Guest Post: The Politics of Lifelong Learning

This is a guest post submitted by Prof Peter Mayo, a Professor in the Department of Education Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Malta

The Directorate for Lifelong Learning earlier this year organised an extremely well attended seminar in connection with the EU Agenda on Adult Learning. The great turn out for this meeting provides some indication of the general interest in the field, certainly as far as service providers are concerned.  The country has certainly come a long way since I first worked in the field in 1988. In many ways, the emphasis placed by the EU, through its funding structures, on Lifelong Learning must have served as a catalyst over the years.

There is however one worrying aspect of the current discourse that often makes it a far cry from the UNESCO espoused concept of Lifelong Education of the seventies and eighties.  The switch from lifelong education to lifelong learning is not innocent.  It places less emphasis on structures and entitlement and more on the individuals taking charge of their own learning, often at considerable expense.  It is an insidious discourse that minimises the role of the State and leaves everything to the market. Education is therefore turned from a social into an individual responsibility. Policy documents promoting these fashionable ideas should be the subject of constant critical scrutiny by discerning educators.

It was heartening to hear most of the stakeholders at the seminar focus on education as a public good rather than the consumption good that the shift in discourse, from that of UNESCO to the OECD and, to a certain extent, the EU, has brought about. Great emphasis was placed on free and genuinely accessible provision as a citizen entitlement. What was however worrying is the by now very conventional emphasis on ‘employability’, on ‘learning to earn,’ which renders what was once an expansive concept of education (Lifelong Education) rather reductionist in scope. This prevails throughout the educational discourse worldwide.

I find it disheartening to hear trade union officials, such as the UHM representative at the seminar,  speak more of investment in training of ‘human resources,’ that is ‘learning to earn’ and become employable, than of revitalizing that long standing trade union tradition of adult education known  as workers’ education. To my mind, this area represents one of the richest dimensions of the field.   It was rich enough to attract quite a range of leading 20th century UK-based intellectuals such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and Edward P. Thompson to engage in and write about the field. They wrote not of ‘employability’ but of employee empowerment and access to various types of knowledge.  This would allow them to develop beyond being simply producers and, I would add, consumers, these days, to becoming social actors, fully capable of contributing, individually and most likely collectively, to changing the world around them.

‘Employability’ is at the heart of the European Union agenda for lifelong learning, never mind the fact that employability does not necessarily mean employment.  In Europe, it is particularly fuelled through ESF funding on which many organisations in adult learning are increasingly becoming dependent. Rather than admitting to the failure to create sustainable employment, spokespersons for industry and policy makers place the emphasis on people lacking the necessary skills – a ‘jobs’ crisis’ couched in terms of a ‘skills crisis.’ The truth is that, in many parts of Europe, youngsters are gaining greater qualifications than their parents ever dreamed of obtaining and yet cannot enjoy their standard of living. This has been a recurring battle cry of the many indignados occupying various parts of the diminishing public spaces in Europe and across the Atlantic. The whole idea of lifelong learning, as currently promoted, gravitates around the notion of a ‘knowledge economy’ which might not lead to the level of employment and financial rewards being anticipated, given the global competition for the few high paying middle class jobs available.

That there should be some link between adult education and the economy is understandable. The setting up of the Employment & Training Corporation (ETC) and the re-establishment of the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) are steps in the right direction. Among other things, they provide state assistance to firms in developing their personnel requirements.  We all know the difficulties experienced by small companies, lacking economies of scale, to render ‘in house training’ a viable option; there is also the danger of poaching by rival firms.

It is however still worrying to see the dominant, all-pervasive discourse regarding adult education, in the context of lifelong learning, worldwide, reduced to simply learning for work. If anything, what we really need are forms of education which enable persons to learn to engage critically with work. This is the kind of education I would expect trade unions to be providing. It has been the staple of workers’ education in the past.  The narrow ‘employability’ view of lifelong learning, which attaches lots of importance to old and new basic skills (most laudable) but which ignores the very important notion of ‘critical literacy’, that is learning to read the world critically, as well as its construction through the media (critical media literacy), ignores a larger, albeit repressed tradition of adult education. This tradition serves to emphasise the role of the citizen as social actor. It also emphasises the role of adult learning as a vital activity within social movements, including labour movements. There is more to adult learning than is internationally celebrated at present.

Furthermore, an increase in investment in adult education or all education for that matter, with economic returns in mind, without a corresponding reciprocal investment in the economic sector, perpetuates, and probably exacerbates, the situation of ‘education for export’ that has been a characteristic of colonial and neo-colonial policies to date.

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