The world of work is changing. We need more adult education, not less

The current crisis at the Open University illustrates how public support for adult learning has gone so badly wrong in the UK. For nearly half a century, the OU has served a unique role in British educational life, complementing face-to-face learning in place-based institutions with distance education. While the 2012 tuition fees rise increased budgets for most universities, they have been disastrous for the OU, Birkbeck and others serving part-time mature students. The Guardian reports.

But the crisis in adult higher education participation is not limited to specialist institutions. Step by step, opportunities for adults to learn have been eroded. First, the 100-year tradition of university extra-mural departments aimed at adults closed one by one. Second, state funding for mature students to study at the same level or below their highest qualification went out of the window. Meanwhile, widening participation strategies were concentrated more and more on school leavers. Then the fees rise devastated mature and part-time study, especially at sub-degree level. And once the student number cap was lifted, most universities opted for the easily administered full-time young entrant over the less tidy part-time adult.

The result of all this is that the number of mature students in higher education has dropped by more than a half since 2011, while universities’ budgets have increased by 25% overall.

Lessons from elsewhere

There are, however, continuing examples of a creative commitment to lifelong learning in the world, and lessons for the UK aplenty.

In Europe, all the Nordic countries maintain substantial public financial support for open exploratory liberal education, where citizens can learn a wide range of subjects. In Switzerland, Austria and Germany vocational education enjoys high esteem and public investment, in stark contrast to the weakening of funding for the vocational education sector in the UK. Investment in lifelong learning, meanwhile, has attracted significant and impressive commitment, backed by legislation, in several Asian countries.

For example, the city of Suwon in South Korea guarantees a library within 10 minutes’ walk and a learning centre within 20 minutes’ of every citizen’s home, with close co-operation with the city’s universities. In Singapore, too, the combination of national investment, support for business and individual learning accounts, backed by active support from higher education, creates optimal conditions for creating a learning society – using measures many of which were introduced and too quickly dropped in the UK.

The changing world of work

Last autumn two papers, one from the Government Office for Science Foresight
team, the other from the World Economic Forum [pdf] highlighted the scale of the demographic and industrial challenges facing us all. The coming of robotics and artificial intelligence promise to do for white collar jobs, as globalisation did for their blue collar counterparts. Equally, in our ageing society we need people to work longer, and to keep learning to minimise their demands for health and care. These challenges call for serious investment from government, employers, higher and further education and individuals alike. But they need, too, a recovery of commitment to lifelong, life-wide learning in higher education.

Read the full article The world of work is changing. We need more adult education, not less

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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