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For decades Government has seen increasing young people’s participation in post compulsory education - particularly higher education - as a key objective. Michael Gove’s approach implicitly calls this goal into question. He may now find support from an unexpected direction.

Yesterday saw the launch at the RSA of ‘Learning Through Life’, an inquiry into the future of lifelong learning conducted by NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Learning). It is an excellent piece of work, combining powerful analysis and a compelling conceptual framework with solid policy recommendations. It didn’t have to be that way. In my experience inquiries like this conducted by commissions of the great and the good are often long on warm words and lofty aspiration but short on edge and innovation. Also, the subject matter isn’t always presented in the most fascinating of terms. I told a slightly shocked Great Room of the time I had met a colleague at IPPR and asked ‘were you at the lifelong learning seminar?’, ‘I don’t know’ she said ‘but it certainly felt that way’.

The report argues that we should see learning through life as having four distinct 25 year phases. It recommends that over the next ten years, partly in response to changing demography, we should gradually shift resources from the first phase (0-25) towards the other three phases and a particularly the last two. The benefits of learning for the employment prospects and well-being of adults and elders is well known yet they get a tiny share of the overall spend. Because 85% of spending is concentrated on the first phase, just limiting growth in this sector frees up resources that could transform provision in later years.

This is where there may be an opening to make common cause with the Conservatives. In alleging a dumbing down in standards, in criticising attempts to make learning ‘relevant’, and in pledging to discourage students from doing ‘softer’ subjects like media studies, Michael Gove is implicitly arguing that the bar for academic attainment (and progression) should be lifted. Whilst over the long term we all hope more children will reach higher levels of achievement, in the shorter and medium term this approach suggests an end to the expansion of post compulsory academic participation.

The NIACE Commission is suggesting shifting resources from the under 25 group by slowing growth in per capita spending, but if the Conservatives’ policies put a cap on places in higher education this would enable a greater transfer of resources. After all, wouldn’t it be better to spend limited resources on transforming the opportunities for personal growth and social engagement among older people than on shoehorning into college the last remnants of lower middle class youth not already there (regardless of whether they have any academic aptitude)?

Until now the Conservatives have not wanted to explore what their ‘back to basics’ approach to the school curriculum means for post 18 participation rates. This is one of the questions I posed to Michael Gove nearly two months ago. He and his team have promised me a response and I am still waiting. Maybe with the NIACE report they have a new – progressive – rationale for limiting state funding for HE to those who have reached the academic gold standard.


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