Investing in adult learning is as important as early years, says former minister

24 February 2016

In a challenge to current accepted wisdom, the former minister for universities and science Lord David Willetts, called out “poor quality neuroscience” that has convinced policymakers that people can’t learn later in life, which contributes to a lack of support for lifelong learning in England. Arguing that lifelong learning was important to the economy, Lord Willetts said that returns on investment for educating a 50 year-old could be as great as educating a three year old.

Lord Willetts was joined by former cabinet minister Lord David Blunkett and Sir Vince Cable, former secretary of state at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills at ‘Lifelong Learning and the Power to Create’; a debate on the future of lifelong learning organised by Learning and Work Institute and RSA on Tuesday 23 February 2016. Matthew Taylor, chief executive at RSA also joined the panel which was chaired by David Hughes, chief executive at Learning and Work Institute.

More than 100 attendees from the adult education field were in attendance to hear the views and insights of the three political heavyweights on an agenda often overshadowed by universities and schools issues. However, Lord Blunkett, education and employment secretary under Tony Blair, described how his green paper on lifelong learning The Learning Age, published 18 years ago today, was one of the most important reports he worked on.

The number of people aged 19 and over in further education has declined by one million since 2010 as adult learning has endured significant reductions in public funding. Alongside, the number of mature and part time students in higher education has also declined dramatically

One of the reasons for a decline in participation of adults on further education courses was attributed to the introduction of university-style student loans. Lord Willetts, who led major reforms in university funding and tuition fees when a minister in the Coalition Government, said that new loans for pre-university adult learning appears to act as a barrier in a way that loans do not for full time university students and that reforms are clearly needed.

David Hughes, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said, “We know that employers need more people with skills and that adults want to be able to learn, but the system is not working well. We’re working, through our Ambition London project, with employers, learning providers and learners to try out new ways to motivate adults to invest in their own learning, for their benefit and to support higher productivity for employers.

“The debate raised some really important points about the learning and work agenda, with Lord Blunkett calling for a renewed focus on learning which opens minds rather than simple training for basic or technical skills and Sir Vince talking about the impact of technology on work and the opportunities it presents for new forms of learning. I’m confident that we established some key points to take to policy makers to support them in raising the profile of lifelong learning.”

The debate content will inform a paper on lifelong learning that is being published by the RSA and Learning and Work Institute in the Spring.