The unintended consequences of adult education policy


Why adult education should be invested in, not cut.

Some of you may be aware that I’m doing an introductory engineering course with the Open University. After the exam this June my relationship with the institution will probably end. The reason for that is the inflation-busting hike in fees.

I’ve torn into the political establishment over the course of higher & adult education funding in a previous blogpost, and on the behaviour & actions of one of my former university’s in another.

Education vs training.

It’s not just David Willets’ outlook that in my view is wrong on this, it’s the political establishment’s outlook too. This stems from the actions of the previous administration where John Denham, Secretary of State for the short-lived “Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills” took a kicking over his (or rather Gordon Brown’s) cuts to the adult education budget in 2008/09. A quotation from my MP at the time, former Health Secretary Frank Dobson said of John Denham in the Commons:

I find it hard to believe that this is being done by good and decent people such as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. He is my friend and he is honourable, but he is not right; he is wrong on this occasion.

What are the establishment getting wrong? In my view they are equating education and training as the same thing. They are also equating education with the assumption that it will lead to people getting a higher paid job. This is the pillar of the current system of loans. If that assumption was not in place or was accepted as to be wanting, the whole rationale of the system of loans for everything would crumble.

“You are trained to do a job, you are educated to become a citizen”

The above gives some idea of my ‘worldview’ of education and training in general. The former is tied very much to a job, profession or career while the latter goes far beyond it. The moment the latter is tied hook, line and sinker to the former, education suffers. I remember Charles Clarke, the former education secretary around the time of the Iraq war took a bit of a kicking for alleged remarks about humanities. Defenders of history and philosophy remarked that if he knew anything about philosophy he would not have signed up to the philosophical arguments in favour of the Iraq war, and that if he knew anything about history he’d have known what was said the last time a British General marched on Baghdad…as well as how well that one turned out.

Education for the love of it?

I don’t have any particular desire to become an engineer after seven years in the civil service, but I wanted to broaden my mind. There are many others in that situation too. Should the state subsidise us? That depends on your point of view & the sort of society that you want to live in. There are those who take the view that in order to improve themselves, individuals should self-fund whether through loans or their own savings as it’s the individual who primarily benefits. I disagree. The state, wider society and future employers also benefit.

Future (and even current) employers benefit because their employees have a wider pool of knowledge to draw on for the work that they do. Where this is job-specific training it is easier to quantify. But in the world of work there are many occasions where people draw on what may seem like completely random knowledge that they can apply to what they do at work, even though it may have come from somewhere far away from their vocational field. This happened all the time with me. This sort of knowledge and these sorts of benefits are very difficult to measure and quantify. As such in economics they end up in this hazy field otherwise known as ‘positive externalities that cannot be measured’.

How does society benefit? Cameron’s been big on the Big Society and Ed Miliband on the Good Society. Think of all of those people who bring their knowledge to bear for voluntary and community organisations…for free. While recreational classes may be derided by some as subsidies for middle classes at the expense of more essential basic skills training for those unemployed and without qualifications, my take is that such comparisons are pointless. You could make the same comparison with corporation tax breaks vs spending on basic skills…and so on till the cows come home. One of the reasons such comparisons are made is because of the ministerial silos that exist. Within a fixed budget, Denham at the time had to choose between spending money on basic skills or adult education because those were the parameters he had to work within at the time. The problem with these sorts of silos is that sound policies in one part of them can have positive impacts far beyond them. For example bringing people together using recreational classes, workshops and events can have a positive impact on community cohesion. Bringing people together in this manner can have a positive impact on the health of individuals – for example those with mild to moderate depression. Inside the silo, this is a very difficult thing to appreciate, let alone measure.

A job for life?

Once you’ve got your first degree, you pay full whack like everyone else – again, another fallacy of policy in my book given the world we live in. If we lived in a world where people really did have jobs or careers for life, that would be more understandable. Yet when leaving school in the mid-1990s, we were told in no uncertain terms that the job for life was going, and that our generation onwards would have several careers and would have to train and retrain. Yet the system loads debt after debt after debt onto people. For those who are from more economically deprived backgrounds, you get one shot with financial support and then that’s it.

The system of loans and debt again feels like it has been cooked up in a policy silo that has ignored living costs. It feels like we’re being priced out of existence by rising house prices, rental prices, fuel costs, public transport fare rises and rising food costs…at a time when wages for many people are stagnant. My take is the policy of loan upon loan for retraining us unsustainable.

Why has the burden shifted away from employers and the state onto individuals?

It’s not as if big corporations cannot afford it with their huge cash surpluses. Shouldn’t they be putting at least some of that money back into training and education? Shouldn’t the government have been taxing large corporations at a higher rate to pay for things like education and training. Shouldn’t large corporations have been paying their frontline staff more given the size of the surpluses? (Shouldn’t the shareholders be demanding bigger dividends?) As an aside, my principle is that if your firms are multinational, your regulator needs to be too. How you make the latter work (& accountable to the people rather than to corporations is a separate debate – one to get Europhiles and Europhobes excited).

My basic point remains: It’s not just the individual that benefits from investment in education – even if it’s recreational investment. Firms benefit from a happier workforce that has a greater pool of knowledge to draw from. The state benefits from more cohesive, connected and inclusive communities, whether in reduced policing and healthcare costs to increased tax revenues from individuals and firms that live within those communities.

By cutting budgets for adult education, politicians risk undermining work in a whole host of other areas that they may not have even thought about. Rather than seeing adult education as a non-essential cash cow to be culled, how about seeing it as an asset to help deliver in areas far beyond the education silo?


One thought on “The unintended consequences of adult education policy

  1. Interesting piece. There’s been a considerable drive over the past few years to accredit training schemes, wherever they occur, so they fit into the National Qualifications Framework. I think that’s a pretty good idea in general, because an intrinsic side-effect is to give people multiple ways of achieving qualifications even if the traditional school system fails them, but as a further side-effect it will magnify the perception that education and work-related training are the same, and, for some on the right, lead to the conclusion that charging for any form of education and training is reasonable.

    WRT the OU, and in fact HE in general, I looked into extending my computer science degree towards a doctorate when I was made redundant after 20 years of work developing flight control systems, and I had to conclude that I couldn’t justify the financial risk. The universal view of people I talked to was that my disability meant that, even with the added attraction of a doctorate, the only sector that might employ me was higher education itself, and at a time when the HE jobs market was contracting, the chances of recouping the money I’d spend on the qualification seemed minimal.

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