03 November 2020

Adapting to the emerging future through continuous learning: What knowledge, skills and capabilities do we need? How do we deliver with substance? Session 1

Chair: Mr Emerson Csorba

On 3 November, Ditchley convened a Transatlantic group as part of its work on continuous learning and the renewal of democracies. The main takeaways from this session were as follows: 

PreparationKnowledge, skills and capabilities: What should we be preparing for in order to adapt to the emerging future? What knowledge, skills and capabilities do we need? How does this differ from what we currently value and prioritise in our learning systems?

1919 Adult Education Report. We started the discussion with a reminder on the report published in 1919 by the Adult Education Sub-Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction, a Ministry set up by the war-time coalition government of 1917 to oversee the rebuilding of national life. The report set a template to invest in education for everyone throughout their lives. It emphasised the need to prepare for greater social change; the emergence of new and unknown technologies, and to equip citizens to be able to participate in democracy with an emphasis on reason and an ability to distinguish between genuine political argument from demagoguery.

The Centenary Commission of 2019 picked up the 1919 Adult Education Report as a starting point for a review of lifelong learning and concluded it is a 'permanent national necessity'. Even before COVID-19, ‘universal and lifelong’ access to adult education and learning was seen as necessary in rebuilding our society in the aftermath of the War 1. (Education or tackling ignorance was also one of Beveridge’s ‘five giants’ - targets for reconstruction after the Second World War.) Education is central to visions of societal rebuilding in periods of crisis.

Uncertainty. Greater acceptance and understanding of uncertainty is a part of adapting to future change. Reference was made to John Maynard Keynes’ discussion of ‘radical uncertainty’. We could list relative certainties such as changed demographics, increased lifespan and an increase in inequalities, whilst in other areas accepting that the future is in large part unknowable. Even so, much can be done to review data on employment, skills and trends in the job market pre and post the COVID-19 pandemic.

World-wide and hyperlocal. The experience of lockdown has sharpened our sense of access via the internet to global opportunities (why should a person be limited to learning from one teacher in school when they may have access to many inspirational teachers online?) and to the value of immediate localities. Ideas of the 20-minute neighbourhoods; the demonstration of local mutual aid, and community responses have proved the effectiveness of community action. How might such local governance be better facilitated?

Sources of knowledge. The massive availability of online resources (podcasts, apps, etc.) requires huge attention on behalf of providers to ‘discoverability’ and understanding the role of communication, advocacy, timing in the presentation of information. The task of curating knowledge - librarianship - has changed: how do individuals identify authoritative sources of information?

Human development vs skills for the economy. Is this an artificial divide? Are skills for critical thinking, entrepreneurship, effective communication and ‘human development’ set in opposition to skills required for specific jobs? Individuals want to know what skills will give them the best opportunities to get good jobs. There is a debate about how to marry individual development with skills required by economies: are efforts to deliver technical skills short-term and limited? On the other hand, will higher order thinking and interpersonal skills deliver the specific (often technical) expertise needed by business? 

An understanding of capabilities may be more useful. The economist Edith Penrose, in her The Theory of the Growth of the Firm, emphasised the value of collective capabilities.

Delivery: How do we deliver the learning necessary for the emerging future? What are the right levels for delivery and what are the modes?

Accreditation. Systems for conferring value on skills could be fundamentally reviewed. The longer-term impacts of the 2020 temporary suspension - as a result of lockdown - of the exam system provides an opportunity understand how these qualifications are used by employers and universities and what alternatives might be possible.

International comparisons. Where is adult education effectively delivered? South Korea’s ambition to have ‘learning centres’ within a 20-minute walk for most city dwellers; Singapore’s SkillsFuture programme; and China’s rapid university building point to the massive investment in education in Asia. Investments in US community colleges also show how universities and community colleges could be better linked.

Centralisation / decentralisation. The very public negotiations between central government and mayoral authorities in the North East, Manchester and Liverpool over lockdown arrangements have raised the issue of decentralisation. Greater Manchester set up their own track and trace and many argue that a decentralised system would have been more effective from the start than the government’s centralised approach. 

An awareness of how powerful central government is has been heightened by the direct experience of lockdowns: "government can change and control our lives at a moment’s notice". There was also speculation over whether the presence of high-profile mayors reduced local reliance on conspiracy theories.

Finding jobs and matching to skills is a practically difficult process currently carried out by Work Coaches at Job Centres. People often have skills they don’t recognise. How can these roles be better supported by software and by greater emphasis on identifying and matching skills, training and jobs?

Future of universities. Increasing competition; capping over provision of certain degrees; the introduction of short courses and for government to redefine the protected word "university" to include adult education were suggested. If we were to invent the Open University now – what would it look like? The 1919 Adult Education Report was taken up initially by universities, not by government. What if the same were to happen again?

Pushing at an open door. The government has already announced an expansion of post-18 skills training to begin in April 2021. The opportunity now is to propose further ideas and to build on the duty of local authorities to deliver adult education to include business and organisations such as Local Enterprise Partnerships.

In addition to Emerson Csorba and Liz Greenhalgh from Ditchley, participants in this session included:

Helen Gaterell, Impact and Evidence Manager at Wilton Park. Previously she worked at the University of Sussex as a librarian and information specialist. She has experimented with the delivery of AR.  
Jacqui McKinlay, Chief Executive of the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS), the national centre of expertise on governance and scrutiny.

Jonathan Michie, Professor of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Oxford, Director of the University's Department for Continuing Education, and the 2nd President of Kellogg College.

Sym Roe, Co-Founder of the Democracy Club, which identifies areas for improvement in democratic engagement; ensures everyone has access to quality information on democratic processes, particularly on elections, and mobilises a non-partisan movement of volunteers for democracy.