According to Matthew Fell, chief UK policy director at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) “adult learning is heading in the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time for our economy and our society”.
“Technology is rapidly changing the world of work and driving up demand for new and higher skills,”
he added – noting that nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030.
To address this ticking timebomb, lifelong learning must move up the agenda – and this is recognised by organisations including the Office for Students1 and Universities UK2. Both list widening participation among their strategic objectives.
This is part of a broader recognition that education for today and tomorrow means supporting people of all regions, sectors and demographics, helping them to develop and maintain relevant, up-to-date skills.
The case for digital
There is currently a gap in digital skills in particular. This impacts on both earning potential and social mobility – and, as the employment landscape shifts and workplaces become ever more tech-driven, it’s likely that these problems will get worse.
Happily, in tertiary education, the benefits of digital delivery are two-way; done right, it gives learners greater choice, ease of access and flexibility while also giving colleges and universities the ‘reach’ to support community engagement, skills delivery, and their own business development. Technology enables institutions to put themselves at the heart of adult learning – including within hard-to-reach and underrepresented communities.
Diversity and inclusion
Some projects focus on targeted fields of study in the hope of reaching the most learners.
A current collaboration between the Open University, the University of Leeds and the University of Plymouth, for example, seeks to embed inclusive practices in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses, evaluating module design and delivery to support learning. This responds to evidence that the proportion of students with disabilities registered on undergraduate STEM programmes has increased significantly over the past decade3. How can education providers best support them?
Over at Gateshead College the BRIDGE project is investigating the reasons why low numbers of female, disadvantaged, BAME, disabled, and, crucially, mature and part-time learners enrol on construction-related degree courses.
Both of these projects mark a shift in perception. Institutions are adopting a baseline belief that education supports every stage of every person’s personal and professional development - and UK colleges and universities are thinking creatively about how they can support inclusive educational experiences.
Time to reach out
For people that don’t naturally gravitate towards continuing their learning at university or a college, online learning can be a game changer, offering flexible, modular and personalised education. It has the potential to deliver education that’s ongoing and user-led, re-skilling and upskilling diverse communities of adults for the workplaces of today and tomorrow.
Blackburn College’s Community Open Online Courses (COOCs), for example, seek to engage more adults in learning and deliver new and different opportunities for people from all walks of life. Such outreach projects target people who may not have participated in post-16 education before, as well as those facing the logistical and financial challenges of fitting in face-to-face learning around childcare, travel or work commitments.
In reframing our vision of education to provide flexible and relevant opportunities, UK institutions can and should lead the way. As Matthew Fell at the CBI said,
“lifelong learning will be one of the defining issues of our age. Countries who get it right will have an exceptional competitive advantage”.
- 1 Read more in the article: How the Office for Students will drive change on the Office for Students website www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/how-th...
- 2 Read more on the Universities UK response statement: Response to widening participation in higher education statistics https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/news/Pages/Response-to-widening-partici...
- 3 Equality in higher education statistical report 2015 from the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU): www.ecu.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Equality-in-HE-statistical-repo...