Lifelong, Flexible Learning Needs to be Central to Our Recovery

Louise Casella sets out a vision of how the next government should change Wales’ culture around learning.

During the course of this year, we have seen people turning to learning in their thousands as a way not only of brushing up on old skills or learning new ones, but also maintaining good mental health.

In the first few months of the pandemic, visitors from Wales to The Open University’s free online learning platform, OpenLearn, quadrupled.

It should be no surprise, really, that so many of us have taken the opportunity to learn this year because it’s a tried and tested method of boosting wellbeing.

Sadly though, for many, learning this year hasn’t just been about well-being, but has also been an urgent response to continued economic contraction and job losses.

That’s why The Open University in Wales worked with the Welsh Government and Careers Wales to provide free online learning for furloughed workers.

As the Coronavirus crisis continues to dominate our lives, there is certainly no indication that the challenges we’re facing at the moment will be going away any time soon.

So, as we respond to the immediate events of the day, so too must we start to take the long view. We need now to be learning from this year and planning for a better future.

Today, The Open University in Wales is publishing our manifesto for the Senedd election, and in it, we set out some of the things the next government can do to make a real difference to learning.

“Learning… should be a lifelong process: something we dip in and out of and fit around our lives.” 

We’ve called the manifesto ‘Brave New Wales’ quite simply because the next government will need to be brave and bold in the vision it sets and in the actions it takes. Crucial to all of it is a change in the way we think about learning.

No longer can we afford to think about learning as something we get one chance at. Rather, it should be a lifelong process: something we dip in and out of and fit around our lives. 

As well focussing on skills and lifelong learning particularly in relation to the Coronavirus, we’ve set out five key areas where we would like to see the next government lead the way:

  • Securing the future of flexible higher education
  • Lifelong learning and skills infrastructure
  • A diversity of learning opportunities
  • Informed and engaged citizens
  • A future-focussed Wales

Together, acting boldly in these areas would allow us truly to harness the power of skills and lifelong learning to build a better society after the pandemic. And of course, many of the challenges we’re facing as a result of the pandemic were there all along.

For example, creating more opportunities for upskilling and reskilling is an answer both to the economic downturn we’re currently facing and to the long-term challenge of our ageing population.

Another example is that ensuring everyone has access to a device and internet connection is an answer both to the ‘new normal’ of working and studying from home; and to the long-term challenge where 13% of Welsh households didn’t have internet access even before the pandemic.

As I mentioned earlier, underpinning this all is the need for the next government to lead a change in our culture around learning.

To support that, we would like the next government to move forward with introducing a new, statutory Right to Lifelong Learning, supported by the required infrastructure improvements. We’d also like them to explore adding ‘a learning Wales’ to the well-being goals of the pioneering Well-being of Future Generations Act.

That would require public bodies to think about how they’re promoting learning in all their actions, and about how their decisions affect the ability of people in Wales to learn.

“We’re asking the next government to set a target to decarbonise the higher education sector, and we’re suggesting this be done by 2035.”

And as well as building new social and digital infrastructure to support learning, we’d also like the next government to really make the most of our existing infrastructure.

One way of doing that we’ve suggested is investing in community libraries as Community Learning Hubs, where people could go to study, access advice and resources, and take part in online tutorials.

We would also like the next government to go further in promoting in-work learning, as well as learning in the community.

We’re proposing a new Workplace Learning Fund, designed to support people in small and medium enterprises to access learning, and a new strategy for informal and bite-sized workplace learning strategy to facilitate continuous professional development.

Actions like these, as well as other ideas, such as expanding the number of degree apprenticeship frameworks, providing more flexible and part-time routes into professions such as nursing and teaching, can help diversify the opportunities people have to learn throughout their lives.

We’re also keenly aware of the unique and important role lifelong learning has to play in tackling some of society’s greatest challenges. We see this as part of our duty as important parts of the civic life of Wales.

That’s why we’re asking the next government to set a target to decarbonise the higher education sector, and we’re suggesting this be done by 2035. We’re also giving our support to calls for the devolution of media and broadcasting.

We would like to see the next government secure the devolution of power over broadcasting and use that power to create a new duty of candour for media outlets.

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It would then be for the next government, along with stakeholders and media outlets and social media platforms themselves, to determine how such a duty would work, how it would be enforced, and what it means in practice.

To be clear, this isn’t about limiting opinion. Having opinions is healthy and people should be empowered to express them. But, as we’ve seen this year, when opinion is portrayed as fact, and when it’s difficult to determine what’s true and what isn’t, the results can be disastrous.

That kind of ask is new territory for us, but it reflects the moment in which we find ourselves. Our communities are facing many compounding challenges, and the pandemic must be a turning point.

The manifesto we’ve published today is a package of bold ideas for how our next government can harness the awesome power of learning to change Wales for the better.

By doing this, not only will we be playing our part in the rebuilding and recovery, but we will also build a country that we can be proud to pass on to future generations.

That is central to the mission and purpose of The Open University: to open up education and lifelong learning to all our citizens, and to be a movement for change. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Louise Casella is Director of The Open University in Wales.

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