by David Hagendyk
Learning and Work Cymru’s annual adult education conference this year saw more than 120 practitioners, learners, managers and policymakers gather to help put some flesh on the bones of the Welsh Government commitment to developing a right to lifelong learning.
Delegates were challenged to ‘change the lens’ through which they saw the purpose of adult education and to champion the broader benefits of lifelong learning. As policy has contracted to a narrower focus on the acquisition of skills for work and to measurement by qualification, contributors highlighted the value of lifelong learning to health and well-being, family life, social and civic engagement.
There was rightly some optimism that the commitment to a new right to lifelong learning could significantly boost opportunities for adults to learn. The backdrop for the commitment though has been a fall in participation during the period of austerity.
Our latest shows that since 2011/12 and 2017/18, the number of adult learners (over the age of 25) in FE, work-based learning and community learning has fallen from 129,805 to 86,155. This is 43,650 fewer learners, or an eyewatering 34% fall.
*these figures are taken from Welsh Government statistics and cover provision in FE, community learning, and work-based learning. The full dataset is available here.
Proportionality there has been a bigger fall in the number of men (37.25%) compared to women (31.42%) taking part in learning. However, with women making up more than 60 per cent of all learners, women make up 58% of the overall decrease (25,315 women compared to 18,335 men). The net effect of the changes though has been to actually reduce the proportion of men studying part-time across the sector.
In fairness, both the sector and the Welsh Government have started to respond. There has been some new investment to support part-time learning in FE. As we heard from Cardiff and Vale College at the conference, FE institutions are responding with the creation of new pathways for part-time learners. In higher education the picture looks more optimistic with the new Diamond reforms seeing rises in part-time and post-graduate learner numbers.
The biggest challenge undoubtedly rests in place-based, adult community learning. The Minister has already announced that big structural changes to the sector are on the way and there will be more immediate changes made to ensure a fairer distribution of funding across adult community education providers. The challenge is the starting point. With an annual budget of around just £4.5m local authority ACL provision is already under-funded and more fairly redistributing existing levels of funding won’t address overall inequality of access or create the pathways into lifelong learning. No one disputes that the Welsh Government budget isn’t difficult but given the scale of the decline under austerity and the compelling evidence of the benefits of adult education, there is a clear and overwhelming case to significantly increase funding for the ACL sector in the coming budget round.
‘Forward, not back’ was the entirely forgettable 2005 Labour election slogan. Nearly fifteen years on it captures the challenge now for adult education and lifelong learning in Wales. Without doubt participation in adult education has been one of the chief victims of austerity in Wales and the numbers show how sharply participation has fallen back in that time. To go forwards and deliver a right to lifelong learning that is accessible in communities across Wales needs the sector to grow some sharp elbows and make the case for more resources. Until it does, this vital entry into learning will be missing in too many communities and thousands of potential learners will miss out on the life-changing benefits of learning.