Lord Watson: In the age of AI and automation, lifelong learning is an economic necessity

Posted On: 
1st February 2018

As rising automation and huge strides in AI change the employment market out of all recognition, the UK's education system needs to change, writes Shadow Education Minister Lord Watson

Shadow BEIS Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner with Jeremy Corbyn
Credit: 
PA

Without a coherent strategy to prepare for a strong and expanding economy, at least for the decade ahead, no government will be able to deliver sustained prosperity for our country. The pillars of such a strategy must include lifelong learning and adult re-skilling in response to the challenges of technology, productivity and the changing nature of work.

In the Budget announced in the autumn, responding to projections by the Office of Budget Responsibility for productivity growth being revised down to 1.5%, the Chancellor announced plans to increase spending and borrowing substantially over the next two years. Better late than never!

Two weighty government publications then followed, setting out the challenges facing the economy. While the ‘Industrial Strategy’ gained widespread attention, this was not the case for the Government Office for Science report Future Skills and Lifelong Learning.

The latter is a comprehensive evaluation of the UK’s human capital and identifies five key challenges, one of which is that participation in formal learning decreases with age. Adult learning is in overall decline and is disproportionately taken up by wealthier, more highly-skilled individuals. This chimes with one of the grand challenges of the Industrial Strategy, which states that it ‘will harness the power of innovation to help meet the needs of an ageing society’.

More needs to be done to keep training people who are in work, to ensure their skills do not become outdated. Lifelong learning is the key and will be an economic necessity. Rising automation and huge strides in artificial intelligence will change the employment market out of all recognition. That is why a prospering learning and earning higher education sector is now needed more than ever. Not only does it enhance productivity and regional skills, it promotes social mobility.

Part-time higher education and distance learning should be an essential part of the response to the two fundamental economic challenges that the UK now faces: low productivity and skills shortages.

These challenges cannot be met by relying on younger people; the gaps are too wide and too urgent. All adults of working age, whatever their background or location, need regular opportunities to upskill or reskill throughout lengthening working lives. Learning and earning will make the biggest and quickest difference for the individual, the employer, regional economies and ultimately the country.

The government-commissioned ‘Made Smarter’ review, published last year, likely understated the case with its recommendation that a million workers in the next five years will need to be reskilled and upskilled. Apprenticeships will form a major part of meeting that challenge and one of the messages that has been lost in the drive to increase apprenticeships is that they are not just for young people.

Within ten years, the State Pension age will increase to 67. This makes working longer essential, highlighting clearly the need to help people plan their future careers as they approach the latter part of their working life.

John Cridland recently published his review of the state pension age, with a recommendation of a ‘Mid-Life MOT’ in people’s late 50s and early 60s. The general idea should be adopted as a priority – although, as suggested by Age UK, such an intervention might take place earlier at age 50, to allow people enough time to adjust their future working plans. And it could involve not just re-training, but advice on future work and learning options, as well as managing changing demands (for example caring for a relative) as people approach later life.

In the age of versatility, more employers need to offer opportunities to adults, particularly those who are older and keen to remain active in employment.

Labour is committed to investing in lifelong learning through the creation of a national education service for England. Like our NHS, this will be a cradle-to-grave provision, free at the point of use and built on the principle that education and training are essential for everyone, irrespective of age. It will include a learning and earning higher education sector which will lead to increased productivity and regional skills, enabling education to be the vehicle for a secure, productive ongoing working life for everyone.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie is a Labour peer and Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords