The lifelong education commission is calling for changes – including a rule that needs abolishing, writes David Latchman
You may not have thought it applies to you, in the relatively stable, professionalised career of teaching, but “lifelong learning” is something we will soon all have to think about.
The fourth industrial revolution, characterised by extraordinary and rapid technology advances, is fundamentally changing the ways we live, work, and interact with each other.
Covid-19 has also transformed normal ways of working for millions of people, opening up opportunities for some, while closing off vital sources of income for many others.
For those least adaptable to the gale force winds of economic change, such developments in the job market may spell disaster.
And if the UK is to remain globally competitive, it will need to redress this skills gap.
In the future, it is likely that workers will have to upskill and re-skill to remain employable.
A report published by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and management consultants McKinsey in 2020 estimated that five million workers (one in six) are likely to go through a radical career change that requires new training.
Meanwhile 25.5 million will have to upskill as their role evolves and becomes more complex, said the report.
If the education system isn’t able to meet these demands, the UK could face a persistent and intractable wave of unemployment that will be difficult to halt.
Given the UK’s historic problem with adult participation in learning, ensuring it is achieved at scale will be no mean feat.
The statistics are bleak: the proportion of adults in learning has declined since 2015, with participation rates currently at their lowest levels.
Part-time study in higher education has fallen by 54 per cent over the last decade, with changes to student fees instigated in 2012 only speeding this decline.
In addition, only ten per cent of UK adults aged 18 to 65 hold a level 4 to 5 technical qualification (equivalent to the first year of university), compared to 20 per cent in Germany and 34 per cent in Canada.
This skills shortfall is starting to become more widely recognised in policy circles.
Spending on adult skills will increase by £3.8 billion by 2024-25, the chancellor announced last week.
This is in addition to proposed schemes such as the lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) – which, if passed, would provide every adult with a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 study.
The government wants to make the LLE a universal entitlement, enabling everyone to access the student loan system at any age, rather than acting as an addition to the existing system for mature learners.
We welcome support from the sector on this.
But policymakers will have to go much further in their efforts to future-proof the UK skills system.
Policymakers will have to go much further in their efforts
To do this, they will need fresh ideas accompanied by a clear and definitive roadmap to reform.
Luckily, the lifelong education commission – which includes member universities like Birkbeck, University of London – is leading the charge.
Its first report, The Pathway to Lifelong Education, calls for a flexible skills system that would allow individuals to build up educational credits.
This would mean learners could transfer credit between institutions, enabling them to complete their qualifications across a variety of learning pathways.
It also calls for the equivalent or lower qualification rule to be abolished. By denying people access to funding for qualifications that are at or lower than their existing qualification, this rule inhibits reskilling.
The report also highlights the role universities can play in facilitating the retraining and upskilling of the working population.
We have reached a critical juncture. The ongoing impact of Covid-19 and the reality of rapid technological change mean that skills and education reform has never been more vital.
We can either continue to just talk about lifelong education, or we can take the urgent action needed to tackle the fourth industrial revolution.