Labour promises to expand lifelong learning

The party says adult learners should be able to access Level 3 to 6 qualifications, which includes undergraduate degrees, free of charge

Labour will allow every adult to study an undergraduate degree or vocational equivalent for free if it wins the general election.

In a speech in Blackpool, Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said the party would give every adult access to six years of free study for level 4–6 qualifications, which includes undergraduate degrees

The proposal is one of a raft of new lifelong learning policies from Labour.

Announcing the policy, Rayner said: “Our goal is a high-skill, high-wage economy fit for the challenges of the future.”

Our goal is a high-skill, high-wage economy fit for the challenges of the future
– Angela Rayner, Labour

The policy would allow mature learners to access undergraduate degrees, higher national certificates and diplomas, foundation degrees and diplomas of higher education.

Labour would also offer adults without A-levels (or equivalent qualifications) the opportunity to study for Level 3 qualifications for free and maintenance grants for low-income learners.

The party would also launch a national careers advice service to help learners access further study.

Rayner says the move aims to address the UK’s “severe” skills shortage. Total spending on adult education has fallen by 47% since 2010, according to the latest annual report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

Labour said its proposals will cost £3bn per year and hopes to reach 300,000 people every year.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, welcomed Labour’s proposals: “Adults deserve access to more learning and training opportunities in a high-quality skills system in which colleges are vital players. This set of proposals would support more people of all ages and circumstances to be able to participate and get the skills they need.”

Hughes said “2.2 million people study and train in colleges” but more adults could benefit from Labour’s proposals, which he described as “a great step forward.”

The Conservatives said Labour was “making promises that it simply won’t be able to fulfil”.

The other parties:

More detailed policies on higher education are expected when the parties publish their manifestos.

The biggest higher education policies tend not to feature in election manifestoes at all
– Nick Hillman, Higher Education Policy Institute

The Liberal Democrats have announced a £10,000 “skills wallet” for adult learners.

The party proposes that learners can access £4,000 at the age of 25, another £3,000 at 40 and a final £3,000 at the age of 55 – or chose to defer the funds and access the total £10,000 sum at the age of 55. The funds can only be spent on courses regulated by the Office for Students, which excludes a number of skills programmes.

Earlier in 2019, the Conservatives announced a National Retraining Scheme to help adults without degrees change careers and plans to launch new vocational qualification called T-levels.

In a blog post, Nick Hillman, director for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), wrote: “It is unclear how much room will be left for higher education in the manifestoes at the Brexit-obsessed 2019 general election.”

Hillman suggested, in reference to Labour’s introduction of tuition fees and the Coalition government’s decision to triple fees, “the biggest higher education policies tend not to feature in election manifestoes at all”.

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