There is radical potential in revitalising adult education – why are we letting it disappear?

We need a dynamic education system to meet the challenges of an ever-changing labour market.

NS

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According to government figures released in early April, the number of adult learners dropped by 10.8 per cent in 2014/15, tracing a long-term decline. This is not surprising given that further education colleges have received a real terms cut of 27 per cent in the last five years, according to college principals, with courses cut and building investments cancelled. The failure to invest in adult education is not sound economics – it saves costs today at the expense of tomorrow.

The tragedy in adult education is broadly twofold. First, it affects people for whom adult education is one of the only realistic means of improving their skills, income and standard of living – disproportionately women, people with disabilities, lone parents and those from BME backgrounds. For them, the demise of adult education stifles their ability to enter, or advance within, the labour market.

Second, the continued poor productivity performance of the UK can, in part, be attributed to skills mismatches and a lack of dynamism; or, as the Bank of England dryly puts it, “impediments in the movement of capital and labour towards their most productive uses”. Revitalising adult education would be a step in the right direction.

According to McKinsey, a consulting firm, gender equality in the workplace could increase GDP in western Europe by as much as 25 per cent, an important aspect of which is women achieving employment-rate parity with men. In the UK, women’s employment rate is roughly 10 per cent below that of men. What’s more, the employment rate of people with disabilities is a miserable 47.2 per cent, the BME employment rate is about 10 per cent below the national average and lone parents’ employment is also diminished.

This is a grievous waste of talent, and the effect to GDP of reducing barriers to all excluded groups would be even greater than the figure for gender parity alone.

Adult education targets precisely these groups. It offers flexible and accessible learning that people with childcare or healthcare requirements need to re-enter the workplace and/or improve their skills. Courses often take place part-time and in the evenings, making them more user-friendly than other educational paths, like undergraduate degrees or many apprenticeships. 

John Holford, professor of adult education at the University of Nottingham, argues that there has been a detrimental shift in adult education provision since the 1990s. “Funding has been increasingly limited to those in early adulthood who follow predominantly vocational paths,” he says. This shift has led to a narrow and partial approach that underutilises the potential in the sector. People across all age ranges, especially those underrepresented in the workplace, need easy access to a lifelong education system at whatever stage they require it.

There are also broader reasons why we should invest in adult education. In the wake of the Tata Steel crisis, if governments are not able or willing to rescue industries, then we need a dynamic education system to retrain workers and give them and their communities ownership of their future. Not having an industrial strategy is one thing, but not having an educational strategy to mitigate the damage is unforgiveable.

To this day, unemployment still disproportionately affects former industrial centres, in part because of a failure to meet the diverse educational needs of those populations following industrial decline. The latest unemployment rate in the North-East of England, for example, is 8.6 per cent (compared with 4.1 per cent in the south-east). If this were the nationwide rate it would be seen for what it is – completely unacceptable, and a disastrous waste of human potential.

In terms of low productivity, it is the consequence of many difficult-to-locate factors. One factor is skills mismatches – for example, where graduates work in jobs that do not require degrees, excluding lower-skilled workers from those posts. The answer is not to limit graduate numbers, but to radically extend post-compulsory education so that workers at all levels can retrain and move more fluidly between positions.

Adult education requires investment to have the long-term effect on the labour market that is desperately needed. Current spending amounts to just 0.5 per cent of total spending, and is the equivalent of just 6.5 per cent of the education budget (adult education is funded via the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills). This is pitiful considering the potential returns.

The cost of not investing will be a labour market that continually cannot match skills to vacancies, where undermotivated workers are trapped within occupations and where those in declining industries cannot take control of their own lives, and are instead left at the mercy of ever-changing markets.

Adult education is not a panacea for the labour market, but it targets the groups that most need to enter the labour force. Think of the 10 per cent deficit of women to men, the 25 per cent deficit of people with disabilities, the 10 per cent deficit of lone parents, the 17 per cent deficit of ethnic minorities. These are deficits to be fixated upon.