A fantastic opportunity to step back into education
This week hundreds of events are taking place across Wales to mark Adult Learners’ Week. Organised by Learning and Work Institute Cymru and supported by the Welsh Government, this is the 27th anniversary of Adult Learners’ Week in Wales. Thousands of people will be having a go at learning something new, whether in their workplace, college, university, online, or in their community. Crucially, for many this could be a first step back into a longer journey of adult education.
However, with continuing austerity putting a real squeeze on budgets for adult learning, there are fewer opportunities for adults to go back into education than before the financial crash. Encouragingly, there are signs of improvement and renewed focus, with politicians and policy-makers once again turning to adult education and lifelong learning to meet the challenges of the future.
The challenges from an ageing workforce and society, a changing world of work, and the disruption of automation and artificial intelligence require investment in the opportunity to learn throughout our lives. Now more than ever we will all need to retrain, learn new skills and do more to look after our health and well-being.
In just a few years more than a third of the Welsh workforce will be over 50. While we debate the introduction of a new curriculum for the next generation of Welsh children it is worth reflecting just how many of people in work today will have O Level or CSE qualifications tucked away in a box in the attic. For many these will also be the last formal qualification they attained. Alongside this we know that 300,000 of our fellow citizens over the age of 25 have no qualifications at all and they are the most exposed to the negative impacts of automation.
There is a compelling case to say that investing in lifelong learning is now of national strategic importance, on a par with the modernisation of our transport infrastructure or in high speed broadband. The stark reality though is that austerity has taken us backwards when we should be going forwards. In further education alone there has been a 70% reduction in funding for part-time learning, a cut which has disproportionately impacted women. Similarly, cuts to community learning mean there are far fewer adults engaged in education than there were before the financial crash. There are still great opportunities for adults to learn but, put simply, not enough of them to meet the challenges ahead.
This is why we need a more sophisticated debate about how we allocate scarce public funding. Central to this must be an honest conversation about how we meet the challenge of an ageing society and more complex health needs. No one would argue that we shouldn’t meet the rising demand for health and social care, but we need to invest as well in ways to reduce that demand. Adult learning has enormous potential to contribute to enabling people to live healthier lives, improve their mental well-being, and to generate greater social cohesion. Funding additional adult learning through the health budget, for example, would represent value for money and must be part of the conversation about how we allocate any new funding to come to Wales as a result of increased spending on the NHS in England.
This will also be the final Adult Learners’ Week of Carwyn Jones’ tenure as First Minister. His successor will be chosen and likely installed as First Minister by the end of the year. There will be a handful of defining issues in the contest to succeed him but none more important than the requirement to articulate a vision of how Wales can respond to the challenge of a new economic landscape. This must mean a vision of how to navigate through the challenge of a post-Brexit economy, equipping school leavers for fifty-year careers, breaking the cycle of low pay and inter-generational poverty, reshaping services to support the rise of self-employment, and how we can harness the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution.
Just as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton made retraining and lifelong learning central to their vision in the 1990s, so too must Wales’ new First Minister if they are to help secure our place in the new world economy. The scale of the challenge means they will need the courage to make big decisions about where we allocate scarce public funding and a breadth of vision to recognise that Wales is facing forces that are fundamentally shifting the way our economy works and our society functions. Whether these changes are welcome or not, their scale means we need to think big and creatively.
Adult learners’ Week is a fantastic opportunity for people to take their first step back into education. It is also the chance to reinvigorate the debate about the vital role of adult education and lifelong learning as part of a new, modernised welfare state.
Adult Learners’ Week is taking place between 18th – 24th June. For more information go to www.careerswales.com/skillsgateway or call 0800 028 4844.
Director, Learning and Work Institute Cymru