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Lifelong learning: why it matters to the next UK Government

Polling day for the UK's 2019 general election has arrived. While most of the focus has been on Brexit and the NHS, the main political parties have also pledged to better invest in adult education in order to build a more highly skilled workforce. 

12th Dec 2019
Content Specialist Docebo
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The neglect of adult education has come to the fore given the fierce acceleration of digitalisation in the workplace. Whilst for most businesses the human workforce will always exist, both business and policymakers now recognise the need to prepare for automation and technology, and how it will impact the type of work humans do.

A number of sources have forecasted the automation potential in the labour market. The ONS, for example, predicts certain low-skilled sectors are at particular risk of partial or full displacement by technology. This is why lifelong learning needs to be addressed now, and no later. 

Election promises at a glance 

It began with a pledge by the Liberal Democrats to offer a £10,000 grant for every adult in England to put towards education and training. Their proposal would see, with the support of employers and local Government, money placed into a "skills wallet" over 30 years to support the cost of approved training courses.

The Labour Party, which has already proposed introducing a ‘National Education Service’, offered to provide free life-long learning entitlement for up to six years to employees, and additional entitlements for workers in areas that are significantly affected by the industrial transition. The policy reflects a comprehensive vision that brings together all ‘cradle to grave’ learning.

This along with other pledges underline that having a world-renowned higher education system does not automatically translate into a reliable infrastructure for lifelong learning to thrive. This is because the belief in a learning society has not been seen, to date, as critical in growing economically and socially.

Though the onus will be on any prospective government, businesses are equally responsible. There needs to be a focus in both public and private sectors on encouraging continuous learning instead of complacency.

The road to policy implementation

With the Conservatives leading the polls in the run up, the party’s manifesto pledge currently stands the greatest chance of seeing daylight. A potential skills fund worth £3 billion over the course of the next Parliament is designed to provide match funding for individuals and SMEs for high-quality education and training.

The fund will provide investment in skills and complement existing skills and training programmes. The caveat to this, however, is participation in learning has declined, especially within older age groups, and resulted in employee investment in training falling by 14.5% in real terms between 2005 and 2011.

The success and implementation of emerging technologies rest on learning being made available to everyone.

To combat this, the next Government must look beyond simple cash investments and tap into trends like social learning. In the fast-paced business environment, learners require opportunities to close skills gaps beyond the traditional ways of content delivery and development.

Pouring money into old, rigid training models that are proven to be staid and unproductive will be unfruitful. A policy which promotes flexibility and allows employees to train in ways that work best for them is more likely to have the desired effects.

How will lifelong learning compliment business and increase inclusion?

Any business will understand the importance of failing fast. But most importantly, you must fail forward. Technology has rapidly evolved in a short space of time and it will continue to do so. We must be quicker at adapting and learning how to harness the technology before we’re left behind. Companies will need to embed learning strategies to best prepare their organisations for such challenges.

A former Labour Government once piloted a Train to Gain Employer Training Scheme, which aimed to increase qualification-based, employer-provided training for low-qualified employees. Whilst it did not last due to concerns around over-spending, the Government did discover in this process that training should be focused on the areas of greatest need.

This is where businesses can help as they, more than anybody, have the keenest sense of their emerging skills challenges and they can help employees by personalising their learning based on this data.

Now is no better time to harness technology and ensure we have a future that protects our people and our society. 

A personalised social learning approach can do wonders for an organisation’s culture,  especially for businesses with a high proportion of millennials and Gen-Zers as they relish opportunities to uncover their skills and consider professional development of vital importance. 

Society has forced Government and business to recognise the need to improve diversity and offer more opportunities for everyone, whatever your background or gender may be.

The success and implementation of emerging technologies rest on learning being made available to everyone. A report by think tank Reform identified digital skills as one of the key barriers to digital inclusion. Labour’s plans to nationalise broadband would help more people access the internet and build digital literacy, but more needs to be done to increase inclusion across the board. 

Implications of neglecting lifelong learning

A key priority for the next Government will be to ensure job creation does not suffer. The economic climate looks uncertain in the short term, but technology’s impact on the economy is clear to see. The outgoing Culture Secretary, Nicky Morgan, emphasised this, stating “The challenge facing policymakers across the world is how we can shape new technologies in a way that benefits all of humankind.”

Many have argued that during the process of deindustrialisation of the 1980s, more could have been done to reskill affected workers. Now is no better time to harness technology and ensure we have a future that protects our people and our society. 

Lifelong learning - the pathway for economic growth

Companies can reap the rewards of lifelong learning through higher retention rates, lower recruitment costs, and a more seamless route for adopting new technologies.

For Government, benefits include those with higher qualifications receiving higher wages and the corresponding increased tax receipts for the Treasury but, more crucially, a reduction in unemployment.  It also paves the way for an increase in productivity across sectors which may reflect better when the next election comes round. 

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