Skills and a case for free higher education – Rachael Maskell

THE sheer scale of lost learning is concerning and it explains why, for a decade, productivity has been suffocated.

How can a culture of lifelong learning be created?

It explains a decline in wellbeing and in mental and physical health. It most definitely explains a stifling of social mobility and – oh – the lost potential too.

When we talk to colleges of further education and other local providers, it is clear that the Government have failed to understand the power of adult learning.

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To this day, there is still a woeful insufficiency in funding.

Rachael Maskell is Labour MP for York Central and spoke in a Parliamentary debate on lifelong learning.

College staff are often on low pay and insecure contracts – devalued like no other professionals in the public sector, yet charged with the greatest of responsibilities, which is to nurture adults in a learning environment, which, in turn, unlocks new job opportunities, moves people out of poverty, and brings fulfilment and achievement.

A 45 per cent cut in skills funding since the Tories came to power, as the Augar review noted, cannot be justified in terms of either economic or social equity.

With participation in adult education at a 23-year low, that takes us back to the period when Labour picked up the failure of the previous Tory government.

Now, nine million people are abandoned to low literacy and numeracy skills, six million are without a GCSE or equivalent qualification – a decline of 87 per cent under this Government – nine million are without the low-level 
digital skills necessary to navigate an increasingly digitalised society.

Furthermore, 49 per cent of adults from the lowest socio-economic groups have had no training since leaving school.

If we are serious about seeing a skills revolution – and I am – we have to take down the barriers to learning, recognise its return, and empower local communities, local colleges and universities with the funding and scope they need to make learning accessible.

In York, I see how York College is leading the skills strategy, and how the universities and colleges are shaping the economic strategy for the city. The value of those powerhouses must be understood.

On funding, I agree with calls for a long-term plan, which is an economic necessity, and for Labour it goes to the core of our values. Withholding vital funding chokes off the economy and chokes off opportunity, yet Ministers are significantly holding back on the resources needed, not least at this time of crisis.

The loss of skills through Brexit, advances in technology and automation. Obviously, the fall-out from the pandemic, which we are facing now, and the climate catastrophe will demand real new skills to turn the situation around. Therefore, adult skills and lifelong learning have to be funded effectively.

I also call on the Government to look at the Kickstart scheme. Many employers have been reluctant to take up this opportunity because they are concerned about what happens to people on the scheme at the end of the six months. Having a learning offer would certainly encourage employers to know that the people they have taught over the last six months, and skilled up, have an opportunity to move into a secure learning environment.

I also call for a right to learn. It is shameful that 39 per cent of employers do not train any of their staff, yet they play a part in the economy. Everyone must have that responsibility, and a right to learn enshrined in law would secure that.

On digital, we have got a lot 
of catching up to do as a country, and these last 13 months have shown the deficit that exists.

Free broadband, as Labour proposed at the last election, would certainly be a step on the way, but ensuring that people have the tools they need to be digitally savvy enough to navigate their way through the economy is absolutely vital, and there can be no holding back.

We need to have a look at ways of unshackling those opportunities in higher education to see more modular learning and more flexibility in part-time learning.

Of course, that will mean that the funding structures need to change.

I think it is high time that we look at the way that tuition fees have suffocated opportunities for people, and I certainly am an advocate of free higher education.