Joshua Miles, the Director for Wales at the Learning and Work Institute, outlines what The Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) aspirations should be and the positive effect of lifelong learners.
After several years of serious thinking and practical policy making, the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) will soon take over the financial and regulatory reins and drive our post-compulsory education system towards a better future. At least that’s the theory. But as with any great reform, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. The potential is enormous.
As is well understood by now, the post-compulsory education sector in Wales is a fractured mess of policies, funding and organisations, all with good intent for sure, but not all singing from the same hymn sheet. In CTER, we potentially have the tool for the job. An organisation that can look at the bigger picture, zoom out and care less about individual types of delivery and care more about how we get that delivery to meet the aspirations of Wales’ learners. And I use the word learners – not students – deliberately here.
CTER policy aspirations
The Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) will have to manage two clear policy aspirations. The first is perhaps obvious to all involved in the conversation to date: to send school leavers off on the journey of life equipped with the skills, qualifications, and sense of self that they need to fulfil their potential.
The second is less talked about but equally important. That is in the words of the Education Minister, Jeremy Miles, to deliver a Second Chance Nation: where it’s never too late to learn. Translating such a laudable ambition into practical action is no mean feat. We’re all accustomed to an entitlement to education into our early adulthood, but the same entitlement is less apparent as we age.
On the very first page there is a duty to promote lifelong learning for the people of Wales. The duty includes aspirations towards participation in learning from 16 onwards, at a variety of levels and qualification, in a variety of educational settings and modes.
Let’s start with the positives. The legislation that establishes CTER is pretty clear on its ambitions. On the very first page there is a duty to promote lifelong learning for the people of Wales. The duty includes aspirations towards participation in learning from 16 onwards, at a variety of levels and qualification, in a variety of educational settings and modes.
Crucially the duty includes a commitment to this being organised coherently to facilitate learners’ movement through education and into employment. But legislation alone doesn’t deliver meaningful changes. How you interpret it does. All eyes must now turn to how CTER chooses to be, how it organises itself, the way it interprets its underpinning legislation, and projects its possibilities onto the real world.
Examples of lifelong learning in practice
So, let’s look at a real-world example. In 2021 Clare Palmer won the Essential Skills for Life Award at the Inspire! Adult Learning Awards. Clare left school with no qualifications and spent most of her working career as a hairdresser and care assistant. Between the ages of 14 and 41 she hadn’t learned any maths or English, but she was determined to return to studying. She persevered with her essential skills and after completing a Level 3 Diploma in Health and Social Care, Clare gained more self-belief about how far she could take her career. She decided to take her passion for care a step further and apply to university to become a social worker.
My suggestion would be for CTER to organise itself around clear challenges and themes rather than to replicate the individual sector teams that currently exist within the Welsh Government.
That’s a real-world example of how lifelong learning can change someone’s life, through adult and community learning, further and higher education. But Clare’s story is the exception not the rule. It’s a happy accident, not the result of a curated journey.
To me, this is the litmus test. Would we in all honesty say that at present the system is organised coherently to achieve these aims? Ten years from now, surely the answer to that question must be different to today for it to have been deemed a success. My suggestion would be for CTER to organise itself around clear challenges and themes rather than to replicate the individual sector teams that currently exist within the Welsh Government.
For instance, why not set up a lifelong learning theme, with staff resources following suit and a clear mechanism for external challenge, to tackle issues such as progression, access, workforce development and crucially funding irrespective of sector or mode of delivery?
The legislation itself contains some of the challenges we might look to: equality of learning, encouraging participation, continuous improvement, promoting a civic mission, improving Welsh language provision. It’s a ready-made recipe for the challenges facing education after schooling ends. Let’s hope CTER can rise to the challenge and make a real difference to learners’ lives in Wales. That way we will all get to enjoy eating the pudding.