At last week’s Labour Party conference, the Opposition’s spokespeople for education were parroting some neat lines – while, frustratingly, offering next to no detail – on their proposed National Education Service (NES). One of these was that the NES will deliver ‘cradle to grave education’.
If this means anything, it must mean more support for three overlapping types of education:
- adult learning;
- further education; and
- lifelong learning.
Despite the attacks you sometimes hear on taxpayer-funded pleasure learning and subsidised language classes for second-home owners, we know it’s beneficial for people to access education throughout their lives.
But here’s the conundrum: if the evidence for lifelong learning is so persuasive, why aren’t policymakers persuaded by it? Adult education, further education, part-time learning and mature student numbers have withered as other parts of the education system (early years’ providers, schools and those universities specialising in young full-time students) have grown.
The art of lobbying is to use your strongest arguments to maximum effect. The collapse of adult education surely suggests we have failed to do that. Messages about the benefits of learning throughout life have not resonated sufficiently with policymakers, the media or voters to deliver anything like the protection offered to other areas of government spending.
So, we stand in need of better arguments (and that is true irrespective of whether the wraparound National Education Service moniker is adopted). There is one that we have all been perhaps too reluctant to use: Brexit. I have written elsewhere of why the higher education sector should consider calling for a second referendum (see here, here and here), which to many people seems a lot more likely than it once did. But such arguments have largely fallen on barren land, in part – presumably – because people think Brexit is going to happen.
If that is so, then we should remember the one and only certainty of Brexit: that it is likely to lead to less immigration to the UK. Migration was a core concern of many Leave voters and the Government look set to adopt fairly strict criteria for people who wish to settle in the UK. Moreover, even if (implausibly) the entry rules for the UK are not tightened up when Brexit occurs, demand from people to come here is likely to fall anyway.
If you accept inward migration will slow down after Brexit, then it is likely to become even harder for employers (including universities) to find many of the staff they need. All this means our future economic success could depend more than before on the capacities of those already in the UK.
In other words, the strongest argument for reversing the decline in lifelong learning may be the impact of Brexit. Perhaps it is time to stop being so coy and to start telling policymakers that one way to help deliver the post-Brexit success everyone wants to see is to provide more opportunities for people of all ages to reach their full potential.
I recognise using Brexit to the sector’s advantage is likely to stick in the craw of those working in education who want to do all they can to ensure Brexit is stopped. But, when existing arguments have so comprehensively failed, is it not time to look for better ones?