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Why should we care about Lifelong Learning?

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

Birkbeck is pleased to be working with ResPublica on the Lifelong Education Commission as lifelong learning and flexible learning is very much in our institution’s DNA.

Birkbeck has been a fixture of London’s higher education scene for nearly 200 years and throughout that time has pioneered education to those in work. Based in Bloomsbury as a member of the federal University of London, it fuses evening degree level teaching with high levels of research activity, giving our students access to both the latest teaching and research.

While Lifelong Learning is perhaps better understood now it was not always the case. Dr George Birkbeck on Birkbeck’s establishment in 1823, was accused by some in society of ‘scattering the seeds of evil’ in wanting artisans and tradespeople to learn about science, economics and art. Today some 10,000 students across London and the greater South East study at Birkbeck on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, both full and part-time. Birkbeck is the only institution in the UK to offer all evening teaching and the only majority part-time institution to offer face to face teaching.

Events of the past two years with Brexit, Covid-19 and the impending Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) have shown us that the country cannot stand still and a renewed effort on improving skills and productivity is needed. While the UK has historically had many low skilled roles but has increased degree access it has been poor around the middle – the Level 4 qualification stage. In ‘old money’ these have been HNC/D and Foundation Degree type qualifications. Some of these courses were taught in FE Colleges as well as Universities and provided the building blocks for a largely vocational degree level education. As many more people now enter higher education directly from school or sixth form college and where employers have moved away from paying for training, these once well-known routes have suffered from a lack of demand. However, such a modular and incremental approach can offer ladders of opportunities for some as they can be combined with work due to their vocational nature. This fits in with the existing approach of learning, while working that underpins Birkbeck’s importance in the education system.

The ‘burning platforms’ of Covid-19, Brexit and the 4IR now give a sense of urgency for policy makers possibly not seen since the end of the Second World War. The expansion of full-time higher education over the past 30 years has been a success story for the country but still too many citizens find accessing higher education difficult, not because they lack aspiration but because previous access routes have withered, or the standard full-time model does not fit around their lives now. It is still very difficult even in 2021 to have a second chance at higher education.

So, why should we care about Lifelong Learning? As mentioned earlier, ResPublica and Birkbeck recognise the changing nature of the workforce and economy (we still don’t fully know the consequences of Covid-19 on work just yet) and the need to change some systems and structures around it. The student finance system still finds it too difficult to administer part-time students and rules preventing funding for further undergraduate courses – known at the ELQ rule - need to be urgently reviewed. It cannot be right that someone who read for an undergraduate degree 20 years ago is barred from funding for a HND or Foundation Degree today. This needs to change if we are to achieve any realistic notion of lifelong learning.

We hope that the Lifelong Education Commission will help us seek some answers about how to make the funding and regulatory system more supportive for mature and part-time learners - not just for 18yr old new entrants. There is some movement in this direction already – the Post16 and Skills Bill going through Parliament is looking at the development of a Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE).

This will be an entitlement of four years funding to pay for a Level 4-6 qualification. Will four years be enough over a lifetime, if combining FE and HE qualifications? Should the Government allow loan funding for qualifications at the same of lower level? What is the role of employers in all of this? Should there be a Skills Levy instead of an Apprenticeship Levy in order to allow more flexibility from employers? Organisations like the CBI certainly think so. It is these and many other questions that we hope the Commission can find answers to and we welcome the start of the evidence sessions where members of the Commission seek advice from experts which will form a compelling call to action for policy makers.

Jonathan Woodhead

Policy Adviser,

Birkbeck, University of London


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