Dr Stevie Upton reports on a recent IWA seminar series, ‘Making our small country clever’.
In the fourth of the IWA’s seminar series on “Making Our Small Country Clever”, Professor Tom Schuller spoke on “Skills that work for Wales”. Professor Schuller is the author of “Learning Through Life”, the report of the NIACE Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, and was formerly Head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) at the OECD in Paris.
Of particular interest was his use of the concept of capital to describe the benefits of learning. Most commonly cited is the increase in human capital which accompanies learning; here, skills and qualifications are valued for their positive impact on economic productivity. However, Professor Schuller also identified the importance of two other forms of capital that, together with human capital, are both the foundation for and outcome of ongoing learning.
The first of these, social capital, has a particularly strong relationship with human capital. Without social capital – the social networks upon which people draw to facilitate co-operative action – the skills and qualifications that comprise human capital cannot be used to best effect. Identity capital, too, has an important part to play: this comprises psychological traits such as self esteem and sense of self that enable individuals to put their learning to good use.
The definition of three types of capital introduces an important distinction that enables us to recognise a broad range of benefits of lifelong learning. Whereas a focus on human capital tends to emphasise employability and work-based skills, the concepts of social and identity capital highlight important non-economic values. Learning benefits the individual, her family and society, contributing among other things to improved health and social cohesion and reduced crime.
Schuller has further developed this concept with reference to the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. A capability consists of skills, knowledge and understanding that give an individual power over a particular aspect of her life, and Schuller has identified four important types of capability – financial, health, digital and civic – in relation to lifelong learning. Together they comprise what Schuller and his colleagues term a Citizen’s Curriculum. Development of a curriculum framework that made reference to enhancing these capabilities alongside employability would greatly enhance individuals’ control over their own lives.
The implications of this approach are potentially far-reaching in Welsh society. How for instance, should we understand lifelong learning in the context of an ageing population? At present, 86% of the expenditure on lifelong learning provision for the over 18s is spent on the 18-24 age group. Just 3% is spent on the over-50s. Yet once we begin to appreciate other outcomes than employability and economic productivity, the personal and social importance of learning opportunities for all ages becomes apparent. Similarly, if we accept that deprived communities can benefit not only from improved employability prospects but also from enhanced social cohesion, this has implications for the learning provision that we make available.
Professor Schuller makes a powerful case for the transformative power of learning. As an assessment of the status quo and a potential strategy for achieving lifelong learning in the UK, “Learning Through Life” should therefore be required reading for our policy makers.
• ‘Learning Through Life’, by Tom Schuller and David Watson, is available through the website of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, www.niace.org.uk