The role of colleges in supporting lifelong learning

David Hughes

3 November 2020

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Over 20 years ago, I somewhat stumbled into the world of further education and lifelong learning. I’d been working for a decade in a range of roles in England and Australia, in community development, co-operative housing, social policy and campaigning. The stumble happened when I realised that at its core, all of my work had been about lifelong learning – about supporting people to have more understanding of the world they live in, helping them to affect change in their communities, and ultimately to shape their own future and that of the people and communities they lived with and in.

I had worked with lots of people over the years who I’d seen grow in confidence, self-esteem and awareness of the possibilities of life. I had seen people start to believe that positive change would happen and that they could be the drivers for progress – in their families and their communities. I’d seen them get good jobs, inspire their children’s learning, bring improvements to their housing, establish youth clubs, support groups and community cohesion. It was lifelong learning with a wider purpose, driven by empowering people to believe in themselves.

It all might sound grand, and certainly when I started my career I believed that I could and would change the world. I still believe that, but I realised that to achieve society-wide change, we need to empower more people in every community to have agency, to believe in themselves and to realise that learning for life is not a one-off nor a sentence, but a necessity for us all.

I realised that to achieve society-wide change, we need to empower more people in every community to have agency, to believe in themselves and to realise that learning for life is not a one-off nor a sentence, but a necessity for us all.

Working with colleges now, I worry deeply about the impact that a decade of funding cuts has had on the range and scale of opportunities that they can offer for adults. Even in times of stability those cuts would be devastating, but the lack of opportunities is even more concerning given the ever-increasing pace of technological change and the impact of the pandemic and Brexit on our economy, lives and work.

Last week the Commission on the College of the Future published it’s four nations report, setting out a compelling vision for colleges. The Commission was a pleasure and a privilege to be involved with, as a wide range of people from across different sectors agreed how important colleges are for people across their lives, and for communities.

The Commission report lands at a great time. The involvement of politicians and officials from all four nations means that a lot of it’s thinking and framing of the issues has already influenced policy thinking. And there is a growing awareness that the recovery we all seek simply has to include more and better opportunities for training, skills and education – for people of all ages and at all levels, from literacy, numeracy and digital basics, through work-focused, technical and higher technical skills to degrees and post-graduate skills.

The Prime Minister’s announcement of a Lifetime Skills Guarantee is an exciting step forward, but as always we will all need to help ensure that it really does offer every adult the training, skills and education opportunities they need and want throughout their lives. The funding announced so far by the Prime Minister is helpful but far from sufficient. More will be needed in the spending review and in future for maintenance support for people to be free to train and learn, for outreach to communities being left behind and for creative approaches to engage people and employers in developing routes and pathways to better skills, better jobs, improved productivity and more inclusive communities.

Arguably more important than any of this is the need to develop a learning for life culture – across all of society, with employers, in government and in the media. I’m hopeful that this culture and understanding is starting to emerge, so what better ambition to have in Lifelong Learning Week than that?

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges and previous chief executive of Learning and Work Institute.