27 February 2023
Peter Aldous backs Bill as a step to support a culture of lifelong learning

Peter Aldous backs a Bill that makes it easier for adults to secure student loans for shorter courses and study flexibly over their lifetime which will help address the skills crisis, eliminate the productivity gap and give more people the opportunity to realise their full potential.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

I am grateful for being called to speak in this important debate. The Bill is somewhat technical in nature, but its objectives are to be welcomed and applauded. We need to ensure that its provisions are implemented as soon as practically possible and that, thereafter, they deliver the desired outcome. The Bill is vital to address the skills crisis that this country faces. Moreover, we need to ensure that people from all backgrounds and of all ages have every opportunity to realise their dreams and to pursue their chosen careers; that businesses of all sizes can recruit and retain staff with the necessary skills and expertise; and that the stubborn productivity gap that has plagued the UK economy for so long is at last vanquished and eliminated.

In East Anglia, there are exciting opportunities emerging in a wide range of new industries: zero-carbon energy production, life sciences, and food and agriscience. However, a skills mismatch is holding back those sectors, and if we do not address it, businesses will go elsewhere and we will have lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to revolutionise the local economy for the benefit of local businesses, local people and local communities in East Anglia, but to benefit the whole of the UK, not least the Treasury.

I will not go into detail on the provisions of the Bill, because the Secretary of State has already done so. I shall focus instead on why the Bill is needed, why it is welcome and what more needs to be done if it is to have the desired impact. It is first necessary to put the Bill in context. In February 2018, the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), announced a post-18 education and funding review. Sir Philip Augar’s report, which was published in May 2019, described post-18 education in England as

“a story of both care and”—

I am afraid—


The Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 subsequently provided the framework for embedding lifelong learning in our tertiary education system.

The Government have quite rightly recognised the problem and the need for action. They are to be commended for introducing a comprehensive framework that can deliver much-needed reform, but I do feel a sense of frustration that the challenges are not being tackled more quickly. At times, I feel we need to be more radical and send a clear message to communities, people and businesses that wholesale change for the better is on the way.

Why is the Bill necessary? It is part of a drive to embed lifelong learning in our education and training system. The need for a lifelong learning culture is clear. Given the ageing population and the lack of people with the technical skills needed by employers, as well as technological change and the need to move rapidly to a net zero economy, we need every adult to have the capacity, motivation and opportunity to carry on learning throughout their life.

We have an ageing population. By 2030, the population aged 60 is projected to have increased by 42%, while the population aged 14 to 64 is forecast to have grown by just 3%. That has critical implications. First, people living longer might choose to work longer and must therefore be able to upskill and reskill. Secondly, those who are out of work might well benefit from accessing education and training to support them to be healthy and active in retirement. Thirdly, the pressure on public finances that an ageing population brings requires us to ensure that people of working age who are out of work or underemployed can upskill and retrain as quickly as possible.

We must address the challenge of climate change, which will lead to dramatic changes in the world of work. New and emerging sectors, jobs and working practices will require upskilling and retraining a very large number of people. The target of net zero by 2050 requires a radical shift in the response from our skills system—a challenge that I am afraid is not currently being met.

A fourth industrial revolution is taking place in information and communication technologies. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics are profoundly changing how people work, learn, communicate and live. That will require smarter and more agile ways of living and working. People will need higher, more specialised and socialised skills. As a result of the changes in the world of work driven by digitalisation, by the fourth industrial revolution and by the transition to a green economy, CBI research predicts:

“Nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030”.

The Bill should not be considered in a vacuum or in isolation. If it is to be a success, it must form part of a comprehensive package of measures. Let me briefly list five of them. First, there is the need to ramp up participation in adult education. Since 2004 participation rates have almost halved, from 29% to just below 15%, which means that millions of people are missing out on opportunities to retrain and upskill for a new job or career and employers are unable to fill key vacancies. Secondly, there is a need to address the consequent low levels of employer investment in work for skills. While much recent reform has rightly focused on the role of employers in the skills system, there has at the same time been a decline in the amount of investment on the part of employers themselves.

Thirdly, we need to address the situation whereby the least advantaged suffer the most and have the least opportunity to advance. At a time when more jobs require education at level 3 and above, only 60% of young people reach that level by the age of 19, while 15% fail to reach level 2. The number of people taking higher and intermediate and technical college courses is lower than it should be, given both the current skills shortages and those that can be predicted owing to retirements and economic change in the coming years. Those who do participate are far more likely to be well educated and better off. The poorest adults, with the lowest qualification levels, are the least likely to access adult training, despite being the group that will benefit most. They must not be left behind.

Fourthly, there is poor co-ordination across the education system. Further education, higher education and apprenticeships are currently treated as distinct systems in their own silos, which makes it hard for employers and others to access the overall system. There is insufficient alignment across welfare, skills and economic strategies, and that needs to change. Fifthly and finally, there has been a neglect of level 4 and level 5 provision. Sir Philip Augar’s review notes that the small number of level 4 and level 5 students translates into persistent skills gaps at technician level. That gap, I am afraid, makes England an international outlier, with our numbers declining.

What else do we need to do? As I have said, the Bill is to be welcomed, for it has a vital role to play, but it is only one piece of the jigsaw. We need more detail on the lifelong loan entitlement ahead of its introduction in 2025. It has the clear potential to be a game-changer, introducing a stronger lifelong learning culture in England. However, there are issues of detail that need to be addressed, as well as wider issues relating to how it fits into the whole tertiary education offer, including further education and apprenticeships.

As the Bill progresses through Parliament, three big systems issues need to be borne in mind. First, there is a need to instil a new lifelong learning culture. Arguably, the biggest hurdle when it comes to the success of the lifelong learning entitlement will be the issue of how quickly a new culture of lifelong learning can be developed. Secondly, there needs to be clarity on the role of employers and how the lifelong learning entitlement will work with the apprenticeship levy. Employers are central to the working of the new system being developed as part of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, and it is important that they are fully involved in the development of the lifelong learning entitlement. Thirdly, there is a need for changes in regulations to develop a coherent post- 16 education and skills strategy that is properly aligned to wider Government policies, redressing the inefficient competition that exists across the system and setting out a co-ordinated approach to an expanded lifelong education service. This should include legislation to introduce a new tertiary post-16 commission.

In addition, I have two concerns that must be addressed when the Government publish their response to the consultation carried out last year that we have heard about. First, there remain questions about eligibility and who will be entitled to access the lifelong learning entitlement. This includes rules around equivalent or lower qualifications. Secondly, the matter of maintenance support needs to be addressed. The Government are still considering how maintenance support will be adapted for the lifelong learning entitlement. This will be crucial for mature learners, who often have family commitments and caring responsibilities.

As I have mentioned, there is a danger that the lifelong learning entitlement becomes something used by well-educated people to add a year after a degree rather than by people who do not yet have a level 3 education. The pathways from lower levels need to be strengthened with better funding and maintenance support at level 3 and below, with universal credit recipients being given every opportunity to access training without loss of benefits. It is important that the provisions of the Bill are accompanied by the necessary careers advice and guidance, so that those who need it most can take full advantage of the opportunities that will become available. A strategy is needed that sets out how the lifelong learning entitlement will fit into the careers advice and guidance for individuals to access throughout their lives.

If the Bill is to be successful, it must be accompanied by systemic change, and if the House will bear with me for a few minutes I will briefly outline what the ingredients of this change might be. They could include: a 10-year education and skills strategy; a new tertiary education system with a joined-up approach to regulation and oversight; the creation of a maintenance support system that enables everyone to have a fair and reasonable standard of living while studying training at college, across both further and higher education; the reform of the benefit entitlement system so that people who would benefit from attending college while unemployed do not lose out; and ensuring that the whole education and skills system is sustainably funded. For too long, the college system has been the Cinderella service of the education system. Significant improvements have been made, but more work is still required. Finally, we should have a support fund for providers branching into new resource-intensive areas at levels 4 and 5.

In conclusion—I think you will be pleased that I have come to this point, Mr Deputy Speaker—this Bill is to be welcomed, but it is only one part of a wide range of policies and initiatives that must be provided so that all people, whatever their backgrounds, are able to realise their full potential. If we do this, it will in turn enable businesses to prosper and allow the economy at last to move into top gear, eliminating that stubborn productivity gap. This is what is needed if we are to deliver sustained economic growth and meaningful levelling up. As the Bill moves forward, I would urge the Government to consider reasoned amendments—I know my right hon. Friend the Minister will do so—to quickly bring forward any necessary enabling and secondary legislation, and to work collaboratively, not only across this House but with universities, colleges, employers and, most of all, those people that we represent, to whom this Bill gives the opportunity to realise their full potential.