Successive governments in Britain have long regarded the provision of education as being a vitally important part of their responsibility – important for the individual citizen, and for communities, society and the economy. Yet it is also generally recognised that more needs to be done – from ensuring literacy, to enabling the workforce to keep pace with new technologies, and creating community cohesion.
So, how to get from here to there? Who needs to do what?
Many organisations and institutions need to play their part – from schools, colleges and universities, to companies and other employers, through to government at local, city, regional and national levels. Whilst Government does need to play its part – and all governments would recognise and accept this – its role has always been as an enabler, ensuring these other organisations are playing their part.
The starting point for Government should be to ‘do no harm’. Unfortunately, policy changes can often be damaging, usually inadvertently. One danger is the well-meaning attempt to monitor and measure – the danger is that we do what can be measured rather than what’s important. Another danger is thinking that focussing education and training on work-based ‘skills’ will make us better off, when what we need is a population with the capabilities to deal with new technologies and industries as they emerge, rather than being trained in today’s skills which all too quickly become yesterday’s skills. The lesson from history – and from other countries – is that people should have the right to learn across the range of disciplines and subject areas, and throughout their lives. That is not just in the best interests of us as individuals, but also for our communities and society as a whole – including the companies and other organisations that operate within society.
What Government can and should do is encourage and support the various organisations best placed to deliver learning – and provide the necessary funding.
On colleges and universities, this means bringing them together, rather than setting them apart. At a university like Berkeley in the U.S., a far higher proportion of their undergraduates will have studied previously at a community college or elsewhere than is typically the case at UK universities. Progression from one institution to another should be encouraged, rather than seeing ‘colleges’ as the providers of skills and ‘second chance’ education, with universities for the elite.
On companies, good employers will invest in their people, including in their learning. In the UK, the Government currently seeks to encourage this through, amongst other things, the apprenticeship levy. It may be that companies should be given greater flexibility over the type of learning which could be funded through this route. But also, the many people working for organisations that aren’t subject to the apprenticeship levy – including those in the ‘gig economy’ – need access to learning opportunities.
And we need stronger links between colleges and universities on the one hand, and employers on the other. Universities need to be more engaged with their local communities and regional economies. Governments have sought to address this over the years, but still we trail other countries. The recent ‘Civic Universities’ Commission re-emphasised this need for universities to engage with and support their local populations, including through the provision of adult education and lifelong learning.
So, what government can do is to encourage collaboration in providing learning opportunities across the country and throughout people’s lives – collaboration between colleges and universities, companies and other employers, local authorities and City regions, and the WEA and other educational charities.
The 2019 Centenary Commission on Adult Education set out in detail how this should operate – with Government setting national strategy, and learning delivered through local partnerships. Local authorities should have their statutory obligation to deliver adult education restored, along with the concomitant funding. Employers should indeed have more flexibility in utilising the apprenticeship levy. And universities should be obliged to provide adult education and lifelong learning, as a condition for using the term ‘university’.
As the Bank of England’s Chief Economist Andy Haldane wrote in his Preface to the Centenary Commission’s Report:
For three centuries, the UK’s education system has had a singular – and very successful – focus: developing cognitive skills in the young. That model is not fit for tomorrow’s purpose. The education system of tomorrow needs to span the generational spectrum – young to old – and the skills spectrum – cognitive to vocational to interpersonal.
In the absence of such encouragement from Government, we should seek to generate such collaboration ourselves – urging these bodies to commit to the importance of learning, for the whole population, and to co-operate in making this provision available. The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning is certainly willing and able to play its part in promoting and delivering this agenda, of people having the right to learn, whatever their age, location or circumstance. The learning might take place elsewhere – in the workplace or the community – but even in such cases, the link to and support from the local university may be crucial, both in supporting the activity itself, and in providing pathways for progression – so that the learning journey does not come to a dead end, which in today’s Britain is sadly too often the case.
Jonathan Michie is Professor of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange, President of Kellogg College, University of Oxford, and was co-secretary of the Centenary Commission.