If you thought our stance on tuition fees was controversial… – the case for Lifetime Education

 

Whether you are for or against our actions on tuition fees, we can’t pretend it’s not still an open wound for us. It’s an elephant in the room when talking to non-Lib Dems and when discussed between Lib Dems it leads to a row. The irony is that this all happened whilst higher and further education are in their death throes.

The current model of a child attending school, then choosing whether to enter the workforce until retirement at that point or to take a few years of higher education first, then never attending education for the rest of his/her life, will be archaic.

This week The Daily Mail took a break from bashing immigrants, judges or spinning the “What Can Give You Cancer” wheel and turned its attention on the threat posed by robots “ROBOTS TO STEAL 15M OF YOUR JOBS” their headline roared. Their headline isn’t wrong – whether it’s 15 million, 5 million or one in 11 jobs –many of the jobs humans do today will soon be automated by, for want of a less sci-fi description, “robots”. And, as the limitations of and the cost to produce these robots lowers, the more common they will become. We need to adapt to this.

Over the past 30-40 years the amount of careers available to people who enter the workforce without a higher education has reduced dramatically, with more people being accepted into universities and the ICT revolution of the 1990s seeing many low-skilled jobs move overseas – this, I would argue, has led to the rise of the anger against globalisation amongst the white working class. A generation ago you could leave school, find a decent career – working your way up the ladder until retirement.  This career narrative is now on the endangered list and robots will knock it into extinction.

The rage against globalisation is perfectly valid, however the reaction – Trump, Brexit, Corbyn – isn’t.  Putting up trade barriers and enforcing state interference in our markets is prescribing a 20th century medicine for a 21st century illness. Trump might bring back jobs to the USA, but those won’t be performed by humans.

Having a few A Levels or a degree won’t protect you from the rise of the machines. Most (58.8%) graduates are in non-graduate roles, many at risk of automation.

Technology is reshaping our lives. Game-changing innovations are released daily. At university I learnt about TV production. We used state-of-the-art cameras, new editing software and specialist hardware such as vision mixers. Within five years of graduating, those vision mixers were antiques, the editing software had been updated beyond recognition and the cameras were collector’s items.

The skills we learn and the jobs we do could become obsolete within years. We have two options; become Luddites, rally against innovation and vow to “Make Britain Great Again” or we can embrace the change.

The Liberal Democrats need to stop rowing about how we fund Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE) and start rowing about how we fund LE (Lifetime Education). Whether this is a state-funded project or something we incentivise employers to fund or something that the individual has to pay for or a mixture of all three – this is a conversation we need to have. We need a population that is not just resilient to a robot-dominated economy, but a population that thrives in it.

Today, retraining or gaining qualifications off of your own back costs time and money, which we don’t have. Some employers pay for training but there needs to be more regular topping up of people’s knowledge. A doctor doesn’t complete five years of medical training and then believe that the way they will perform their job will ever change from the point they graduate.

Established workers need to have the means available to them to completely retrain, as very few of us can expect an industry, let alone a job, for life. We’re on the cusp of the dawn of driverless vehicles. Taxi drivers, HGV drivers, bus drivers – all of these jobs are on the verge of being consigned to the history books, there needs to be provisions in place to soak up these millions who will be out of work.

There will always be a place for the Oxfords and Cambridges but we cannot kid ourselves that the current model, where the population stops learning in the first quarter of their lives prepares us for the final three quarters.

Only by owning the issue of Lifetime Education can we become the party that fights Trump and Corbyn’s hatred of human progress. The robots won’t take our jobs, but they will change what our jobs are. Let’s reform our tertiary education system to prepare us for the future and then we can all fall out about who pays for its fees.

* Charles Lawley is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Chapel & Hope Valley in the Derbyshire County Council Elections in 2017. He works for a humanitarian aid NGO.

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23 Comments

  • I’m not so sure this born out by reality. Low skilled manufacturing jobs are currently moved overseas , but so are a lot of IT jobs. This is why contacting your internet provider for technical support usually leads you to a call centre in India. If you look at the economy as a whole the growth is in in zero hour contract unskilled work for which we are regularly told that we have to import hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers to do these jobs! The education argument is a fig leaf designed to make the reality that corporations won’t pay western wages look like the fault the public. The fact is you are never really going to compete for jobs of any type when they can just be moved to India or China or Mexico where the cost of labour is much lower. Also you can’t really have of 60 million people where everyone is an expert of some sort.

  • So many degrees are just a measure that indicates we have someone who is intelligent and can comprehend difficult scenarios. Others are job relevant such as the high number of BA(Hons) associated with the care industry. But I think the conversation has to identify those jobs which create wealth and as has been said, they are increasingly being performed by artificial workers. The car industry is a classic case.

    So is an upgraded trade/technical education more valuable. Interesting subject

  • Charles Lawley 12th Dec '16 - 11:04am

    @Glenn my point is that the manufacturing jobs that aren’t moved overseas will either be moved overseas and/or fulfilled by robots soon. We need to rethink how we prepare the next generation for an economy where there is little to no option for them to perform these roles.

    And to support my point, you ring up your internet provider and they’ll send you to an overseas call centre OR put you thought to a voice automation service (i.e. “robots”).

  • So how do we fund Lifetime Learning? This article doesn’t explore the inherent problems of funding, which we already know are there. Instead it just sets an even bigger task for policy makers to resolve.

    If we are saying that human capital in the form of learning has an even faster depreciation rate than it did in the past, this means we have to find the resources to fund even more investment.

    The problem we have is that we are starting from an appallingly low level of comprehension bordering on denial on the part of many people taking part in the debate. They are still fixated with the idea of “free education”, which has never existed nor will it ever. The point is to define who benefits the most from Lifetime Learning – is it the individual, the employer or is it society as a whole and to what extent? This could be the starting point for looking at who accrues the liability for funding this – the individual, employers or the state – and how are resources secured – either through a loans system or through higher taxation for everyone. And if we say workers should be free to move between countries, how do we ensure people pay in for the resources that they use in improving their skills?

    It will be very difficult for any one party to “own” this issue, because there will always be the incentive for others to lie and say Lifetime Learning can be offered for “free” (i.e. *someone else* pays) without specifying where resources can come from, which is exactly what Labour did at the last election. At least offering an honest, open and forthright approach to the question might win some voters’ support, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Charles,
    I get your point but I think you are missing my point which is that education won’t do it because high skilled jobs can also be done cheaper overseas or by robots. The point being there is no way to maintain a competitive edge. Also as the technology improves it becomes easier to use not harder. For example you talk about driverless transport. Well you do not actually need be highly educated to sit in a seat and be driven somewhere. To be honest you would not even need to be sentient!. Years ago my Mum used to work with computers and to do it you really had to know your stuff. In contrast today a toddler can use a tablet. By the time a the tech improves again a gerbil or even I will be able to use it without much stress.

    I think what we should really do is get people used to a life time of playing games, watching or creating “content” (mostly awful) and consuming junk.

  • Charles Lawley 12th Dec '16 - 11:59am

    @Robert C

    I agree, we do need to talk about how it is funded, because this is by far the biggest hurdle. I have my views on this, however with the 500 word recommended word count for LDV (which the editors very kindly let me nearly double) I didn’t think it was possible to cover this and make a good case for lifetime education. I felt at first it was important to set out the case for LE before upsetting people with starting the discussion on how it can be funded.

    Currently, I believe we are on the same-wave-length that the emphasis of the funding will have to be from the individual (as you suggested, a “student loan” model currently works very well for our universities and seems the most obvious model), an alternative for employers need to be incentivised to help support it (as mentioned, most employers do support staff training/personal development). The state fully funding it is completely unsustainable in my eyes, espescially if the unemployment spike (i.e. less taxpayers) happens before the plans for LE are in place.

  • Charles Lawley 12th Dec '16 - 12:02pm

    @Glenn

    I do see your point and agree with parts, but think your opinion on the future economy is slightly pessimistic, the rise of automation will create lots of jobs in engineers who make “robots” we need to balance our society in favour of people who help create robots as opposed to people who will be replaced robots.

  • Phil Wainewright 12th Dec '16 - 12:35pm

    It’s refreshing to read some insightful out-of-the-box thinking about the impact of technology on education and training needs.
    As regards funding this, remember too that education itself is being transformed by technology, with much coursework now able to be delivered ‘robotically’ (ie served from YouTube). A radical rethink may make it possible to deliver a lot more education to a lot more people for very little extra spending (and any extra funding could probably come from business).
    In that context, one of the hidden failures of the tuition fees policy is that it funds the perpetuation of inefficient and outdated teaching regimes at universities and colleges, and the debt finance structure means there’s very little accountability to the people actually paying for it (who have little power to demand changes anyhow). All the more reason for that radical rethink.

  • Sue Sutherland 12th Dec '16 - 2:01pm

    Of course it’s vital that we find ways of dealing with this because it will affect far more people than those already affected by the decline of traditional industry in our country. To some extent we are beginning to find a niche in quality, specialist manufacturing but this doesn’t help everyone.
    We have to look at how this will play out. Maybe people will have more leisure so how will they occupy their time? What jobs will require the intervention of humans without any skills, if any? How will people be able to afford reskilling? Should this be paid for by national insurance? Would a citizens’ income work in these circumstances? How do we enable those with low skills to be more physically mobile, because at the moment those in social housing find it extremely difficult to move from areas of low to high employment? Would a much more flexible type of house work, for example one that can be transferred from one place to another?
    I think the ramifications of this development in technology will be far greater than lifetime education, though this will be essential. In the Middle Ages the decline in the wool trade led people into starvation, more recently, the decline in manufacturing led to whole communities living on benefits, let’s hope we can provide better solutions for the future.

  • Peter Watson 12th Dec '16 - 5:02pm

    @Robert C “So how do we fund Lifetime Learning?”
    I think the first question should be “What is Lifetime Learning?”. How we pay for it would be a close second! If it is vocational and useful to employers then funding might flow readily from those employers or from public expenditure if justified by concrete economic benefits.
    It is very brave of the author to mention Tuition Fees in this context, but perhaps one of the (many) tragedies of that debacle is that it expended so much energy on just one aspect of education without considering the bigger picture of post-18 (or post-16 or post-14) learning.

  • @ Peter Watson

    “then funding might flow readily from those employers or from public expenditure if justified by concrete economic benefits”

    Since when has funding ever flowed readily from employers, let alone from the public purse, given the state it’s in? Employers are already squealing like stuck pigs over the Apprenticeship Levy, let alone anything more ambitious.

    @ Charles

    Regarding a loans system, telling voters that they *personally* will actually have to pay for something is political suicide. Unless you can convince them that someone else will pay for it and that it’s “free” or hide it through some clever accounting dodge (public private partnership or such like) then they will march off in a huff, in my experience.

  • Peter Watson 12th Dec '16 - 5:57pm

    @Robert C “Since when has funding ever flowed readily from employers, let alone from the public purse, …”
    I was probably indulging in a bit of wishful thinking there, but there were/are good examples of employers investing in the education and training of employees, though the best examples do seem to be quite historic.
    Perhaps (more wishful thinking) post-Brexit, if it is no longer straightforward to import ready-made skilled workers cheaply then the incentive to invest in developing the workforce might increase.
    Now we can argue about tuition fees and Brexit in this thread 🙂

  • Splendid stuff. With respect, a lot of articles on LDV deal with pretty peripheral matters, but this cuts right to the very central questions about how we organise our economy in so that everyone can enjoy a decent income and meaningful work.
    For years we have been told that we must get used to the idea of 2, 3 or more career changes in a working life, but very little is in place to allow workers to retrain in mid life.
    As others have pointed out, retraining may become irrelevant in an economy which can function with increased technology and less need for actual employees.
    @Sue Sutherland.
    Providing an income for the increasing numbers who are surplus to requirements will require bold and creative thinking. Sue mentions a basic citizens income. I have pushed for such a policy in the past on LDV and I make no apology for doing so again, for the reasons Sue mentions.

  • Joseph Bourke 12th Dec '16 - 7:39pm

    This is a well presented and thoughtful article, Charles.

    However, I couldn’t help thinking of another potential future outome as depicted in the movie Idiocracy. The film is set 500 years in the future in a dystopian society where advertising, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism have run rampant, and is devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and coherent notions of justice and human rights.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Dec '16 - 9:20am

    Robert C

    Since when has funding ever flowed readily from employers, let alone from the public purse, given the state it’s in?

    Indeed. Why should employers pay money or taxes to train people when instead they can let others countries do that and bring them in as immigrants, and we’ll support them by denouncing anyone who objects to it as “racist”?

    Regarding a loans system, telling voters that they *personally* will actually have to pay for something is political suicide.

    Well, it has to be paid for somehow. This is the heart of the issue, and we should be talking about tuition fees again and again and again. First, because if we don’t it’ll hang over us. Second, because it is the key example of what ought to be the central issue in politics: if you want it provided as a government service, you have to be willing to pay taxes for it.

    The tuition fees and loans system needs to be brought up and put forward as “This is what happens if you aren’t willing to pay the taxes needed to pay for what you want from government”. By voting Tory in 2010, that’s what people said. Ok, so what to do? Cut things? Cut what? Cut what more than was cut to carry on subsidising universities directly?

    So we need to make clear we were pushed into a corner where there was no way we could get the Tories to agree to higher tax, and in order to save the university system (and we really did – I know, I work in the system, and if it wasn’t for tuition fees there’d have been massive cuts) we had instead to negotiate with them to get a generous loan system so that no-one would be barred by inability to pay.

    It was NOT our ideal, so why can’t we say that? Labour had no alternative, they benefitted in the attacks on us, but how would they have paid for universities? They never said. The reality is that what it costs is what it costs, so what is paid in repaying loans is what would otherwise be paid (in reality by much the same people in much the same way) in taxes.

    Why do we insult the people of this country by supposing they are too innumerate to be able to talk about such things directly? What a service costs and what taxes would raise that amount: so do you not want the service or not want the taxes? Stop hand-waving and pretending there are other magic ways to pay for things. Well, ok, apart from a loans system.

  • David Garlick 13th Dec '16 - 10:43am

    As far as I am aware the free first degree is still official policy. I am glad to say that it should be our aim however long it takes.

  • Simon Banks 14th Dec '16 - 8:55pm

    While the traditional higher education model of the students leaving home to cluster in universities has many merits, it’s expensive. A combination of evening classes and online learning could help reskilling, health (especially mental) and the quality of life quite cheaply and exist alongside the traditional model.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Dec '16 - 10:21am

    Simon Banks

    While the traditional higher education model of the students leaving home to cluster in universities has many merits, it’s expensive.

    To what extent is it still done? The reality is that a high proportion of university students live at home, they don’t travel to far away universities to study. However, the elite who dominate our society don’t realise that, because to them “university” just means the sort of university they went to i.e. Oxford, Cambridge and maybe just about one or two others at the top of the range.

  • Little Jackie Paper 15th Dec '16 - 11:02am

    Huntbach – At the risk of a kicking…

    ‘So we need to make clear we were pushed into a corner where there was no way we could get the Tories to agree to higher tax, and in order to save the university system (and we really did – I know, I work in the system, and if it wasn’t for tuition fees there’d have been massive cuts) we had instead to negotiate with them to get a generous loan system so that no-one would be barred by inability to pay.’

    I’m with you to a point, certainly with a ratio of 6:1 Con:LDP MPs the LDP influence in the Coalition was always going to be small.

    But I still don’t think the above is quite right. The size of the state/tax take is, of course, a very important question. I’d agree probably the central question. But I don’t quite let the Coalition off that easily because political decisions WERE made. Most notably to pay for a very, very expensive guarantee of rises to the pension over inflation and to protect the NHS and high Foreign Aid budgets. Indeed we are about to spend (well, borrow) about £2bn for ‘winter fuel’ cheques in the middle of a fiscal consolidation.

    Whilst we surely do need to have the debate you talk about concerning taxes I do think that it is, at least, not unreasonable for young people to put the increases in student debt next to, say, the triple lock pension and make a value judgment. Not least where there was a clear, if foolish, commitment not to vote to increase fees.

    And all this of course is before we get to the standard talkboard favourites like Trident, HS2 et al.

    Yes – we certainly need to have the discussion about the tax take and what we expect of the state. Yes – young people need to take responsibility and get up and vote. Vote down the triple lock, vote down the foreign aid budget, vote for tertiary education funding instead.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that we need to have the exact discussion you talk about. But alongside that we need to talk about the shape of the state as well. And I don’t think that any (stress, any) party at the moment is ready for that discussing that.

    And, I would add that I don’t think groups such as HE lecturers, NHS Staff, pensioner interest groups etc are overly keen on such a discussion either.

  • Lifelong education should be free at the point of delivery and funded by a progressive taxation system, not by loans. Lifelong education benefits society as well as the individual. It is the best way to reduce inequalities and instability in society.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Dec '16 - 8:37pm

    Little Jackie Paper

    But I still don’t think the above is quite right. The size of the state/tax take is, of course, a very important question. I’d agree probably the central question. But I don’t quite let the Coalition off that easily because political decisions WERE made.

    Er yes, but why should I want to “let the Coalition off”? Here we go, as we do again and again, it is put as if we all thought the Coalition was absolutely wonderful and everything it did was the best thing to do.

    Obviously that wasn’t the case, and no Liberal Democrat should think that. It wasn’t a 100% Liberal Democrat government, so why should it be made out as if it were? If there were more Liberal Democrats in it and less Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats would have been able to push things more their way, and it would have been better. Isn’t that rather obvious? And if that is rather obvious, isn’t it rather obvious that I am NOT “letting the Coalition off”, no, I am clearly saying it was not as good as a more Liberal Democrat government would be. Indeed, given that it was mostly Tory, it was a very bad and poor government. Only not as bad and poor as a government that is 100% Tory.

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Dec '16 - 9:25am

    Matthew Huntbach – Thank you for that knee jerk bile and for not reading my post.

    You say, ‘It wasn’t a 100% Liberal Democrat government, so why should it be made out as if it were?’

    I’ll just requote myself, ‘with a ratio of 6:1 Con:LDP MPs the LDP influence in the Coalition was always going to be small.’

    Now if you want to misquote me that’s all well and good. But my point was about the political decisions made to protect some areas of spend and hammer others. Do you have anything to say about that? Unless you don’t fancy saying what you think should be cut?

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