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The Lifelong Learning Century

  • 11 November 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

Yesterday, the Learning and Work Institute celebrated its centenary at CityLit college in Holborn in the presence of their Patron, HRH the Princess Royal. Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, spoke at the event.

Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen, it is a huge pleasure to speak at this important event marking your 100th anniversary and the original foundation soon after the First World War, in 1921, of the British Institute of Adult Education. The organisation I work for, HEPI, is very much younger: it was founded this century, in late 2002, so we have only just reached adulthood – COVID put paid to our plans for an 18th birthday party – and I can only hope that we are still going strong by the time of our own centenary in 2102. 

We focus almost entirely on higher education rather than all the other types of education that also comprise the adult learning sector, but there are nonetheless many areas where the work of our two organisations overlap, including:

  • a concern over the drop in part-time and mature learners – for example, last year we published a paper on barriers to learning based on original qualitative research among part-time learners; and
  • the obstacles faced by specific groups of learners, such as prisoners, who are unable to access student support unless they are on a short sentence or close to release, and next week we are hosting our own event with the UPP Foundation and the University of Chichester on homeless people, who can struggle to access higher education just as they struggle to find secure accommodation.

I will limit myself to just one number to illustrate how things have changed in recent years, but it is a worrying one. According to HESA data, back in 2005, 43% of new higher education students were studying part-time; the latest numbers suggest the proportion has more than halved to just 21%.

I have run HEPI for eight years, since early 2014, and sadly many of the challenges remain the same as they were back then. For example: there are continuing obstacles to learning as a consequence of interventions like the Equivalent and Lower Qualifications rule; adult learner budgets are smaller than they were; and compared to many other developed countries, we continue to have a relatively high proportion of people with only low-level skills.

But a centenary should be a celebratory event and I am an optimistic person. Plus, I really do believe we could be on the cusp of an important shift. There are some welcome signals of a new approach: for example, in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill before Parliament and there are likely to be more in the official response to the Augar report, which is now expected to appear this side of Christmas.

So we have a great opportunity to get the new Lifelong Learning Entitlement right, to improve access to step on / step off qualifications, to liberalise student funding rules and to extend access to higher levels of education to groups that have felt excluded.

After all, it is easier than ever before to access learning through new technologies and the focus on ‘levelling up’ is putting extra focus on those ‘cold spots’ where access to learning has been less good – as we explained in the most recent HEPI paper, which considers how the University of Lincoln and universities in the US and Sweden have helped transform local opportunities.

It is not inevitable that the negative trends of recent times will reverse. For example, as more and more people go straight to higher education from school, there could be fewer people who seek to access higher education for the first time when they are older, limiting the demand and the supply of opportunities for adult learners. We also need to recall that many less well-off potential adult learners are at a point in their lives where they may need a more powerful nudge than being given the chance to take out a student loan for a short course. I worry too about recurring pressures to revert to a binary divide.

But I remain optimistic because there is generally more focus on diverse routes to learning than there has been in the recent past as well as a greater understanding of the non-financial benefits of lifelong learning. Moreover, the pandemic has forced many people to reassess what matters to them in life and to consider new routes while, simultaneously, a spotlight has been shone on those sectors where there are vacancies for those with the right skills.

So let me end by urging everyone with an interest in the next 100 years of adult learning to remember two important things as we approach the future.

First, I hope we can ditch the old analogy of education as a ladder taking you upwards to the one place you originally wanted to be – or perhaps two ladders, one technical and one academic. I prefer the analogy of a climbing frame, which people can get on at different points, move sideways, change direction or alter their original destination – in short, where there are more options than simply up or down. As the labour market changes, as people’s working lives get longer and as the pace of life continues to speed up, an important test of any new policy should be the degree to which it enables people to move around the climbing frame.

Secondly, I think it is really important that policy conversations avoid pitting different parts of the education sector against one another. Public policy debates can sometimes descend to an apparent battle between further education and higher education. For instance, it is sometimes said FE is ‘technical’ while HE is ‘academic’. The reality is more nuanced and complex: for example, FE is often a pathway to HE and HE is often a partner with FE. I won’t labour the point except to point out that that all educators have the same goal of opening up people’s minds and opportunities irrespective of the type of institution they work in.

The last century has seen enormous change and enormous progress, including in life expectancy which is closely linked to the need for improved adult learning opportunities. So I wish you all the best for your second century. Your role has perhaps never been so important.

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