Policymakers need to see adult education and lifelong learning beyond the silo of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, particularly in these straitened times, says Gordon Marsden

Adult Learners’ Week is a great opportunity to showcase the tremendous impact lifelong learning has on communities. My two decades as an Open University and Workers’ Educational Association tutor has shown me countless examples of its transformative potential, opening doors for people that they didn’t know existed.

It’s vital that we continue to protect and champion adult education and lifelong learning, even in these difficult times. I backed the Labour government’s decision to safeguard the Adult and Community Learning budget. It was to the credit of the previous Skills Minister, John Hayes, that this safeguard has remained. If Skills Minister Matthew Hancock is serious about lifelong learning, he too must take up this commitment and ensure that it survives next month’s spending review.

Regardless of what the review may bring, major storm clouds are looming, not least the introduction of 24+ advanced learner loans this year. As I have warned before in FE Week, though impact of this policy will be felt for all learners aged 24 and over – and not least women – it seems clear that the pressures could become most acute for those aged over 40. The government’s own market research and impact assessments bear this out, with less than one in four of those aged 40 and over saying they will go ahead with their course if loans are introduced.

As the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education rightly argued  early on in this process, while the option of an income contingent loan that is written off after 30 years might appeal to an 18-year-old starting university, it has very different implications for someone in their 40s returning to study at an FE college. As their own statistics bluntly illustrate, this government is risking a lost generation of adult learners.

John Hayes acknowledged the problem with the belated announcement of further support for 40+ learners as part of the  package of concessions we, along with stakeholders across the FE community, forced from the government last year. But as with their commitment to safeguard science, technology, engineering, and mathematics learning, we have seen little urgency or concrete delivery from ministers.

But even in the current climate we must continue focusing on the tremendous opportunities lifelong learning can offer. Policymakers need to see adult education and lifelong learning beyond the silo of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Other departments should see how its expansion can benefit their public policy aims and, where appropriate, contribute and innovate.

It contributes to social cohesion, that’s an issue for the Department of Communities and Local Government. It helps people live longer, more productive lives mentally and physically, that’s an issue for the Department of Health. It has helped – and there are countless individual testimonials to this – to bring back offenders into society to productive and positive lives. That’s a matter for the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

We should also be looking at how we can expand lifelong learning to reach more people, both to increase their fulfilment and because we need their contribution to regenerate our economy. I’ve seen the excellent work that Union Learn has done in workplaces across England; we should look at how we can harness this expertise to reach out to those people who have felt most distant from learning before and whose lives could be transformed by gaining new skills.

The demographic pattern in the UK is such that 80 per cent of our workforce of 2020 is already in the labour market; more and more people therefore will be looking to acquire the new skills that they need for the jobs of tomorrow. It’s vital that we help to create the right environment to allow lifelong learning to flourish.

Gordon Marsden, Shadow Skills Minister