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Press Release - Lifelong Education Commission calls for 'Whole-system reform' of Adult Learning

Press Release from the Lifelong Education Commission The Pathway to Lifelong Education: Reforming the UK’s Skills System A Report by ResPublica for Birkbeck University of London Lifelong Education Commission calls for 'Whole-system reform' of Adult Learning


The Government will struggle to deliver its pledge to 'level up' the country unless it makes it easier for adults to acquire new skills, according to a new report from an independent Commission of FE and HE leaders to be published on Monday 4th October 2021 . The Lifelong Education Commission was set up by the think tank ResPublica under the chairmanship of former universities minister, Chris Skidmore MP, to find ways to remove the barriers to lifelong learning in the UK. The proportion of British adults in learning is declining rapidly with participation rates currently at their lowest ever level. Only 10% of adults aged 18-65 hold a level 4-5 technical qualification (equivalent to first year of university), compared to 20% in Germany and 34% in Canada. According to Chris Skidmore, rapid reform is required to raise the life chances of all UK adults:

"If there is one policy to deliver ‘levelling up’, it is adult learning and skills. Acquiring new skills is something we all do throughout our lives. Yet the formal process for acquiring them is incredibly constrained. There are too few opportunities to return to learning for those who have left it. And those willing to retrain or re-skill can barely see the wood for the trees; the pathways are so complex.” The Report is the first of eight from the Lifelong Education Commission over the next two years. It singles out areas of the UK's fragmented skills system that need reforming, and recommends the types and levels of future investment needed to support it. It calls for much greater flexibility and ‘modularity’ of provision to deliver 'whole system change' in lifelong education, so that the individual learner can choose his/her destiny and recognise the power of lifelong learning to deliver change in their lives. Commenting on the timing of the launch, Chris Skidmore said: The government is embracing adult learning at just the right time. The Lifelong Learning Entitlement, combined with the prospect of modular and course-based learning and the expansion of Level 4 and 5 provision, has the potential to create new journeys into learning for those for whom a graduate route was not the way. But if these reforms are to succeed, it is essential that new partnerships are forged between HE and FE providers." The UK has a well-recognised skills problem which impacts economic growth. Adult participation in learning has declined, particularly among part-time students, while fewer people in work are taking up training to reskill or upskill. There is also a shortfall in vocational and higher technical qualifications, with only 4% of young people achieving a qualification at the higher technical level by the age of 25. Employers consistently cite 'skill gaps' and shortages that are holding back the country’s competitiveness and productivity. Major structural changes to the labour market over the next 10 years will require workers to upskill and/or reskill in greater numbers to remain employable. According to the Commission, this will require skills for jobs that have yet to be defined and for which there are no standardised qualifications. The ability of workers to re-skill and up-skill is seen as critical to the Government’s goal of ‘levelling up’ the country. The least productive areas in the post-industrial North and Midlands are also the areas with the lowest skills. Hence, the success of levelling up will hinge on there being more and better pathways back into learning. Without it, employment and earning prospects will remain depressed relative to more affluent, productive areas. Commenting on the opportunity for Government, Commission co-founder and ResPublica Director, Phillip Blond, said: "Boris Johnson has the chance to do for education what the NHS did for health, that is to universalise education and make it no longer just the privilege of the wealthy and the domain of the middle class. By making it life-long and backing access to training and skill acquisition for everyone, that makes a difference. The Conservatives can give a second chance to those failed by the system and crucially address the productivity gap that is driven almost everywhere by a lack of skills and access to training." The Report calls for a flexible skills system to allow people to build up ‘credits’ for learning over time, through different modes and levels of participation best suited to the individual. All higher learning (at level 4 and above in England) will need to be modular and credit-bearing to enable learners to accumulate and transfer credit between institutions and to build up qualifications. The Report makes a series of other recommendations for reform, including:

  • A single source of careers advice, to ‘professionalise’ and regulate careers information, advice and guidance

  • Means-tested Maintenance Grants for learners over and above the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, in order to subsidise costs and encourage uptake, particularly among those for whom debt is a barrier

  • The abolition of the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) rules, to support retraining at higher levels

  • Extending the Apprenticeship Levy to cover a wider range of high-quality training, including short modular courses, in order to provide additional flexibility and incentivise employer investment in skills training

  • Stronger HE-FE partnerships to provide integrated pathways to higher-level skills; and alignment with industry and online providers to enable better coordination between schools, colleges, universities, and employers.

  • Reform of the regulatory framework to simplify the jurisdiction between multiple qualification bodies;

  • Learning lessons from Scotland, where ‘articulation agreements’ offer clear routes between FE and HE allowing students with Higher National Certificates and Diplomas to access the second or third years of degree programmes. The vision of the Commission is to develop a place-based approach to adult learning; create sustainable and equitable partnerships between higher and further education; and set-out an agenda with the maximum possible flexibility to empower individual learners to recognise the capacity of lifelong learning to change their lives. The Commission’s approach has been to start from first principles, returning to a 'hierarchy of needs' approach that seeks to understand the underlying reasons why the UK's adult population turns its back on retraining, in contrast to the Continent. By returning to first principles, the Commission aims to investigate barriers and find solutions iteratively, chapter by chapter, over the course of two years. The Report focuses on what the commissioners see as the essential first principle for reform: flexibility, and the need to deliver the maximum opportunity for the learner to realise their potential by removing barriers that can be easily removed, if government and stakeholders have the vision and ambition to embrace the transformative potential of lifelong learning. Arguably, the Report arrives at a highly opportune moment for skills reform. In the recent Government reshuffle, FE and HE were brought together under the responsibility of two ministers, one of whom, Higher and Further Education Minister Michelle Donelan MP, attends Cabinet. The Report is being launched at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Monday which Donelan and Skills Minister, Alex Burghart MP, will be attending. Phillip Blond commented on the motivation for founding the Commission and its potential value for ministers: “This is the antithesis of a rapid, one-shot policy paper approach. The commissioners are committed to a more patient exploration of current shortcomings in the system that are preventing higher numbers of adult learners from acquiring new skills. We will be making a series of interventions over the next two years that, in aggregate, provide a pathway to reform. The vision is everyone being able to access the skills they need to raise their earnings and fulfil their potential." Further Commission reports will follow in 2021/22. ENDS Media/Interview Opportunities

  • The Report will be launched at an event at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, 2-3.30pm on Monday 4 October. The event is outside of the ’secure zone’ and free to attend.

  • It will be held at Friends' Meeting House (Room G1), 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS — view map

  • Tickets for the launch event are available via Eventbrite.

  • Among the speakers will be Chair of the Lifelong Education Commission, Chris Skidmore MP, the Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck, Prof. David Latchman, the Vice-Chancellor of Salford University, Prof. Helen Marshal, the CEO of London Higher, Dr. Diana Beech and John Penrose MP.

  • Media can also join the event via Zoom. Registration is open right up until the start of the event at 2pm on Monday.

  • The following are also available for press and broadcast interviews. Please submit bids via Centaurus Communications, details below.

  • Commission Chairman, Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP

  • Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck and report sponsor, Prof. David Latchman

  • Director of ResPublica and Commission founder, Phillip Blond

Contacts for Media For interviews and any other media requests, please contact:

  • Sam Chandler — sc@centauruscommunications.com / 07890 175472

  • Jonathan Horsman — jh@centauruscommunications.com / 07880 786582

Notes on the Commission

  • The Lifelong Education Commission was established at ResPublica under the chairmanship of former Universities Minister, Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP, with a vision to achieve whole-system reform. The Commission will seek to recommend how the multiple and varied barriers to lifelong learning can be removed, what future investment is needed to support this, and what regulatory change is needed to ensure the maximum possible flexibility that will benefit learners and deliver on the promise of a whole system change for education post-18.

  • The Commission will focus on how post-18 education and skills ought to be designed so that both Higher and Further Education institutions are valued, but also how the individual learner can be better empowered to make decisions and undertake their learning.

  • Some of the issues the Commission will address include the following:

  • Qualification reform: what existing qualifications, such as degree apprenticeships, need to be reformed to ensure they perform better? Flexible learning is essential for the future but will only work if the qualifications themselves are as flexible. How can this be achieved?

  • The role of Universities and other institutions in delivering Level 4/5 education as well as bitesize courses. Existing institutions can help roll out provision, what is needed to enhance this?

  • Remote and online learning; how can this be harnessed better to deliver reform? How can this lead to harnessing international opportunities

  • Can we break down barriers between institutions to create a new form of ‘Open University’ that places power in the hands of learners to choose courses at different places of study and yet amass a credible and recognised path of study?

  • Who pays: how should lifelong learning be funded in the future? Can we move away from an unsustainable fee model to one in which universities and institutions can share in the earned value of a degree, almost as shareholders in learners’ knowledge capital?

  • How can business and industry benefit from flexible learning rather than see it as an imposition or an unfunded extra?

  • Similarly, how can we improve on the job training for the current workforce so that skills are deepened, and new innovation is swiftly learnt?

  • How can a post-18 education system best enhance provision for those affected by educational failure?

  • Whole place approaches: how can we best assess what courses are offered and where, how do we tie in the findings of the Government’s innovation audits with local industry and local places so that we can genuinely ‘level up.’

  • Language learning: research suggests an enormous cost for our national failure to educate our citizens in other languages and cultures – language learning lends itself to the post-18 agenda and our new approach will try to best facilitate the platform needed to tackle this deficit.

  • Tackling the complexities of different cohorts and groups trying to access Lifelong Learning will be key to the Commission’s remit. This may well entail different reports and projects assessing how best to help: mothers returning to work, people for whom English is a second language, recent migrants as well as recognising and addressing the issues of class, place, and race.

  • Independent Commissioners

  • Prof. Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor, The Open University

  • Douglas Blackstock, Chief Executive, The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

  • Prof. Keith Ridgway, Executive Chair, National Manufacturing Institute Scotland

  • Dr Diana Beech, CEO, London Higher

  • Andy Forbes, Chair, UCAS Media

  • Johnny Rich, Chief Executive, EPC

  • Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive, National Centre for Universities and Business

  • Prof. Susan Rigby, Vice-Chancellor, Bath-Spa University

  • Prof. Dave Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor London Southbank University

  • Jonathan Simons, Director, Public First

  • Baroness Wilcox of Newport



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