Further education and adult learning should be free

Manifesto promise: Scrap fees and loans in further education by doubling the Adult Education Budget

Emily Chapman argues FOR

When I ran to be Vice President for Further Education at the National Union of Students’ National Conference this year, I ran on a manifesto of ensuring funding for Adult Education and ESOL was ring-fenced and that the concept of lifelong learning became central to any government’s FE agenda. Having myself returned to education at the age of 25, I know just how important lifelong learning is, so I’m pleased to see that Labour’s manifesto includes a commitment to scrap fees and loans in further education, by doubling the Adult Education Budget.

Everyone should have the right to access further education, at any stage in their life. For many people, adult education and lifelong learning provides a much-needed second, third or even fourth chance. It supports the most disadvantaged to enter and return to work, gives people agency over their lives and allows them the opportunity to change their career path and learn new skills.  

Time and time again, research has shown the incredible contribution adult education and lifelong learning makes; to the individual, to the economy and to society. Yet these benefits have been consistently overlooked by a government who, until very recently, was committed to pursuing a higher education agenda, rather than a skills-based one.

READ MORE: Education shouldn’t be free for all. Here’s why…

Over the past ten years adult education has been consistently side-lined and its budget subjected to unprecedented cuts. As a result, colleges have been forced to severely narrow the curriculum they provide to adult learners and there are now around 1.5 million fewer adults participating in further education than there were 10 years ago – a fall of 38%.

This dramatic drop in adult learners is unsurprising. Whilst Advanced Learner Loans are ostensibly about supporting adults to gain Level 3 qualifications and above, they are not accompanied by adequate maintenance support. Learners are expected to take on debt to cover both their course and living costs. In an economy where wages are stagnating and the cost of living is rising, it is inevitable that older learners would turn away from adult education, fearful of the debts they would have to take on in order to better their lives.

Labour’s commitment to scrapping advanced learner loans and reintroducing grants has the opportunity to reverse some of the damage done to lifelong learning over the past ten years. Not only will it provide support to older workers and learners from more deprived backgrounds to actually access further education throughout their lives, it also has the potential to completely alter the way lifelong learning is conceived in society.

Everyone should have the right to access further education

Rather than being seen by the majority as just language classes and pottery courses, adequate investment would signal a move towards recognising the incredibly important role adult learning plays in social mobility; in creating communities; in improving the mental and physical wellbeing of its participants and in re-skilling workers throughout their lives.

But whilst this funding and investment would be an important step forward, it’s not enough on its own. There needs to be a cohesive and coherent lifelong learning strategy that recognises the need for quality, impartial careers information, advice and guidance. The Learning and Work Institute’s surveys consistently show that we are more likely to see adults in learning who already have qualifications, than those who don’t, and so adequate IAG will be critical.

The vote to leave the European Union last June has realigned the focus in education policy and I’m pleased that both Labour and the Conservatives have recognised that there needs to be a much greater focus on, and investment in, further education. I’m hopeful that the commitment to adult education will extend beyond June 8.


Emily Chapman is Vice president for further education at the National Union of Students

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One comment

  1. Darren Vidler

    The question is – where does the money come from? The likely answer would be an increase in borrowing which is why there have been substantial cuts to many sectors over the last few years.

    Yes, it would be great to be able to have “free” education but the reality is that it would be too expensive and would likely devalue the services that are on offer.