Blog post

Lifelong learning and the future skills we need now

By Robin Webber Jones - 10 November 2021

For many years now successive governments and policymakers have tried to make sense of the ‘skills agenda’. And rightly so, according to Robin Webber-Jones, Head of Apprenticeships at the University of Derby. From 8-12 November #LifelongLearningWeek aims to raise the profile of lifelong learning across a range of policy areas. Here Robin explains why he is so passionate about the topic.

There has often been an important acknowledgement that employers have a crucial role to play as co-constructors of learning alongside students. From the creation of the 2015 Paper A Dual Mandate for Adult Vocational Education and some of the Working Futures reports, the link between lifelong learning and higher levels of learning, life-chances and the needs of the economy are increasingly closely linked. 

The Skills and Pot 16 Education Bill starts to provide some responses to these challenges (although as the Bill progressed through Parliament many parliamentarians argued more detail was needed).  What is evident from things like the Augar Review and the Skills for Jobs White Paper is that the complex World of tertiary education in England needs more rounded consideration.

A century characterised by access to tertiary education

Of course, we are now in that period of time when the move to a higher skills economy was forecasted (post the 2008 financial crash).  It is evident that the Covid-19 pandemic has improved potential access to a whole range of skills training. Indeed Ian Jacobs the outgoing Head of UNSW in Australia said in a recent Times Higher Education Podcast that the 19th century was characterised by the advancement of primary education for all, the 20th century was characterised by the advancement of secondary education for all and that in the 21st-century, it will be the access to tertiary education for all that will be a central theme of educational advancement.

He argues that this goes beyond simply allowing structuring higher education programmes around three-year residential degrees. If it was not already apparent, the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that the whole notion of place of learning and resources for learning need totally recalibrating. This will, of course, focus on resolving issues of digital disadvantage as well as creating coherent curriculum and qualification structures that allow individuals to easily progress. 

I would argue that there are some fantastic examples of this in England. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy and the work of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education has focused on developing a more rounded work-based learning curriculum for employers and employees – focused on industry praxis. However, the Augar Review continues to suggest that more could be done to support progression students and resolve some of the inherent tensions in partnership working across further and higher education. Again, the pandemic may have some significant impact on how that plays out financially and how we define the range of educational experiences we might want to create. 

Furthermore, in uncertain times after Brexit, geopolitical challenges exist across the world. How the curriculum gets increasingly internationalised, so that students have a broad international perspective of the work that they will do and the planet that they will contribute to, should be at the forefront of everybody’s mind. This, coupled with the papers leading up to the COP 26 climate summit, indicate that they will be even bigger international challenges to prepare all students for in the future, regardless of how they access their education.

Robin Webber Jones

We need to be bold in our ideas and how those ideas could and should be funded so that the curriculum is inclusive and diverse but also relevant.

Robin Webber-Jones
Head of Apprenticeships at the University of Derby

Skills for the future

The question, then, is how do you create a skill system which is bold enough and broad enough to be forward-looking and encourage people to rise to that challenge of the future, while at the same time reconciling the role that our education skills have to play in keeping the economy going? 

These are perhaps two sides of the same coin that has often tried to be conceptualised in relation to social mobility being a key part of tertiary education. It is a fact that studying at higher levels increases life chances, improves public-health, increases democratic participation and so much more. One of the things that we need to consider in how we design the structure and form of the curriculum in the future, is how we look at what we are measuring and how well we value that (Biesta posed this question in 2010 in his book ‘Good Education In An Age Of Measurement’). For example, do we want some narrow metrics around the role of education and social mobility which are focused on and very traditional forms of learning, or do we need to think about the whole notion of what selective education looks like and how education can be broader than simply measuring the skills people acquire?  In my work, over the years, I have talked to many employers. The notion of problem-finding, problem-solving, and critique (Sennett, ‘The Craftsman’, 2012) along with intra-preneurealism and being able to be collaborative, are as important as some of those subject specific skills that all of us have acquired over time in our working lives.

So, as we think about the opportunities that may emerge from the Post-16 Education Bill we have to, as educators, consider new ways we can enable life chances and thus the economy to flourish, both now and in the future. We need to be bold in our ideas and how those ideas could and should be funded so that the curriculum is inclusive and diverse but also relevant. While one of the criticisms of the Skills Bill is that it lacks some detail, we have an opportunity to fill in all the detail so that students are, at any point, able to or choose to enter a period of learning, become expert custodians of the planet, economies, and of culture tomorrow.

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About the author

Robin wearing a suit and glasses.

Robin Webber Jones
Head of apprenticeships

As Head of Apprenticeships, I work with employers, academics, support functions and oversee the Apprenticeship Hub at the University to take forward the apprenticeship and skills agenda. I am committed to exploring how lifelong learning, apprenticeships and skills, through effective partnership working can improve social mobility and support the development of sustainable futures for all.