nothing to encourage social mobility. Our focus today is on adult education, which we know brings benefits such as better health and well-being, greater social engagement, increased confidence and better employability and benefits to family and community life.
We now have technology that will make huge changes to employment opportunities. For older people who were not brought up with smartphones, email or Twitter, technology does not come naturally. In contrast, we hear of young children starting school who try to swipe books because they have never come across paper pages. Could the Minister say what progress is being made with the Made Smarter review, with its proposal for 1 million workers in industry to be digitally upskilled over five years through an online learning platform? Industry supports this. Do the Government?
Let us not forget the important role of libraries in providing access not just to books, but to technology and other resources. Our libraries are also under threat, but are particularly important for disadvantaged learners.
Technology means that jobs will be lost in some traditional skill areas, but we shall need more media professionals, engineering roles, hospitality and leisure managers, and natural and social science professionals, all of which tend to be highly skilled. So we welcome the work of Universities UK and the Confederation of British Industry in examining the decline in part-time student numbers and future skills needs to discover which employers and sectors have been affected most by the fall in part-time and mature students and how employers have responded.
Some skills that people can come to later in life, requiring patience and attention to detail, are the wonderful crafts, where this country has long excelled—crafts such as jewellery and clock-making, basket-weaving, fashion, stone carving and bookbinding, where people seek to create something beautiful and lasting. These can be engaging hobbies, but they can also lead to profitable work. They are encouraged by the Sainsbury trusts, the royal warrant holders and the livery companies, which do so much for education and creativity. City & Guilds, in which I declare an interest as a vice-president, has long awarded well-respected qualifications in crafts, which should be a pride and credit to the country, with further education colleges, against many a challenge, providing the opportunities for such important practical and work-based learning. Could the Minister say what encouragement the Government are giving, or can give, to craft and creativity, which has largely been squeezed out of the school curriculum in favour of undiluted academic content?
In the balmy days when colleges could offer a wide range of learning opportunities, I taught French and Spanish classes. Some learners aimed to pass exams; some simply looked for the satisfaction and pleasure of speaking another tongue. We have seen an alarming decline in language learning. If and when we leave the EU, it will be ever more important that we speak the languages of those countries with whom we have broken off relations. What plans are there to reverse this monolingual trend? How can we encourage adults to learn a language they might have neglected at school?
Long before I thought I would be involved with politics, both as a teacher and working for City & Guilds, I had occasion to curse politicians for making decisions that involved a great deal of stress and pointless work, without regard to education professionals. In recent days, we had diplomas, changes to GCSE gradings and now we have T-levels—how long will they last with a change of Minister? Swathes of teacher time are taken up not in teaching, but in developing and implementing ill-thought-through government policies that may well be reversed. Education Ministers rarely stay more than a year or two, to be replaced by someone else with cunning plans and bright ideas. The Liberal Democrats would like to see these policy decisions removed from politicians and put into the hands of education experts with long-term recommendations. Could the Minister encourage his new Secretary of State to earn the admiration of educators and to give real benefit to learners by taking party politics out of education policy? What a ground-breaking improvement that would be. What about reconsideration of personal loan accounts, individual learning accounts with contributions from individuals, employers and government, or increased teaching grants to universities through a part-time premium?
Lifelong learning is such a wide-ranging topic. I have not touched on the arguments for funding equivalent or lower-level qualifications, which was removed some years ago, the damaging impact of Ofsted on FE, the pointless resits in English and Maths, or the vexatious apprenticeship levy. Perhaps others will. People are living and working longer, but training across working lives is going down. We urge the Government to lead a radical focus on lifelong learning and create an infrastructure that enables individuals of all ages to make transitions and compete in this ever-changing job market. I look forward to hearing the debate and to the Minister’s reply. I know his heart is in the right place. I hope his words can provide some hope and encouragement.
My Lords, I must first refer your Lordships to my education interests as declared in the register. I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for securing this debate and for the way in which she introduced it.
Our education system is still stuck in thinking from 70 years ago. This is reflected in our lifelong learning culture that is a long way from where it needs to be to meet the needs of individuals, society and our economy. Our whole post-war model is based on people drawing on state-provided education services as children and young people. They should then be well equipped to enter the workforce and, through their taxes, repay that cost and contribute to the future cost of their health and pensions when they retire.
The model assumes retirement to be short. It also assumes that adult skills are something that a small minority may need help with—probably the same people who did not do so well at school. It assumes a relatively static industrial economy, where those who get to university are then equipped to prosper and to contribute to a final salary pension scheme and a mortgage out of the enhanced earnings commanded by graduates in lucrative professions. That model is now woefully out of date, and our public finances, the crisis in the care system and the disengagement of swathes of the population from our politics are a result.
Our school system is increasingly obsessed by pure academic knowledge and is preparing children to be really good at recalling that knowledge and thereby preparing them to be outcompeted by machines.
A successful school career results in a university place. Our higher education system exists to generate more researchers and as a gateway to the professions. However, as set out brilliantly in Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book, The Future of the Professions, we now see professions such as medicine, law, accountancy, architecture, management consulting, banking and even teaching disrupted by ever advancing technology. It is credible that young people will be sold a degree with £50,000 of debt and entry into a profession that is running out of road.
However, thanks to the wonderful gains being made in healthcare, young people are likely to live longer. This means they need either to amass more wealth in their working lives for their retirement or to work well into their 80s. They need to be able to change careers several times, as technology deskills and reskills their profession. As a consequence, a culture of lifelong learning is vital. If the population is to be productive, if we are to be less dependent on migrant skills and if we are to avoid a contagion of disaffection spreading from the rust belt, we need an education system designed around a culture of lifelong learning. Yet, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, that great iconic cultural institution of lifelong learning, the Open University, is struggling to recruit part-time learners, which is why the past five years have seen a 17% fall in the number of undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds across our university system.
I was delighted to read paragraph 236 in today’s Select Committee report on artificial intelligence. The committee states:
“The UK must be ready for the disruption that AI will have on the way in which we work. We support the Government’s interest in developing adult retraining schemes, as we believe that AI will disrupt a wide range of jobs over the coming decades, and both blue- and white-collar jobs which exist today will be put at risk … Industry should assist in the financing of the National Retraining Scheme by matching Government funding. This partnership would help improve the number of people who can access the scheme and better identify the skills required. Such an approach must reflect the lessons learned from the execution of the Apprenticeship Levy”.
I am delighted that the apprenticeship levy was introduced as the beginnings of a return to the training levies of the past, but apprenticeships are proving inflexible, as their frameworks are as interested in the time taken to study as they are in the skills and knowledge learned. Incidentally, I am also alarmed that work experience that is baked into qualifications is used to exclude foreign nationals because they require work visas, and not just study visas, to complete their degree. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this own goal that we are achieving in this country on education exports?
It is also worth noting that larger employers are now starting to take more seriously the need for learning in their workforces. However, I worry that, for as long as senior executives are incentivised on share price, as our management culture dictates, workplace training will be focused on the short term and less on generally improving the stock of skills in the labour market as a whole.
So what should we do to develop a fit-for-purpose lifelong learning culture? We need four things. We need a school system that values applied learning and builds resilience and a love of self-directed learning. We need a university system that has a lifelong relationship with students, perhaps even on a subscription model. We need a rebooted universal adult skills system that is a mixed economy of public and private providers with a new funding model. We need to convert the apprenticeship levy into a lifelong learning levy that employers, the Exchequer and the employee all pay into and that individuals can draw on through their life for university and for skills training.
This is urgent. I hope that not only the noble Viscount but other Ministers in the Department for Education and elsewhere are listening. We need radical reform, not just tinkering with a redundant system.
My Lords, I am very pleased to contribute to this debate today and I thank my noble friend Lady Garden for initiating it. As someone who has been a lifelong learning tutor, I have seen the transformational effect on the lives of individuals and their families that the lifelong learning habit can have. Also, as a former city leader, I am aware of the immense opportunities lifelong learning can offer. However, ever fewer of these are available, as cuts to local government funding have affected the provision of lifelong learning and ensured that most of the budget is focused on learning for employment. Many in the sector had hoped that the industrial strategy would contain more commitments to lifelong learning, particularly as so many people will need to retrain and keep learning for longer now that the statutory pension age has been extended.
Access to lifelong learning is also crucial for communities—I am thinking here of the poorest and most deprived. Many in these communities have had a poor experience of formal education. They have little knowledge of educational achievement and are very often locked in a cycle of deprivation that is very difficult to break out of. People need local agencies that offer them advice and opportunities to get back into learning, with routes of progression to enable them to acquire the skills they need to break out of poverty. There needs to be local provision so that people who have to work can access a local centre. Libraries and the opportunities they offer are also very much needed, with technology and opportunities to use equipment for people who do not have their own. Cuts to local government funding have meant that most of these are now closed or under threat, and there is a fragmentation in provision that makes it more difficult to know where to start.
As well as local provision, there needs to be flexibility for people to access lifelong learning in a range of ways and at different times, to enable people to earn and learn at the same time. Evening courses, online courses, distance learning—many of these were pioneered by the OU and I share the hope expressed by other speakers that the OU will find a way out of its difficulties. As a former OU student, I can say that it was certainly indispensable to me, but also, having met lots of other students I can testify to the range and diversity of students and just how they have blossomed and prospered from having a second chance to study for a degree. As we have seen from many briefings, particularly that from the Open University, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of part-time learners. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, the very people for whom the OU was set up are now finding it inaccessible because of the financial barriers. I very much hope that the Minister will assure us that the review will take seriously the deterrence to part-time learning and will come forward with proposals to incentivise part-time learning.
There are so many benefits from adult education, whether through getting back to study, specialised courses or language courses. In my city, adult education courses such as these are fully funded by the individuals who follow them, but of course that means that life-enhancing courses are now the privilege of those who can afford to pay for them, while there are large numbers of pensioners, particularly, who are not entitled to any support or benefits and would really welcome such opportunities. The advantages include such things as public health—champions for public health help people to take up healthier lifestyles, including diet, cycle promotion and walking clubs—and helping communities to benefit from the opportunities of technology. In my city of Bristol, we had a system of recycling computers and giving out a learning package with each recycled computer for £30. This enabled many people and was most popular with the retired community, particularly in care homes. We had competitions, including Wii Sports competitions, between local care homes. Councils have led in many innovative approaches to providing lifelong learning in this way. If councils had the resources and were given the responsibility by government, they could co-ordinate, energise and lead local lifelong learning.
Bristol is a learning city. I am sure the Minister knows that it was the first English city to be awarded UNESCO learning city status. A framework is in place there focusing on three core areas: learning in education, learning for work and learning in communities. In Bristol we are also starting to look at the excellent lifelong learning ventures that other learning cities, such as Cork, are taking forward. I hope the Government will take account of what is happening in those learning cities.
The LGA has proposed that we have work communities—working neighbourhoods. The idea of neighbourhood learning has been pioneered by the learning cities. One suggestion from those cities is that to pull out of sluggish growth and ensure that every person is able to fulfil their potential, local authorities should be encouraged and supported to place lifelong learning at the heart of our civic identity, pulling together employers, community organisations, public agencies and learning providers to promote and celebrate learning, providing overt communication about the value of lifelong learning and showcasing positive role models everywhere. I hope the Minister will take this on board. I hope he will also assure us that what is left of publicly supported adult and community learning via the Education and Skills Funding Agency grants to local authorities will be protected. On behalf of the providers in Bristol, I extend an invitation to him to an event in June, celebrating the transformational change that has been achieved as a result of lifelong learning.
I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, on enabling this timely debate. For some 30 years I taught neuroscience at Oxford University, and take a keen interest in the evolving role of universities in the wider educational landscape.
The benefits of lifelong learning are clear. Peer-reviewed reports show that lifelong learning raises the basic skills proficiency such that individuals respond more effectively to changing circumstances. It helps those with mental health problems—the leading cause of absence from work, with 70 million work days lost each year, at a cost of £2.4 billion. One investigation of the effects of a formal learning programme on those with either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder showed an increase in the number of those in paid employment, from 33% to 48%, while the number undertaking voluntary work increased significantly, from 8% to 38%. There are also particular benefits to those over 60; namely, enhanced social capital, health and self-confidence. This issue is especially important given that by 2020 one-third of the workers in the UK labour market will be over 50.
The benefits of lifelong learning may be irrefutable but the means for realising those benefits are less assured. Many universities are now contributing to the lifelong learning market, with some specialist institutions such as the Open University and Birkbeck leading the way. However, in the latest profile document from the Russell group—the 24 leading and most highly regarded UK universities—lifelong learning does not receive much attention at all. A review of each of the Russell group university strategy documents reveals that only one, Leeds, specifically mentions lifelong learning and a further four—Cambridge, Durham, Imperial and Newcastle—indicate it only in relation to their alumni. That leaves almost 80% of the Russell group universities not identifying lifelong learning specifically as part of their overall strategy. Arguably, universities may incorporate it under the banner of distance learning, which is often sufficiently flexible that it can be carried out alongside other commitments at any stage in life. Based on this criterion, 10 of the Russell group make reference to a distance learning provision, but that still means that less than half of our elite universities are actively supportive. A final educational provision, however, is the development of open education resources, which can be produced in the form of massive open online courses delivered via platforms such as FutureLearn. Three Russell group universities—Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield—refer to such courses or other similar resources in their strategies.
The main point is that, collectively, the elite universities in the UK appear to be largely neglecting lifelong learning. Of course, such support may be stronger in less research-intensive universities but, even then, there may be barriers to this provision. These include: technical barriers, namely the availability of systems such as FutureLearn, financial barriers to the development of additional resources, especially open education resources, and pedagogic barriers. Recent comments in the media by a leading figure in higher education suggested that the only real form of teaching is when an academic is directly engaged with students. Such lifelong learning is now often delivered online, so universities with this view may be implicitly discouraging it.
In addition, personal barriers could exist including the current student loan system, which stipulates that students must study at least 30 credits to qualify for financial support. Given that this represents 25% study—that is, 10 hours a week—many lifelong learners may not be able to commit to this amount of time. Moreover, most students who hold a higher education qualification are currently not entitled to apply for an additional fee loan for a second course if that course leads to a qualification equivalent to or lower in level than their previous one. While the rules have been relaxed slightly to encourage training in key areas, many areas remain unsupported. A further obstacle is a lack of affordable childcare or other care support to help co-ordinate the demands of lifelong learning. At present schemes exist—for example, the adult dependant’s grant, childcare grant and parent’s learning allowance—but these are not necessarily widely publicised.
In conclusion, several steps could be taken. First, there could be government recognition that lifelong learning is critical, with the explicit recommendation that all universities—including the Russell group—should consider how best to support this educational provision, either through developing a more flexible curriculum or producing open educational resources. Secondly, there could be more flexible student financing available for those engaging in university study at a lower intensity rate, or even by module rather than qualification, and additional schemes to support professional development. Thirdly, students wishing to start a second honours degree with student finance could be allowed to do so, irrespective of their programme of study. Fourthly, there could be financial support or in-kind support for institutions fulfilling a commitment to lifelong learning; for example, capping the fee income that universities can collect in a manner dependent on their provision in this area.
The idea of a job for life is now defunct, with some jobs simply being eradicated by automation, but previously unforeseen opportunities are emerging all the time. It is not merely important but essential and urgent to optimise the possibilities for continued learning throughout life. Inevitably, much comes down to money and the need for more but the cost will be far greater if we shy away from enabling adults to continue stretching themselves, finding new challenges and realising their full potential.
My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for securing this debate and for her very comprehensive introduction.
I wonder whether I might tell your Lordships a bit about the wanderings of a bishop on a Sunday. Yesterday, I began the day with the Greek Orthodox community in Coventry to mark the 30th anniversary of His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios’s ministry in leading that community in Great Britain. He is a 90 year-old man full of wisdom, hope and dignity who is teaching his community to live well. After the service there was a wonderful lunch in the church hall, which on a Saturday, I was told, becomes a school where the community’s children learn not only the Greek language but that community’s culture and tradition. They are having their eyes opened to a whole new set of possibilities that formal education will not train them for.
I left there to head down into south Warwickshire for a confirmation service, the culmination of a course for a group of young people of a range of ages. I asked them, “What happens now with what you’ve been learning?”. “This is only the foundation”, they said. “It sets us out on a journey that will take us through life”. They were talking not just about lifelong learning—learning throughout life, as it were—but about learning for life, learning how to live life fully.
Those two Sunday experiences gave me a lot to reflect on as I thought about this debate. It is not only the Christian tradition that is committed to inculcating habits of learning in people at an early stage and expecting them to go on learning through life, for life. It is a shared value and common practice among the traditions. What can be learned from those traditions about what lifelong learning really is and to how to encourage it and shape a culture of lifelong learning? The most fundamental insight is that learning is fundamental to human identity. It belongs to what it means to be a human being. Rabbis, Jesus among them, have disciples. “Mathetai”, a Greek word I learned in my Greek classes, means “learners”. It is interesting that, like other rabbis, Jesus’s level 1 teaching for his disciples, his learners, was the shaping of their characters, their attitudes to others and the way they treated them. Everything followed from that.
We also learn from the religious traditions that learning is not just for economic benefit: man does not live by bread alone. Of course, it is partly about learning for work, which is vital, but it is really about something much deeper. We learn that learning is not just about what happens at school. It is about a life of learning, because life is endlessly interesting and tantalisingly mysterious, always inviting us to learn more. Learning does not happen just through formal methods. It is not only taught and measured but is caught through a network of relationships and lived out in communities where people learn from others in myriad ways. So I am glad to note that Office for Science’s foresight report Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning recognises that character skills are vital for readiness to work and that these skills are often attained through informal learning in a range of voluntary associations.
The Church of England Vision for Education, published in 2016, defines education as learning to live fully, and it proposes four spheres of education relevant to our debate today. The first is learning for wisdom, knowledge and skills. Other noble Lords will be able to speak better than I can about how people can be better educated in the learning of skills. I want to say something about learning for wisdom, not just because the readiness to learn new skills relies on a prior formation in wisdom but because skills are, according to the Jewish tradition, a form of practical wisdom. Wisdom requires knowledge and experience and is built up over time and in relationships. It is lifelong. It requires active searching and reasoning and demands breadth and depth. It requires discipline and resilience and inspires inquisitiveness, passion, confidence and delight in learning. It prepares us for life in an unknown future.
Secondly, education is for hope and aspiration. When I was at school—it was not an academic school—I told one of my teachers that a teacher I had met in another school had said I should think about applying to Oxbridge. My teacher replied, “That’s the problem with schools like that; they put ideas into people’s heads. Boys like you don’t go to Oxford or Cambridge”. So I never applied, but years later I found myself an associate lecturer at Cambridge University. It was a religious community that made up the deficit in my education. It educated me for hope: hope to imagine a different future and hope for myself and the world. That drove a lifetime pursuit of learning.
The third sphere of the Church of England’s vision for education is learning for community and in the community. Education socialises the individual. Learning lifts our eyes out of ourselves to appreciate the other and enables us to belong to the past and the present, and to affect the future—learning to see that I am because we are. The drive to understand history, art, music and culture comes from a desire to be part of a community. The fourth sphere follows on from that. It is education for dignity and respect. Learning enables us to embrace the uniqueness of each individual. Raising the dignity of each person, it celebrates difference, drives a desire to investigate difference and enables us to appreciate different perspectives.
That sort of learning—wisdom, hope, community and dignity—is good not only for the person learning, although of course it helps them to live fully, but for the country and the economy. It grows human capital— the sort of people with the aptitude for learning and the attitudes towards others that the country and the economy need to grow more fully: more richly, in the deepest sense.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, on this important debate today. It is one of those debates that remind us of the pauperisation of what is going on in Britain at the moment. There are many young people, and not so young people, who really want to get on in life. They want to make changes in their own lives and to be learning eternally until the last moment. By doing so, they want to demonstrate to children and indeed to everyone that learning is the key to social justice, democracy and other things.
However, what has been happening since probably 2010, if not earlier, is that we are losing people who should be using education to bring about enormous change in their own lives and, hopefully, in the lives of others. I would say that that is very much to do with what happened around the economic crisis—the way that we came out of it, the enormous austerity that we have gone through and the sense in the country of just about hanging on and of putting perspectives of the future on the back burner rather than saying, “Actually, whatever happens, we need to educate ourselves through this crisis”.
What we need is a Government, and I hope it is this Government, who will say, “We will not allow education to shrivel up”. I am not very good at quoting Shakespeare, but if it is true that those who the gods wish to destroy they first make mad, a variation on that could be that if the gods want to destroy anyone, they first make them ignorant and rip from them all the intricate systems of education that have been growing over the years: Birkbeck, the Open University and the Workers’ Educational Association, which has been running since the beginning of the 20th century. I have to declare an interest: when I was banged up, on many occasions there were people from the WEA and the then National Association of Boys’ Clubs who gave us all the classes that we wanted on art, brickwork, crafts and things like that, so I am a recipient of that lifelong learning. On occasion, I have used it to pick up a bit of calligraphy and so on.
I want to talk about the problems of a particular organisation in which I have to declare an interest because I am a fellow: the WEA. It is in a bit of a cleft stick because of localism. We know that localism is about bringing the process of decision-making down to as local a level as possible, especially around education and so on. The WEA will be stripped of about £7 million, so one-third of its income will disappear if localism is followed through. In the process it will also have to try to bid, as there will be a process of local bidding. That will push up the costs of this organisation, which has 50,000 people going through its doors at any one time in 2,000 different settings. It does not own any buildings. It does not have a shed load of money stacked up somewhere. It cannot save for a rainy day, because everything is done simply and 84% of the money made goes direct to the teaching—and the opportunities that come from it. Of those who come to the WEA without work, 59% find work. If we really want to find a way to help this organisation and others that are calling for support, we could do a lot to heal the problem of the shrinking numbers.
The other thing that we have to do is to look into how we educate our children—the way we use education. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, schools are driven by the bottom line, their results. We must find a new way of looking at education which is about getting as much as possible out of our children so that they can grow and develop. If we can get it right about education, perhaps Brexit is something that we will be able to weather. The fact that we now learn fewer languages than we did 10 years ago is an abomination and should be addressed by a central Government who will not allow the quality of life that education brings and the offspring that it creates around justice and democracy to shrivel up. The only way that we will lose our democracy is if we stop learning and developing as people.
I would like the Minister to tell us what he will do about organisations such as the WEA so that they do not run out of money.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for initiating this debate, which is very important. I have always had a keen interest in lifelong learning. This stems from my days as a trade union official in NUPE/UNISON. NUPE was a union whose members were mainly part-time women workers.
One of my colleagues there, a pioneer of lifelong learning called Jim Sutherland, a gifted and dedicated innovator, told me that it was reading Einstein, who said that learning is not the product of schooling but a lifetime’s attempt to acquire it, that set him on his path to be a champion of lifelong learning. Jim produced and directed some very innovative courses. I remember in the 1980s going to a group of Filipino workers in a hospital who were doing basic literacy and numeracy work and being very proud that my union was doing such work for people working in the National Health Service for whom English was not their main language.
I met many part-time women workers when I was a trade union official who realised that they were capable of much more than catering and cleaning for others and, in middle age, enrolled for lifelong learning to become the kind of people that they had the capacity and ability to be. They became lawyers or teachers. I even knew one part-time woman worker from the north of England who became a Member of Parliament through the lifelong learning opportunities provided by her union. She is now a Metropolitan Police commissioner, and those of you who come from the north may guess her name.
Those were the days when a spirit of pioneering in lifelong learning, a spirit of adventure, exploration and fulfilment, was in the air—something that I feel has been lost as the concept has been taken over or absorbed by the debate about skills, university funding or the needs of the digital age. Of course we need to set lifelong learning in a modern context, but we need to do so in a way that captures and retains the true spirit of lifelong learning, which is not about structures, colleges, universities or productivity but fulfilling the human needs of people—particularly in my case, in my union, those who have missed out on full-time education and development and did not get the chance to grow to be the person they had the capacity to be. That is why I have been so disappointed over recent years to see the number of people in part-time education plummeting. Between 2010-11 and 2015, the number of part-time undergraduate entries at UK universities and colleges decreased by 58%—a big number. We have heard enough about the Open University and other colleges today, but that should be taken very seriously by the Government and the Minister.
The problem in the main is due to a big increase in tuition fees; the fees are too high, and the loans eligibility criteria are too restrictive. Fewer than half the part-time entrants qualify and, without loans, potential students have to pay for courses up front and out of their own pockets. So, as often happens with studying part-time, it is often older people who do not have the finances or have family commitments that do not allow them to take on these responsibilities and financial commitments. Loans are not the right policy for part-time learners, and I hope that this major review that we look forward to will rethink the funding arrangements for those who want to study part-time. There is a strong case for those older workers, who have already made contributions to the economy and paid national insurance and tax, being offered much more generous terms either to begin a journey into higher education for the first time or continue their education onward journey. It is acknowledged by some in the Government that the fall in part-time numbers is not good and needs to be addressed, and I hope some attempt will be made to tackle the problem.
Really, it is a time to go back to basics and create a funding regime that allows returns to learning and for many people who have missed out to be excited and optimistic about what may be possible for them—as opposed to the negative impact that costs are having on them. There is a general belief in working-class communities in the north of England that older people cannot go back to learn any more.
I have one very simple question to ask the Minister. What are the future prospects for people who choose to study later in life and return to learn when they have work, family and other commitments, and when they do not have much money but want to study and develop as their predecessors were able to do in the years when I first became a trade union official?
My Lords, I speak as a latecomer to this debate, but I am delighted to do so, for two particular reasons that are both topical. First, however, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for raising the debate. She and I have rehearsed many times together the reasons why we believe passionately in lifelong learning, and I endorse everything that she said. I also support the noble Lord, Lord Bird, because I am not here simply as the president of Birkbeck but as the child of parents who left school at 13. When I was doing my homework at 16, my parents were attending WEA lessons where they learned about Beethoven, philosophy and modern art, so I believe in the WEA wholeheartedly.
One of the two events that prompted me to want to speak is the crisis in the Open University. We have to find a way of saving it, as it is one of Europe’s outstanding institutions, and to let it go to the wall in any way would be catastrophic. What has happened? There has been a huge fall in attendance and participation in the Open University. Three years ago, a former BBC colleague of mine, Peter Horrocks, was made vice-chancellor. He threw himself into that job; he held receptions in the House of Lords that I attended. I suspect that he rushed at it rather too hard because, in the course of events, he alienated many of his staff, who last week called on and pressured him to resign. He is a talented person and it is a great institution, and a way has to be found to save it.
The second reason that I wanted to speak is that the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence published its report today. I sat on that committee and what I heard, over a great number of meetings taking evidence from experts, was profoundly important. We are facing the fourth industrial revolution, which is going to transform the way we live, work and experience our lives personally. One of the important findings of the report is that, as they grow up, young people should be educated about algorithms and data mining. However, more particularly, the existing population of older people now need to be brought on board in terms of artificial intelligence and what it means for our community. If we do not do this, we will be seriously left behind in the world that is coming into being.
For those two topical reasons, I have important questions about the review which has been pending for some time. These issues must be rolled into any consideration of the future of over-18 education. What are the Government doing to confront this fourth industrial revolution? What are they doing to teach people how to handle, and be part of, the gigantic companies—Amazon, Facebook, Google and so on—that are penetrating into their lives and which they need to understand. Another old hobby horse of mine is what people are going to do as they get older—much older, as some of them do, and I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks. How are we going to live our old age with opportunity rather than depression; with insight rather than isolation? Old people need help in living in their communities in a changing world that they may well find difficult to understand. These are new reasons which I bring on board in pressing the case for lifelong learning.
I thank my noble friend Lady Garden for raising this topic. Perhaps I should blame her as well, because this topic should probably be raised about once a week: it is that big and important. This debate has covered various facets of it, from the possible decline of the Open University—one of the most revolutionary universities of the late 20th century—to the reworking of the old idea of apprenticeships, and dozens of other points. It is a massive subject and we are merely writing a small chapter of it. That being said, can we accuse the Government of doing nothing? Not according to the briefing that I got from the Local Government Association. Lifelong learning is being run by eight different departments or Whitehall agencies—20 different schemes, all with different eligibility criteria. How many people actually knew that before the information was collated? We knew it was complicated and difficult and we knew it was going on.
I do not know whether the apprenticeship levy is included in that. If ever there was a good idea that seems to have irritated everyone who has had anything to do with it, it wins the prize. Nearly £1.3 billion has not been allocated and is sitting there, possibly going back to the Treasury. That is quite an achievement, when we claim to have a need for more training. The Local Government Association briefing recommends some form of local hub to deal with this. My noble friend Lady Janke would agree, I think. If that is not the model for getting a slightly better handle on training needs, what else is? Surely that is part of what we are talking about. If we are talking about learning and a whole education, as opposed to one that is simply preparation for employment, it cannot be the whole of it but it is certainly a part. Unless we make this a slightly simpler and more straightforward process, we will guarantee one thing: that those who need the training most of all will miss it.
Noble Lords will seldom get me coming to my feet to talk about a subject that relates to education when I do not touch upon dyslexia and especially the other hidden disabilities. They are a complicated series of structures. That group do not handle paperwork that well, be it on a screen or on paper, and they will find access difficult. Unless you get some unifying guidance, better career prospects or someone to guide you through, that group will miss out, regardless of how well they did at school and when they were identified. I heard a great deal about this when I was at the international conference of the British Dyslexia Association at the weekend in sunny Telford—although most of the day I was inside; I am told that one of the days it was sunny. We heard a lot about that and about how my brain—and that of the noble Lord, Lord Bird—differs from those of most of the rest. Apparently, we use the front lobes of our brain more than others do. I then received a rude comment that night, to the effect that maybe as an old rugby player I do not use them quite so well because that is the bit that gets hit first. On into the night it went. If you have groups that have problems which do not fit the mould, that will be more difficult to identify. At that same conference we heard from Ambitious about Autism. There the issue is a related but different set of problems: the interrelation of the person and the skill.
In addition, surely for lifelong learning we should encourage such people to take on their own initiatives. I shall give noble Lords another anecdote: somebody who last cut my hair turned out to be dyslexic. I said, “Do you use any of the amazing technology out there?”. He answered, “I don’t have to—my wife does it for me”. A person who is on your side is still the best bit of support you can get. However, as the British Dyslexia Association’s helpline proves—I was told this anecdotally—when that person does something inconvenient like dying or leaving you, you are in trouble. When you cannot fill out your timesheets, your application forms or your insurance details, you are in trouble. What are we doing to make sure that these groups that need the help can access it easily and well?
I could go on about the problems we have had with people who provide apprenticeships for this group saying that you need an education and healthcare plan to get this—that is the descendant of the old statement—when that qualification is designed for only a small fraction of those in that disability group, which means that you effectively exclude from the qualification those who would most benefit from it and most easily function in society with it. A degree of coherence is required here, which goes across the field and which allows these people in. This is probably a good example of a chaotic system, which does not think ahead or holistically. Unless we can start to address this, we will come back again and again, fighting many rearguard or small-scale actions to try to correct this. I hope that the Government can give us at least a hint that they take this seriously.
My Lords, I am also most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, for initiating this debate, which has highlighted the need for an overarching strategy for lifelong learning, which was the main recommendation of the recent report by the National Audit Office.
In fairness to the Government, it seems that they have at least acknowledged the issues flowing from these skills gaps. Over the past year we have had the Made Smarter Review; the Industrial Strategy; the Government Office for Science’s report Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning; the PM’s announcement of the post-18 review and subsequent publication of its terms of reference; the Careers Strategy and the national retraining scheme; and at the start of this month the Institute for Apprenticeships expanded to become the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. However, along with many others, we have warned that the Government’s obsession with 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020 could lead to quantity triumphing over quality, and the same concern applies to that plethora of announcements and initiatives. I hope that that can be avoided and I invite the Minister to make the Government’s priorities clear.
I want to reference another report—this time by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It was published last November and highlighted that as many as 40% of workers in the UK are either overskilled or underqualified for their jobs, while the same percentage are working in industries or jobs different from the sector in which they trained. The OECD goes on to say that employers put too little effort into training workers in the right skills and that they should work more closely with the education system to ensure that school, college and university students build the skills actually required by the economy.
That should come as no surprise, because the Government themselves have accepted that for too long too many employers have been unwilling to make available the necessary time or resources to train and retrain their workforce. That is why the Government took the rare step of intervening in the economy by imposing the apprenticeship levy last year. They know that, without it, employers would have lacked the necessary commitment to take on apprentices at anything like the rate needed to make the Government’s 3 million target remotely achievable.
Apprenticeships have a vital role to play in addressing skills shortages, not least for small firms. One means of improving the current model would be to increase the flexibility of the levy, supporting the development of higher-level technical skills by adopting the modular apprenticeship idea contained in the Made Smarter Review, to which I referred earlier. Can the Minister tell noble Lords the Government’s intentions in that regard?
However, in addition to that, much more needs to be done to facilitate an “earning and learning” framework, because the reality is that, for this and future generations, lifelong and career learning will be an economic necessity. As my noble friend Lord Knight said—and he is very experienced in the future of work—the model of work has changed and will continue to change. Increasing automation and the development of artificial intelligence will introduce many new skilled roles that will require some form of formal higher qualification short of a full degree. For individuals to thrive in this new jobs landscape, the focus must be on continuous learning and development, including through the MOOCs referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield.
Yet, as other noble Lords have said, since 2012 there has been a dramatic decline in the uptake of part-time higher education by those already in work. The main reason, as almost every noble Lord has said, has been the tripling of tuition fees and the effect that this has had on the Open University in particular. It led to the severe funding pressures, which in turn led to the vice-chancellor resigning following a vote of no confidence by staff.
In reality, that was a vote of no confidence in the Government, who have allowed tuition fees to spiral out of control to the extent that they now bear little relation to the actual cost of delivering higher education courses, full or part-time. A Labour Government will abolish tuition fees. However, I welcome the proposal, contained in the briefing provided by the Open University to all noble Lords participating in this debate, for the direct funding of part-time higher education so that the cost to students is more affordable. The Open University is right to say that offering people an incentive to learn while they earn saves taxpayers money in the long run because higher skills bring economic benefits, boosting their careers and life chances. Developing a culture of sustainable lifelong learning will involve the development of a national skills strategy, together with a reversal of the cuts in adult education, to enable people to train and upskill throughout their working lives.
The decision to devolve the adult education budget from next year will, as the noble Lord, Lord Bird, said, have serious consequences for the ability of the Workers’ Educational Association to maintain the level of its contribution to lifelong learning. I should declare an interest as a former employee of the WEA. With its vast experience, that organisation has a vital role to play in the landscape outlined by noble Lords in this debate, and it must not be denied the resources to do so.
Further, the Conservatives have cut funding for further education colleges—our main provider of adult and vocational education—and reduced entitlements for adult learners. Unsurprisingly, this has led to diminishing numbers of courses and students. Labour will introduce free lifelong education in FE colleges, enabling everyone to upskill or retrain at any point in their life, which is surely a necessity.
A lifelong learning commission was a commitment that we gave in last year’s general election manifesto and it is now being worked through as part of the development of the national education service. That will form the overarching framework for a systematic, radical plan of action covering the whole age spectrum—one that recognises the changing patterns of work, including the gig economy and the consequences of automation, and the need for proper work-life balances. It will value the input of skills to education from as early as late primary education and into the teenage years, giving people second chances in their 20s and continuing opportunities to retrain and develop new career pathways right through into their 60s.
That is the basis of Labour’s comprehensive lifelong learning road map, spelling out a clear narrative of progression, social justice and mobility. It shows that Labour has a strategy for people at every stage of their age cycle, in contrast to the silos and barriers that Conservative-led Governments have erected since 2010. The sooner Labour is in a position to introduce that road map, the sooner this country will be able to build the sustainable lifelong learning culture on which its economic future depends.
My Lords, I start by saying that I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for tabling this debate. Noble Lords will know that we had a similar debate only in November. My remarks are not dissimilar, but they are not too similar, as there have been some important changes since I last spoke on this subject. I will attempt to answer the questions that have been raised and will write to noble Lords if I am unable to answer all of them. Two debates in five or six months is an indication of the seriousness with which we all, including myself, take this subject.
I start by defining lifelong learning: simply, it is the continuous learning process throughout a person’s life. It can be helpful to people at different stages of life, including parents who wish to return to the workforce or those aiming to change careers. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bird, that it is applicable also to the young, and even the very young, as they set out on their important educational path.
Lifelong learning is becoming increasingly important due to a number of trends and challenges that are shaping the future of work in the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, eloquently highlighted a number of the major changes in the economy, in our demographics and in society. First, as we know, people are living longer and some are choosing to work longer—the number of people aged 50 and over is expected to reach 30 million by 2035. Secondly, technological change is having an effect on existing roles: for example, the opportunities and challenges brought about by automation. I took note of the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, about artificial intelligence—she is quite right. By the way, I also wish her a very happy birthday. Thirdly, there are skills shortages in particular sectors. For example, nearly 40% of employers continue to report difficulties in recruiting staff with relevant STEM skills.
To address this, we must strive to create a sustainable lifelong learning culture—starting, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, in schools with the fostering of a positive attitude towards lifelong learning that instils an ethos of learning that keeps the momentum going throughout people’s working life. There is much to do. We are rising to such challenges and I would like to touch on a few of the action points, including a new national retraining scheme, apprenticeships for older learners and a review of higher-level technical qualifications.
I turn first to the national retraining scheme. This ambitious and far-reaching programme will help workers develop the skills needed to address changes in the economy. The scheme’s strategic direction and implementation will be overseen by a national retraining partnership, which met for the first time on 5 March. The partnership is chaired by the Secretary of State for Education, with representation from the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and the Treasury, thereby ensuring that the voices of businesses and workers feed directly into the national strategy and the development of policy. There will be a series of phased impactful interventions commencing over the next two years, starting with £30 million to develop digital skills in conjunction with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and £34 million to scale up innovative models of training in the construction industry, which is a very important sector for our economy.
I turn now to career learning pilots. To help inform the national retraining scheme, we are investing up to £40 million in career learning pilots, as announced in the Spring Budget last year, to explore the barriers that adult learners face. I am pleased to say that we have already launched the following pilots, and I can now expand on what I informed the House last November.
First, on the flexible learning fund, we announced on 29 March that the fund will provide £11.7 million to support 32 projects, increased from the initial allocation of £10 million. The projects will develop and test flexible, accessible ways of delivering technical and basic skills, such as GCSE maths and English, to adults. The funded proposals include projects aimed at increasing the maths skills and confidence of adults already in work, and at improving the digital skills of older workers.
Secondly, launched on 30 November, the outreach and cost pilots are: testing the best ways to reach and motivate adult learners to undertake qualifications; providing subsidies at different levels to test solutions to barriers of financial cost—a point raised in today’s debate; and working with local colleges and training providers, the National Careers Service and a wide range of employers in five areas, to explain and market content. Everything we learn from these pilots will inform the new national retraining scheme.
I now turn to T-levels, an issue that has been much debated in this House in the recent past. We want our technical education system to be as prestigious as higher education and to rival the best systems in the world. T-level qualifications, primarily designed for 16 to 19 year-olds, will ensure that students have the latest skills, knowledge and behaviours most valued by employers. As published in the T-level action plan, we are creating 15 new technical education routes. The first T-levels will be taught from 2020, and all routes will be available from 2022. I mentioned in the debate in November that we would launch a consultation on T-level implementation. That is now complete and the response will follow very soon.
As we are talking about technical education, we are currently undertaking a review of higher-level technical education at levels 4 and 5—that is above T-levels but below a bachelor’s degree. In our actions we want to support attractive progression routes to higher-earning technical roles which address the intermediate and higher skills needs of the economy. These programmes of work—the level 4/5 review and the T-level action plan—will ensure that we can provide the necessary skills to meet the needs of learners and employers in the future.
Some noble Lords touched on the issue of apprenticeships. Apprenticeships can be just as relevant for older learners as they are for young people, and they provide a route to skilled employment. We remain committed to achieving 3 million apprenticeship starts in England by 2020 and we have achieved over 1.3 million new starts since May 2015. That includes over 500,000 starts by adults over the age of 25, or around 40% of the total. In 2016/17, more than 58,000 of those starting an apprenticeship were aged between 45 and 59. In addition, more than 3,600 were aged 60 or over, underlining the point that older people can and do access apprenticeships.
The House will be aware of the review of post-18 education and funding. This will focus on the following issues: how we ensure that tertiary education is accessible to everyone, from every background; how our funding system provides value for money, both for students and taxpayers; how we incentivise choice and competition right across the sector; and, finally, how we deliver the skills that we need as a country.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Garden and Lady Janke, raised the important issue of part-time learning and the barriers that some adults face in accessing funding to take up part-time study. I know that this is an important issue. We are now introducing full-time equivalent maintenance loans for 2018-19, providing financial support to part-time students similar to the support that we give to full-time students. The review of the post-18 education-plus funding will look at how we can encourage flexible and part-time learning to allow people to study throughout their lives. I hope that that helps with the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, about the review. I reassure her that this important area will be looked at as part of the review and I will focus on the OU at a later stage in my remarks.
The noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Bird, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, raised the issue of the funding arrangements for the Workers’ Educational Association. Perhaps I may add that devolution, or localism as the noble Lord mentioned, presents an opportunity for providers to develop their provision to meet local needs. It is important that providers such as the WEA begin to make contact with the mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London Authority to start a working relationship and to demonstrate the ways in which they can contribute to meeting skills needs locally. I should also say that I acknowledge that I have received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Bird, addressed to me and to my noble friend Lord Agnew making a number of important points. I can reassure him that we will be replying in full to that letter and, if the House would like to see a copy of the response, provided that the noble Lord is happy for us to do so, a copy will be made available in the Library.
I turn to the important subject of social mobility and the careers strategy which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. Of course our overriding wish is to ensure that every person, no matter their background, is able to build a rewarding career. Our careers strategy sets out a long-term plan to build a world-class careers system. The strategy will give people from all backgrounds the best possible preparation to move into a job or training that enables them to have a fulfilling life and help to build a formidable homegrown skills base. It has been developed in partnership with the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and will be co-ordinated to an expanded role for the Careers & Enterprise Company, working across all the Gatsby benchmarks to help deliver the ambitions set out. The National Careers Service will continue to be the single service that provides free and impartial information, advice and guidance on careers, skills and the labour market in England.
I was interested in the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, about the experience in Bristol, a city that I know well. She is absolutely right that it is important to ensure that pensioners are given opportunities as they retire from mainstream life. They can then look forward to a happy and fulfilling life, hopefully doing some work, whatever that work might be. I was also particularly interested in the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry in, if I may put it this way, his Sunday wanderings. He is right to say that lifelong learning should cover all points in a person’s life. It includes the dignity and importance of the person as an individual and being fulfilled as a human being. If that is the case, people may be better able to help in the community, as the right reverend Prelate mentioned, and they can learn from the past in order to help society and themselves in the future. The noble Lord, Lord Sawyer, also made some interesting points in his remarks. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, was right to make the point about pensioners needing help in order to seek fulfilment in their lives, which is the other side of the debate. It is not just about the economy, a point which I think another speaker raised.
I should like to talk briefly about the Open University. Obviously from the Government’s perspective we have been following the developments closely and I know that the Minister responsible for universities, my honourable friend Sam Gyimah, has commented on this issue. As the Universities Minister he has declared his support for the Open University. It is a very important institution and he wants its valuable work to increase the opportunities available for accessing higher education, including support for lifelong learning. He also personally thanked Peter Horrocks for his service and hard work. This is just a reassurance that we need to look at the future and the Government want this to move forward in the right direction.
The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, asked what progress has been made on digital upskilling. We are taking action on a number of fronts, from the introduction of the first digital T-levels to the development of new apprenticeship standards which include the appropriate digital skills components, including degree apprenticeships. However, we need to go further, and in our digital strategy which was published in March 2017, we set out our intentions to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to increase their digital capability. As I mentioned earlier, in the Autumn Budget the Government committed £30 million for this specific area.
I realise that I am running out of time, but perhaps I may conclude by saying that I hope that I have been able to set out a broad agenda to promote lifelong learning and that other work is going on across government to complement it. For example, there is £5 million in funding to support people who have left paid employment to take on caring responsibilities, nearly 90% of whom are women. Helping them to return to work is part of the jigsaw. I hope that it is understood that we are making some progress. There is much work to do, but it does not matter whether you are eight, 18 or 80, lifelong learning is becoming increasingly important to all of us. That is why the Government have so far invested more than £100 million, which demonstrates our commitment to meeting this important challenge.
House adjourned at 7.49 pm.