Ok, so I am being a little creative with my title here because they did not walk into a bar; they walked into the Chamber in the House of Lords today for a debate entitled, "What progress is being made in developing a sustainable lifelong learning culture in England?". This is the second debate about Lifelong Learning in the last six months within the House of Lords, evidence that this important issue is playing on the minds of those sitting in the House. I had the fortune to be present for this evening's debate in the appealing surroundings of Westminster.
The debate put forward by Baroness Garden of Frognal attracted some fascinating comments from a number of peers (a full list can be found here under today's date 16.04.18). Baroness Garden introduced the debate mentioning two leading institutions in Lifelong Learning - Birkbeck University and The Open University. She noted that these two institutions were unique and described the Open University as transformational, noting the huge importance of supporting learners studying part time, many of whom may have missed out on the opportunity earlier on in life. She noted the damaging impact of ELQ rules which prevent those with an equivalent or lower qualification accessing financial support and how both universities suffered a massive decline in student numbers since the raising of tuition fees.
As the debate continued The Open University's recent media coverage was mentioned by nearly all contributing. It was described as 'Great but struggling' (Lord Knight), 'One of Europe's outstanding institutions...[that we must] find a way of saving' (Baroness Bakewell) and there was a clear statement from the minister in his closing speech that the Government wanted to make sure the situation with the OU would move forward in the right direction. The affection in the room for this institution was palpable but, as readers of this blog with know, I could tell you again and again how life-changing and awe-inspiring the OU is, but that is not what this blog is about - it is about the bishop, the neuroscientist and the trade unionist. Or more importantly it is about three different takes on Lifelong Learning, which all recognise the importance of this type of education. So I begin with the Neuroscientist.
Baroness Greenfield spoke of a range of research supporting the value of Lifelong Learning noting its particular impact in those with mental health conditions and the elderly, where it can contribute to obtaining and maintaining employment and supporting longer social engagement, respectively. She went on to review the current Education Strategies of the Russell Group universities commenting that only one, Leeds University, makes explicit reference to Lifelong Learning for anyone and only a further four (out of 24) make reference to it for their own alumni. She suggested that there needed to be a clear steer from government that the elite universities should be focusing on this provision. She noted four key barriers to Lifelong Learning:
- Technological - finding systems and platforms to support the learners studying in a different mode to previous students
- Financial - from the perspective of the university e.g. the cost of re-developing curriculum
- Pedagogic - recognition that teaching must be viewed more broadly than ever before - it is not just about a teacher in front of a group of learners.
- Learner - here she focused largely on the financial barriers for individual learners. She noted that financial support required studying at around 10 hours per week which may be too much for some part time learners to combine with other commitments and commented on the range of financial support options for carers or dependants, which are very poorly promoted.
Baroness Greenfield suggested the following:
1. The government should send a clear message to all universities that Lifelong Learning should be part of their strategies and flexible curriculum is important. This could even include a fee cap for universities not showing commitment to this issue.
2. Flexible financing should be available, including for professional development cousres, which could even include financing on a module level rather than qualification level.
3. She also suggested completely scrapping the ELQ rules.
The Bishop of Coventry directly followed Baroness Greenfield and he emphasised again the importance of Lifelong Learning, noting that is it a shared value in many traditions and that learning is fundamental to human identity. He commented that learning should never just be for economic benefit but it is a far deeper experience. Life, he said, was endlessly interesting and gave many opportunities for us to learn. Most pertinent for me was his remark that learning is for life - it allows us to live life to the full. He says that learning gives us hope to imagine a different future, for both individual and the world.
The final contribution I want to describe is from Lord Sawyer who began by acknowledging his trade union background and recalled how he had seen people realise their potential through Lifelong Learning and that an area once pioneering and adventurous and lots its drive. He said that whilst we need a type of Lifelong Learning fit for the modern setting it must still fulfil the needs of the people. He blamed the decline of part time students by more than 50%, a cross bared more heavily by the OU and Birkbeck than others, as caused by increased fees and restrictive loan criteria.
These remarks, and those of the other peers I have not had space to include, show that whilst there is a huge need to earn while we learn, Lifelong Learning is not just about meeting the changing demands of the economy - it s about being human and it is about life. Lifelong Learning is about social mobility and social justice but is also about being an individual and being as part of a community. If this turbulent period in the OU's remarkable history has taught us anything, it is that Lifelong Learning is worth fighting for because without it, we lose the hope to imagine a better future. The final comment that I think sums up feelings towards Lifelong Learning beautifully came from Lord Bird who stated that "Whatever happens we have to educate ourselves...[and that] to destroy us is to make us ignorant".