Supporting the Welsh Lifelong Learning system

To assist the Welsh Government in balancing the productivity-related objectives with the societal objectives of lifelong learning, the Wales Centre for Public Policy was asked to conduct an evidence review into lifelong learning. This review aims to inform policy discussions and support the implementation of the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill published on 1st November 2021 which renews the emphasis on lifelong learning in Wales through the establishment of the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER).

The report is structured around key areas of lifelong learning: the context in which it takes place; lifelong learning in visions and strategies; rights and entitlements to lifelong learning; the need to strike the balance between targeting and universal provision; barriers to learning; balancing the economic and social objectives; the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders and lifelong learning governance structures; effective forms of support for learning institutions; and comparing lifelong learning in Wales with other parts of the UK. The report concludes with a set of consolidated recommendations to the Welsh Government.

Findings show that there is a growing trend of working-age adults in Wales being under-qualified and lacking essential skills. Almost half of adults from the lowest socioeconomic groups have not received any training since they left full-time education. Only 12% of adults with no qualifications thought they would be very likely to receive job-related learning/training in the next two to three years (Centenary Commission on Adult Education, 2021). In Wales the proportion with a level 4 qualification and above is 4% below the UK average, and the proportion with a level 3 qualification is 1% higher (Nomis, 2021). There are inequalities regarding disability (15.2% of disabled people have no qualifications, compared to 4.9% of non-disabled people) and geographical distribution of delivery.

Fees and funding to cover living costs are major concerns for learners. It is often the lack of maintenance funding, and the need to continue working, that act as barriers to higher education. Another underlying factor is previous educational success. The higher the qualification level a person has, the more likely they are to be self-motivated and seek out further training. This has been demonstrated again through the pandemic, and is documented in recent reports published by the Learning and Work Institute (2019), and Centre for Social Justice (2020).

The report finds that Welsh Government should build on the schools’ Curriculum for Wales, and working on the premise that the definition of lifelong learning includes all ages, it should consider:

  • Confirming and restating the existing right to education;
  • Expanding the offer to cover 16-18 year-olds and low-skilled adults;
  • Recognising informal learning and using learning to promote a preventative approach to health; and
  • Underpinning the offer with a set of entitlements.

There should be a mixture of different funding routes, that take into account the expansion of rights and entitlements, the needs of citizens, and the capacity of government and businesses. Fully-funded individuals should be those who would not only benefit from further education, but also need it. Co-funding should be available for individuals who wish to improve their skills.

Wales is well positioned to adopt an all-age lifelong learning strategy. The Welsh Government and its resilient institutional base have many of the underpinning policies in place. The report also draws attention to the issues faced by Wales, and how lifelong learning and skills acquisition can help find solutions which will aid the economy and the well-being of Welsh residents.

The recommendations detailed throughout the report relate to the main findings, which are summarised below:

  1. There is an absence of an overall vision and agreement on the definition of lifelong learning;
  2. There is no consistent, cross-cutting narrative;
  3. There is a need to enhance rights and entitlements;
  4. There is a need to agree on a method on how priorities are to be determined; and
  5. There are organisational issues that need solutions, including:
    • the need to provide clarification on the roles of responsibilities of key actors in the system; and
    • the need to develop working methods that support institutions to continue to provide a quality offer to learners, with systems making it easy for them to offer a collaborative, agile, and responsive programme to students and future leaners.

These findings and the associated recommendations point to the need to articulate a positive and cohesive vision for lifelong learning, which builds on the existing solid foundations. It is important that the Welsh Government and the CTER foster trusting and progressive partnerships with a shared vision and purpose.

DOI reference: https://doi.org/10.54454/20211216