Lifelong learning


Some thoughts stemming from the Coalition’s call to get the over 60s retrained

Slowly but surely mindsets are changing around the concept of lifelong learning. But are the policies matching the words? We’ve heard ministers call for older people to go back to university. But as I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts – on loans for adult education replacing government funding, on the unintended consequences of adult education policy, and on the costs of education and training, this seems to be an issue that few politicians want to debate on with any honesty. Not surprisingly, there is very little policy consistency.

Move to the other end of the spectrum – away from individuals and towards institutions, you see that the financial burden has moved away from them and towards the individual. The rhetoric being that people who invest in themselves will earn more money. Frances Coppola nailed this point in her blogpost about labour markets: It’s far easier for firms to poach staff than to bear the costs of training them.

3 years at uni, 40 years counting beans, marry, kids, retire, die

Life on a piece of paper? I slip into the language of this mindset all too often, describing my graduation as the end of my ‘formal education’. We even have some sayings ourselves – you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Yet you can’t claim to have a ‘knowledge economy’ if the people that create and make up the economy are not continually learning new things. It’s like with ‘industrial economies’ or even agricultural/agrarian economies: with the former you can’t have/be one if you don’t make stuff, and with the latter you can’t have/be one if you don’t grow stuff.

Now, I had a rotten time at university. I find it morbidly funny that my old uni’s Twitter account has started following Puffles. A few months ago their alumni office phoned up out of the blue (for the first time in about a decade) inviting me to give them free money. I shouted back at them and slammed down the phone. My feelings of loathing even after a over a decade since graduating are still as strong. (Why didn’t I up sticks and leave? It’s very difficult when you’ve invested all that time & money – you want something to show the jobs market. That and going through my first real mental health crisis…yeah, your decision-making functions are not in tip-top shape).

In one sense I’m surprised more students are not in absolute uproar over the quality of service that they are receiving. A number of people over the past couple of years that I’ve either spoken to or interacted with via social media have asked the question of whether university is worth it.

But university isn’t for everyone

True. Now, my consistent line for many years on university has been that we should take ‘age’ out of it. It doesn’t matter whether you are 18 or 80, rather what matters is that you have the qualifications, potential and the aptitude to make a success of university. With my A-levels, to this day I still feel I needed one more term at college to make a real go of them – oh, and better maths teachers in general. It’s one of the chips on my shoulder. Out of all of the A-levels I did, maths was the most useful of them in much that followed, even though history was the one (which I did part time during a ‘year out’ – as I called by gap year back then) that gave me the most pleasure. Chances are having that extra term – and the better teachers – would have impacted my grades and ultimately choice of university.

Now, this all sounds like ‘modules, re-sits and exams where no one ever fails’, but it isn’t. (Even though I woke up last night having had a dream where I got a devastating piece of feedback from a project that I had submitted to the head of geography of my old college at the time. Dreams are weird.) My point is that people apply if and when they feel ready for university, not when it’s convenient for the system. What would a student-centred further and higher education system look like? Given that GovUK is turning the entire web-estate of Whitehall to make it work from a citizen’s perspective…exactly. However, this would mean a massive restructure of further education – whether from organisation of the academic year, the ages at which people could go to certain institutions to the content of courses.

And apprenticeships?

I said to a few people recently that we’ll know how much the political establishment really values apprenticeships when the sons and daughters of parents that send their children to expensive private schools encourage their children to go down this route.

Now, this point is completely separate to their actual value and worth, and also the amount of work you need to put into successfully completing one. Every so often I bump into one of my old schoolmates from primary school who is now a tiler – and now multiple landlord too. He was a bright kid, one of many failed by my former secondary school as far as academia and support was concerned. He could have gone onto university but never did. Fortunately he was able to turn things round from a couple of real low points. Not so long ago I bumped into another old schoolfriend from secondary school who’s now retraining to become a furniture maker. For quite some time I’ve looked at a whole series of things in antique shops and the like, wishing that I could make things like that.

“Yeah, but you’re a lazy sod when it comes to practical things!”

When left to my own devices, yes I can be. Actually, what I’ve found is my preferred learning and working style is one that involves being with people – a regular group of people that I interact with over a period of time. This is one of my big struggles being freelance. I simply don’t get this. But given my current state of health and mindset, I need to spend sometime outside of a traditional workplace – and not to rush any recovery.

And structure is important.

People have different learning styles. Some people like to squirrel away in libraries & archives or in front of a computer with zero distraction from other people. Others need people to bounce ideas off and learn through discussion and debate. Some prefer learning by doing, others prefer learning by watching. Some prefer reading, writing and feedback, others prefer digital video and other multimedia. Some prefer listening to lectures, others prefer cross-examining speakers. For most of us I’d guess we like to take the best bits from all. That and it depends on what frame of mind – or even time of day – it happens to be.

What is there for people older than 30 that is structured, social but not stupendously expensive?

The reason why this is important is the growing expectation that we will have to train, retrain and switch careers throughout our lives. In principle I don’t have a problem where people choose to change careers. What I do have a problem with is how employers and the state have transferred the burdens of training and retraining onto the citizen, as if it is only the citizen that benefits from the training. It isn’t. The employer does, the state does,  and society does too. The problem is that few people have been able to articulate this in a manner that can slam-dunk those in power that think otherwise. Bear in mind the debts that graduates will have following university. Bear in mind consumer debt. Bear in mind how rents and house prices are completely out of all proportion to wages and salaries generally. Then ask yourself how sustainable getting people to take out more loans is in order to retrain.

Big Society

Perhaps Cameron’s vision of Big Society was the local Women’s Institute selling homemade jams at the summer fete outside the local parish church. Actually, if Cameron had thought things through properly, he could have used lifelong learning policy to help achieve some of his Big Society objectives – in using schools, colleges and universities as places of ‘social learning’. By this I mean bringing people together in a more informal environment to learn together. Instead, the mindset of senior politicians when in ministerial office has been to denigrate such activities, stereotyping them as the working class taxpayer having to subsidise middle class hobbies such as pilates or lifedrawing classes. Classic pieces of politicking there – denigrate something in order to create an atmosphere where the cutting of funding in the mindset of the public is more palatable. Tactically sound – you get to justify an easy cut in the silo of the department for business, but strategically crazy – because it undermines a whole host of other policy objectives far beyond the departmental silo.

Lifelong learning for me?

I made a list here (scrolls halfway down). As I said to one of my siblings yesterday, I refuse to play the “middle class is magical” game anymore. What’s the point in aspiring to have your own house and own car when the finance terms for both are completely out of reach? Even if they were within reach, it’d mean being locked into wage slavery for decades.

But what do you need to have in place to make lifelong learning a reality for the many and not the few? It’s as I listed in School Sports:

  • Available
  • Affordable
  • Accessible
  • Enjoyable
  • Sociable

I can’t help but feel that we’re going in completely the opposite direction – at least on the sociable and affordable side of things. At least on free learning by digital media, things are going in the right direction with the growth of massive online open courses, such as these in Edinburgh


One thought on “Lifelong learning

  1. What was it about your Uni experience that leads you to feel so hostile towards the fundraisers? This is not a leading question but it’s not entirely clear from what you’ve written.

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