Where to for lifelong learning?

Sally Thompson – Deputy Director, 
Sector Engagement and Capability Development
Future Social Service Institute, RMIT

Before we decide “where to?” for lifelong learning. It is perhaps useful to reflect on, “where from?”. The dominant philosophy that has underpinned public policy in relation to lifelong learning in Australia, since at least the early 1990s is Human Capital Theory. Human Capital Theory views learning as a rational investment in the self, resulting in a “return on investment” in the form of higher wages for individuals and productivity increases for the economy. It finds its philosophical home in neo-liberal economics and its products are outcomes-based funding and competency-based assessment.

The limitations of Human Capital Theory are obvious to all who work in adult education and its adjacent fields. It relies on levels of measurability that are imprecise at best, “othering” at worst. It reduces the complexity of working people’s knowledge, judgements and artistry to the most narrow, obvious and observable skills. It privileges work in the formal labour market and ignores the many other human experiences that require us to keep learning.

By ignoring the “life” part of “lifelong learning” it renders invisible the contributions of those (predominantly women) who labour outside the formal labour market – raising kids, caring for our frail aged, running sporting clubs and attending to neighbours. As my colleague Barry Golding would often say: “it is a sick, sad and sorry society that only cares about what we do for and with our money”.

Yet government interest in Human Capital Theory since the early 1990s has resulted in significant investment in adult education, and therein lies the rub. Those of us old enough to remember a kinder, gentler period of adult education, before the era of competency-based assessment and outcomes-based funding, often forget how much of it was funded through bake sales and unpaid feminised labour. The not for profit Learn Local sector in my home state of Victoria, for example, has attracted record funding during a recent period of radical neo-liberal policy experimentation. In neighbourhood houses, libraries and learning centres, adult education continues to transform lives, despite the attendant challenges.

Little wonder that governments sometimes look at the sector, scratch their heads and ask: what on earth are you people complaining about?

Lifelong Learning in neo-liberal times is an exhausting dance. Practitioners complain in private about Kafkaesque compliance, dehumanising measurement and ever-increasing workloads, while publicly thanking government for the funding that allows people to learn and achieve nonetheless. Those who manage to carve out spaces for innovation at the margins, urge the rest to keep quiet about the narrowness of funding frameworks. Teachers struggle every day to turn a system in which learning is often a reward or sanction in increasingly cruel “mutual obligation” regimes into a meaningful learning experience for the most marginalised people.

ALA’s members have long advocated for a Northern European style Lifelong Learning Policy, in which investment from cradle to grave in lifelong and lifewide learning allows all of us to pursue meaningful work and contribute outside the workplace, including into old age. I don’t believe such a thing is possible within the current neo-liberal policy frameworks of both major political parties – which doesn’t mean I don’t think such a thing is possible at all!

The struggle for lifelong and lifewide learning for all must continue at the margins of Australian public policy for the time being. In the longer term, it needs to be one part of a bigger struggle for public policy that puts people and their needs first, and draws its information from the bottom of social hierarchies instead of the top.

We live in a world where neo-liberalism and its attendant theories are running out of puff. There are emerging signs that people, and the governments who respond to them are looking for new approaches to learning in a way that was unfathomable only a short time ago. The challenge for us is to make space for new ways of thinking about learning while respecting the work of those who struggle every day within the parameters afforded by government policy today.

Digital-by-default government

Sue McKerracher – CEO
Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA)

There is a public library in most communities across Australia – more than 1600 in total – and each one demonstrates that there is not only a need for lifelong learning, there is also a keen appetite for it. Libraries run more than 250,000 programs each year, ranging from rhyme-time for toddlers to Tech Savvy Seniors classes for older Australians, with lots in between. You can build your own computer, learn coding and robotics, find out about keeping chickens in your backyard or how to research your family history, use a 3D printer, build new worlds with Minecraft – and much more. There are bi-lingual story-times for families whose first language isn’t English; there are Deadly Digital sessions for Indigenous communities and there are English conversation classes for new arrivals. These courses are free at the point of delivery, putting them within the reach of everyone; unlike formal education, where increased costs have priced out of the market those who most need the support.

Library programs attract all ages and participation is driven by a number of factors. Literacy is at the core, whether it is introducing children to the joy of books, or helping adults pick up the reading ability they missed out on at school. For some, it’s about updating or developing new skills, which will help them find employment or improve their career prospects. For others, it’s about keeping their brain active post-retirement. Many turn to the library to help them stay on top of the new technologies, which are changing the world around them.

It’s this latter point, which is of greatest interest to the federal government and gives the lifelong learning lobby perhaps its strongest lever. There are undoubted merits to improved literacy and work-readiness, but people’s ability to operate effectively online goes to the heart of the Australian Government’s agenda.

It is cheaper to offer government services electronically and there are exciting opportunities from the data generated. We have seen the move to digital-by-default for the Australian Tax Office, the Census, the National Digital Health Strategy, and from the Digital Transformation Agency’s 8 May 2018-2019 Budget statement:

$92.4 million will be invested in the next phase of work to build Govpass, our digital identity system. Govpass will provide a simple, safe and secure choice for people to verify who they are and access government services online, reducing the need to visit a shopfront. Over the next financial year, up to 8 high-volume government services will be piloted using a digital identity, giving more than 500,000 people the opportunity to test the system.

Digital-by-default government services will only work if the overwhelming majority of the population is able to engage in online transactions. Connectivity and affordability are part of the story, but if people don’t have the confidence and the skills, they will simply not be able to participate.

When we talk to the federal government about the need to invest in lifelong learning, digital literacy may well be our Trojan horse. As well as illustrating the necessity for lifelong learning, it responds directly to a government imperative.

As digital literacy is where the lifelong learning lobby and government interests coincide, perhaps this is where we should focus our initial energies. Whether it’s in TAFE, through a Neighbourhood House, or at the library, we are supporting current and future generations to develop the skills they need to be confident digital citizens – and that’s good for everyone.

Transforming the workplace

Michael Taylor AIG
Michael Taylor AIGMichael Taylor – National Policy and Projects Manager, Education and Training
Australian Industry Group

With technological changes across nearly all industries, regardless of current competencies, increasingly workers will need to reskill throughout their working lives. It has been estimated that some skills need refreshing every two years while others become redundant in a rapidly changing workplace under the influence of the expanding digital economy. In addition, technological change will demand higher levels of literacy and numeracy so there needs to be a significant focus on workplace literacy and numeracy within the framework of lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning applies to all forms of learning whether formal or informal, accredited or non-accredited. Companies need strategies that include a cycle of re-skilling for all categories of workers according to newly introduced technology and processes. This includes learning that applies existing capabilities in new contexts, including different ways to use higher-level soft skills.

Access to lifelong learning does not necessarily mean access to full qualifications, especially to the existing workforce. Rather, the acquisition of new skills and the refreshing of existing skills can be achieved through access to bite size training. The introduction of micro-credentials by education institutions to meet on-demand learning is increasing.

The growing emphasis by education and training sectors now on skills in enquiry, agility, adaptability, creativity and problem solving means we are better able to adapt to new situations and be lifelong learners.

A variety of learning experiences are required and not just those that are campus-based. Work Integrated Learning in the higher education sector and work-based learning in the vocational education and training sector are at the heart of these experiences.

The linkage of lifelong learning to workforce productivity is now essential. A 2014 UNESCO statement makes the direct link between lifelong learning and economic growth and prosperity. Without efforts by government, education and training sectors and companies to normalise cultures of continuous learning in the workplace the Australian economy will not prosper to the extent that is necessary for our future.

A vision for lifelong learning

John Field– Emeritus Professor / Gastprofessor
University of Stirling / University of Cologne.

Professor John Field marks the 20th anniversary of visionary policy for a learning society.

The central argument and language of The Learning Age have become staples of today’s educational policy debate.

In his preface, David Blunkett set out a familiar agenda:

‘To achieve stable and sustainable growth, we will need a well-educated, well-equipped and adaptable labour force’.

Nothing unusual about that; similar phrases abound in policy texts from national governments and international organisations across the globe.

What marked The Learning Age as distinctive, and also provides a yardstick by which to judge its results, was its more visionary and humane perspective. Of course, this was a product of its time, following a long period of Conservative rule. There was a sense that things were possible.

With hindsight, there were probably too many initiatives – spread around like confetti – for all to survive the hard years of austerity and recession. And there might have been even more: with the comfort of hindsight, it is clear that The Learning Age underestimated the potential of digitisation and mobile devices, and focussed excessively on increasing provision rather than tackling the serious demand-side deficits of the UK skills mix.

Some key achievements remain, while the remarkable research programme on the wider benefits of learning has had international impact. But the question of adult learning and skills remains a live one. The challenges of inclusive and sustainable economic growth are as pressing as ever, and if anything the potential for adult learning in civic democracy is greater than it has been for some time. For those of us who enjoyed the vibrant discussions at Wolverhampton, the conversation has only just begun.

The Learning Age – 20 Years On

Sir Alan Tuckett OBE – Professor of Education
University of Wolverhampton

If governments in England had consciously set out to decimate opportunities for adult learning they would have been hard pressed to do better than the apparently accidental consequences of policy here over the last fifteen years.

In that time, almost 2 million adults have been lost as public funding of further education [Australia’s equivalent of TAFE and adult community education] swung to ever more narrowly focussed provision for the under 19s. In higher education meanwhile, 60 per cent of mature students have gone since student fees were tripled in 2012–13, and four in five of them were at sub degree level.

This was the background context for a conference organised at the University of Wolverhampton, to mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Learning Age, the 1997 Labour Government Green Paper that led to a cornucopia of new initiatives to promote lifelong learning. The paper opened with an inspiring foreword from David Blunkett, then Secretary of State for Education and Employment.

In it he argued:

As well as securing our economic future, learning has a wider contribution. It helps make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship. Learning enables people to play a full part in their community. It strengthens the family, the neighbourhood and consequently the nation. It helps us fulfil our potential and opens doors to a love of music, art and literature. That is why we value learning for its own sake as well as for the equality of opportunity it brings.

It is just such a vision that is lacking from contemporary policy – so the event hoped to kick start discussion by reviewing critically the successes and failures of initiatives like the university for Industry, individual learning accounts, unionlearn and the Skills for Life literacy and numeracy strategy, asking what could be taken on board for a future lifelong learning policy perspective. The day was exhilarating – but will it make a difference? Watch this space!’