From the 6th-7th June, I was happy to moderate a session at the Adult Upskilling and Reskilling, Balancing the Labour Market conference in Bucharest, organised by The Romanian Ministry of Labour and Social Justice and the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in cooperation with the European Commission. The conference brought together members of civil society, employers and policy makers to create dialogue and share ideas on how we can widen participation in lifelong learning.
Four key areas of the EAAL were prevalent across the various conference workshops: governance, uptake and supply, flexibility and access and quality. Discussions revealed a need to ensure real engagement among stakeholders (government, education providers, social partners, employers) who share a common vision of adult learning for all, and also share concerns about how we can ensure that it is properly funded and allowed to flourish.
There was s focus on sustainable funding at one workshop, where two issues appeared to be of key relevance in EU policy debates:
From a social justice and educational equality perspective, both options raise a number of concerns.
Loans for Sustainably Funding Adult Learning – Creating Debt?
Bank loans are in fact already being offered to support adult skills provision by employers. The proposal put forward during this workshop went as far as to include loan options for schools and socially-orientated services. As a proposed method for ‘sustainable funding’ this seems paradoxical. A fundamental problem of this scenario is that if education providers who focus on particularly disadvantaged groups were to become reliant on loans rather than State/EU funding, how would such loans be paid back? Would such costs be passed on to learners who are already experiencing challenges in meeting their education needs? This is a particularly shocking prospect.
Although this is just at a stage for consideration, the proposal of bank loans for the upskilling of adults is already being debated. The level of education for which the loans are obtained was considered by workshop panellists and participants, and concerns raised about placing the burden of debt upon vulnerable groups who already face considerable systemic challenges. Surely people in need of adult learning below NFQ level 5/Leaving Certificate must be offered courses that are free of change, as they are merely getting what they so deserve. Debate concluded that governmental funding should cover services that engage with the most vulnerable groups including people with qualifications less than NFQ level 5.
Limitations of Personal/Individual Learning Accounts
The second topic for discussion in this workshop was Personal Learning Accounts (PLA), a scheme whereby governments allocate money to individuals to purchase training. There has been much debate and research in this area. This was the most popular funding proposal from a survey taken amongst workshop participants. A nuanced proposal from OECD noted that such approaches should not be considered for marginalised and low-skilled target groups. Examples of this funding model from France and the Netherlands were mentioned, however, an example of a truly equitable system does not appear to be available. As anyone in adult learning will tell you, the concept of ‘choice’ is entangled in a web of structural inequalities linked to social class, race, ethnicity, gender, previous educational experience, and poverty.
The underpinning assumption of PLAs appears to draw on rational choice theory, but assuming that an individual has the autonomy of ‘choice’ to spend the allocated funding on an education course seems at odds with our experience of educationally disadvantaged learners. At a very basic level what seems glaringly obvious is the issue of confidence - a predominant factor in returning to education whereby they do not believe that they have the ability or even the right to return to learning. How will personal learning accounts not exacerbate the Matthew Effect? PLAs do not lend themselves to act as mechanisms for reaching potential learners who have low confidence. Instead, they are accessible to people who have already attained a certain level of education, and so the PLA system does not seem applicable within the framework of Upskilling Pathways which is aimed at adults without an upper secondary level qualification.
According to the CSO Adult Education Survey 2017, cost is a predominant barrier to a person’s ability to engage in education. Therefore, loan and PLA schemes do not seem capable of providing education pathways for vulnerable groups to address deep-rooted social inequality. As we know from community education in practice, what is needed is targeted outreach, accessible free or low-cost services and a holistic range of supports.
Working towards Effective Sustainable Funding
In discussions about sustainable funding at the conference, all were in general agreement that responsibility lies primarily with governments to enable people to return to education, particularly the most educationally disadvantaged.
Despite inadequate funding for community education which required immediate action, Ireland has an adult learning system that is predominantly free or low cost for learners at the point of access. There is a whole host of learning options provided through Education and Training Boards (ETBs), community education organisations and higher level institutions (through Springboard+, for example). These services must be maintained through the implementation of long-term sustainable funding.
Accessing Information about Learning Options in Ireland
For more information on adult learning options please spread the word about our information referral service website www.OneStepUp.ie, share the Information Booklet, add your open days and events to the One Step Up Calendar. We welcome your feedback on how we can better communicate lifelong learning opportunities.
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