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In order to address the main theme for this research, that is, “who should and could be learning, I will first of all define learning and the different forms of learning available to people in modern society with particular reference to the United Kingdom.


From a historical perspective, learning can be traced as far back as twelfth century, which is based on the Jewish tradition and values, in a direct quotation from H. Van der Zee which state that:

Every Jew, whether rich or poor, healthy or sick, at the height of his powers or old and infirm, has the duty to study. Wood-cutters and water-bearers figured among their great scholars, even blind men. They studied day and night. (…) Until when should a person continue to learn? Until the day of his death. (…) Learning is the most important of all the rules of behaviour given the Torah. Even stronger: learning is more important than all other rules of behaviour together (…) Make learning a regular habit. Do not say: ‘I’ll learn if I have time’. You may never have time.” (1984, p. 6)[1]


From the above, learning can be viewed as a process of acquiring knowledge which can take place in a formal and informal / non-formal setting thereby, giving every individual in society the opportunity of engaging in some form of learning opportunities to enhance their personal development. This for example, can include learning from Pre-school stage to University, learning for self-actualisation through private study and in the work environment.


According to Curzon (1997) learning is the apparent modification of a person’s behaviour through his activities and experiences, so that his knowledge, skills and attitudes, including modes of adjustment, towards his environment are changed, more or less permanently.[2] This definition looks at learning in all its dimensions, that is, experience, skills and many more that enable individual to make adjustment in his/her society. These adjustments can take the form of formal or/an informal learning that will enable the individual to attain personal independence through job security for example.


In order to focus on the topic, I shall first of all throw light on the three basic forms or ways of learning that can take place in an individual’s life:

1.       Guided learning is an instructional and tutorial based form of learning. This for example, incorporates all the learning which takes place from pre-school to University where the student / learner is given specific set of instructions or guided throughout the process of acquiring knowledge. This can also include formal training in the workplace setting where employees can receive training in a specific area or management related subject. This form of learning can improve knowledge through skills gained in a formal setting.

2.       Do-it-yourself learning is one in which the individual explores the world around him/herself without the support of a tutor. This can also be viewed as a form of self-actualisation learning in which the individual is aiming to solve problems without external interference or support. Very little or no cognisance is placed on the importance of this form of learning as it does not directly involve huge sums of investment from public or private funds. On the whole, its use in contributing to the long-term skills of the individual is negligible in promoting lifelong learning for all in the society. Despite efforts made by institutions nowadays in promoting do-it-yourself learning through the use of Information and Communication Technology (Distance learning), it is still not sufficient in promoting inclusive learning for all due to impeding factors like lack of communication in publicising facilities available.

3.       The third form of learning is spontaneous learning. This learning is considered to be a form of unconscious reaction from the individual. This form of learning is one in which the individual can contribute to knowledge capacity without due cognisance to their actions  (Van der Zee, 2000, p. 166)[3].



Why Should People Learn?

In answering the above question, it is important to note that people learn for various reasons and the process of acquiring knowledge can take place in different forms as already discussed above. For example, the reasons for learning by a teenage student might be completely different from an adult with a family commitment. Despite the differences, there is a great need for people to embark on some form of learning that will enable them to withstand intense competition in society, for example, job acquisition and progression from one stage to the other in life.


As Field and Leicester (2000, p. xvii) puts it, the agenda for lifelong learning encourage education for citizenship (political), seeks for wider participation (social), and emphasises the importance of learning for economic prosperity (vocational) while recognising the importance of individual choices and personal development (liberal).[4] In this regard, the government’s agenda for a learning society is to create learning opportunities to enable each and every individual to take advantage of developing their skills to enhance economic prosperity.


From an economic standpoint, learning (lifelong) has been viewed in terms of its positive contribution to ‘human capital’ through specialisation in different fields of profession. Economic analysis of lifelong education have been argued in terms of the productive gains which skilled workers make in the work place which eventually leads to economic growth- analyses of the factors which determine the level of growth have resulted in a split in two different school of thoughts, that is, the ‘Human Capital and Filter Theories[5]. The human capital theory is more concerned with the physical and the intellectual capacity of the individual in making a positive contribution in the workplace. This means that investment in human resources through the creation of learning opportunities will definitely increase productivity as a result of skills acquired through vocational or academic programmes undertaken. On the other hand, filter theory is more concerned with the filtering of human capital on the basis of the individual’s academic potential which means that in most cases, only those with the necessary skills will be able to take advantage of jobs available in the market.


The interpretation of this is that learning cannot be a free-cost activity, that is, investment in learning (formal or informal) should result in future economic prosperity of an economy through skills development of the work force. This is a two-tier situation in which the state benefits as a stakeholder through its investment in developing human potential through ICT for example. The individual on the other hand can receive a decent wage package and progression through skills gained from learning (formal and / informal). This has the advantage of increasing a wide pool of skilled work force as a result of the level of competition has been dictated by market forces in employing the best workers to maximise returns from investment.


The government’s agenda for lifelong learning is based more on economic grounds due to increase competition in global trend in technology. In support for the economic standpoint, one way in which governments in western capitalists societies and in particular the UK have considered to address the problems of global competition is through an investment in human capital that is done to the inclusion of every individual who is currently engaged in learning and those that have missed out greatly in the early part of their secondary education (to be explained in the next section).


Emphasis on lifelong learning in the UK, especially the New Labour’s approach has been on social inclusion for all individuals in the country which will also create a sense of active citizenship in all sectors of the economy (Field and Leicester, 2000, pp. 22-24). From Longworth and Davies’ interpretation (1996, p. 138), successful lifelong learning is one which motivate individuals to participate in the learning process. This means that people of all backgrounds, ages and gender should be given the opportunity of actively participating in activities which they feel will contribute to societal development rather than that which is dictated by government policy in meeting the needs of market forces. Widening participation in lifelong learning has been given a great boost in the post-compulsory sector and an example of this is the introduction of a widening participation factor in the older FEFC’s methodology which has incorporated a postcode system to assist students coming from deprived boroughs in taking advantage of learning opportunities (Green and Lucas, 1999, p. 42).


What are the resources available for Learning?

Lifelong Learning Defined

The term lifelong learning is used inclusively to refer to all forms of learning (as discussed earlier) and in addition, the provision of ‘learning opportunities’[6] for all individuals in society regardless of age, sex and ethnicity. Lifelong learning according to the European Lifelong Learning Initiatives (ELLI) can be defined as “the development of human potential through a continuous supportive process which stimulates and empowers individuals to acquire all the knowledge, values, skills and understanding they will require through their lifetimes and to apply them with confidence, creativity and enjoyment in all roles, circumstances, and environment.”[7] This definition gives an indication of learning throughout the lifetime of the individual, that is, from ‘cradle to grave’, which means there should be no barrier to learning.


Amongst other definitions of lifelong learning is that of Berman which states that it is a process which can make young and old alike connoisseurs of the past, implementers of the present and visionaries of the future.[8] In order for people to realise the benefit of the proposed policy, people should have access to variety of learning resources which would enable them to actively participate in the entire lifelong learning process(es).



The emergence of the labour party in 1997 also made a positive impact in implementing lifelong learning policy through its consultation paper titled The Learning Age- a renaissance for a New Britain”[9]. The term learning has been used to encompass formal study, reading, watching television, training and workplace learning (DFEE, 1998a, p. 10). In this paper, the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment expressed great concern for people of all ages, gender and ethnic groups to take up opportunities to make themselves skilful through learning opportunities that do not necessarily require them to be full-time students in order to actively participate in lifelong learning activities.


Lifelong learning for most part of the 1990s has dominated education policy debates in different parts of the world and institutions like the OECD, UNESCO and the G8 group of governments have all focused great attention in fostering learning for all in the society at large. Lifelong learning in the UK context has been focused in developing a learning and cultured society which would enable individuals to gain necessary skills to take opportunities aimed at maintaining personal independence, and encouraging creativity and innovation (DfEE, 1998a). 


Resources Available for a Learning Society

The government in its effort, has made great stride in introducing different policy schemes like University for Industry (UfI), Individual Learning Accounts (ILA) and New Deal in ensuring that people are engaged in some form of learning (vocational or academic) programmes to develop their skills further (DfEE, 1998b and 1999b). According to Hyland[10], these policies as claimed have been implemented by the New Labour government as a result of the failure of previous reforms (which dates back to the Conservative leadership) to tackle major problems of vocational education and training in the post-compulsory sector.


The University for Industry (UfI) has been introduced as a way of bringing industries closer to a variety of learning technology schemes like ICT and media technology. As expressed by the DfEE: “UfI will connect those who want to learn with ways of doing so. It will act as the hub of a brand of new learning network, using modern communication technologies to link businesses and individuals to cost-effective, accessible and flexible education and training (DfEE, 1998b). It is expected that through the provision of such a scheme, people will be able to access information through different locations like learning centres equipped with ICT facilities to develop their skills (OECD, 2001[11]).


The Learn-Direct scheme has been developed as a first step towards the UfI- aimed at overcoming the main barriers to learning by making access to information about what is available.[12]  Facilities and access to Learn Direct has been made free through access to a free phone helpline number (0800 100 900) and is made available to all in the United Kingdom- that is, people in work, full-time education, professionals, skilled and unskilled, male and female who are over 18 years old. Through this, employers will also have access to information about qualifications and training opportunities to develop employees’ lifelong learning skills.


Other learning initiatives like the Individual Learning Accounts (ILA) and New Deal were also introduced by the Labour government as a way of encouraging adults to return to learning as part of their wider focus on lifelong learning and targeting social exclusion. Through the ILA scheme, individuals will be able to save and borrow for investment in their own learning (DfEE, 1998). This is intended to encourage individuals to save and spend part of their own resources in meeting part of the cost of their education. The New Deal initiative was introduced as a way of reforming the welfare and benefit system by getting unemployed people to work- women, disabled people and unemployed 18-25+ all part of the wider new deal framework (Hyland, 2000, DfEE 1999b and c)[13].




The answer to the title “Who should and could be learning?” in practice should be everyone irrespective of social class or economic status. Despite the gloomy picture of the above government’s policy initiatives, it has come under rigorous criticism for its insufficiency in properly addressing the needs of the populace especially those who are being excluded. As Coffield puts it:

-          ILA, UfI and the National Grid for Learning- are all targeted at individuals, without any consideration of the social determinants of participation. Deeply unfair and counterproductive, because the policy is likely to “systematically disadvantage certain sectors of the workforce previously targeted as training priorities and the less qualified”[14]

Even though the government’s intention for introducing these programmes is to encourage investment through the provision of learning opportunities for individuals in the entire country, there is still the problem of access and limited or no financial incentives for the have-nots. In other words, it is not an opportunity for someone who does not have any resources to start up their lives by taking out a loan to embark on training activities to develop their skills. As expressed in Young’s criticism on the government’s green paper, “low level of lifelong learning can also be attributed to factors such as the low level of attainment reached by the end of compulsory school education and the lack of higher levels of skills and knowledge required by employers.”[15] As is always the case, those with high levels of initial education are the most likely to benefit from schemes like UfI and ILA due to the fact that they already have some level of access and initial education which will enable them to progress onwards in developing their skills further. Also, those already in employment are the ones whom financial or lending institutions will lend money to further their training or education.


It is well and good to have a system which is highly competitive in terms of its human resource capacity which will give employers the choice of making the best selection in increasing productivity. How can this be done when resources available for learning or acquiring skills is tied to some stringent criteria? For example, access to university is now dependent on whether students have the financial resources. This in itself limits opportunities for poor students to take up offer provided by a university of their choice.



Having addressed the need for learning and learning opportunities available through government policy initiatives like ILA and their drawbacks, this section is intended to highlight points that will focus in terms of creating learning opportunities for all in the UK economy irrespective of sex, age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status.

1.       Providers (government and agencies like Colleges and training centres) should encourage people to take up learning opportunities in areas where there are skills shortages. This should be done such that those with little or no skills in the particular area of discipline should be exempted from paying fees as a first step in entering the job market.

2.       Vocational related jobs should be linked to work placement to enable learners / trainees to gain necessary practical skills.

3.       Groups like Single parents and the disabled should be given additional incentives to take up learning opportunities that will prove economically viable to their family. This for example, should include voucher schemes to single parents for childcare provision and also special learning resources to encourage disabled people to take up learning opportunities. The media should be used as a medium of disseminating opportunities that will be available if disadvantaged people are interested in developing their skills.

4.       Provision of scholarship or grant schemes for disadvantaged and poor students in taking up higher education courses that will cater for higher level skilled workforce in the economy. This will assist in combating socio-economic deprivation especially students who are capable but lack resources to engage in some form of learning.

5.       Legislation should also be set out to encourage employers to invest in their workforce so as to give employees the choice of progressing on to more challenging career within the same establishment. This will also have the advantage of creating an all-inclusive learning society which gives everyone the opportunity of competing within the workforce.



[1] Abram, I (1984) ‘Permanent leren in de joodse samenlevina’ (Lifelong Learning in the Jewish Community), in H. Van der Zee, Volwasseneneducatie: dilemma’s en perspectieven (Adult Education: Dilemmas and Perspectives), Meppel: Boom.

[2] Curzon, L.B (p. 11, 1997) Teaching in Further Education: An Outline of Principles and Practice (5th Ed.), Cassel Press, UK.

[3] H. Van der Zee (1995) The Learning Society, in Adult Learning, Education and Training, ed. Edwards. R., Sieminski, S. and Zeldin, D. Routledge, London.

[4] Field, J and Leicester, M (2000) Lifelong learning or Permanent Schooling? In Lifelong Learning: Education Across the Lifespan, ed., Field, J and Leicester, M, Routledge/Falmer, London.

[5] Vinokur, A. Economic Analysis of Lifelong Education (p. 290-1), in Foundation of Lifelong Education, ed. Dave, R.H., 1976, Pergamon Press, Oxford.

[6] The term learning opportunities have been used in this context to refer to the provision of resources like cash incentives and learning centres for people to enhance their skills further.

[7] Longworth, N and Davies, W.K, (p. 22) Lifelong Learning: New vision, new implications, new roles for people, organisations, nations and communities in the 21st century, Kogan Page, UK

[8] Berman, L.M (1984, p. 100) Educating Children for lifelong education and the learning society. Childhood Education, 61 (2), 99-106.

[9] Department for Education and Employment (DFEE- 1988) The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain, Stationery Office Limited.

[10] Hyland, T. (2000, pp. 122-4) Learning, Work and Community: Vocational studies and social values in the learning age, in Lifelong Learning: Education across the Lifespan, ed. Field, J and Leicester, M.

[11] OECD (2001, pp. 106-7) Economics and Finance of Lifelong Learning, OECD, Paris. Some examples in the publication include:

-          Online access to enquiry, information and registration systems.

-          Website and bulletin boards giving direct access to providers

-          Link with tutors and tutors via UfI Emails.

[12] DfEE (1998d, p. 1) Learn Direct: A guide, London, DfEE.

[13] Hyland, T. (2000, pp. 123-4) Learning, Work and Community: Vocational studies and social values in the learning age, in Lifelong Learning: Education across the Lifespan, ed. Field, J and Leicester, M.

[14] Coffield, F (2000, p. 15) The three stages of lifelong learning: romance, evidence and implementation, in Differing Visions of a Learning Society- Research findings, Volume 2, ed. Coffield, F, The Policy Press, UK.

[15] Young, M (p. 99-100) Bringing Knowledge back in: towards a curriculum for lifelong learning, in Policies, Politics and the Future of Lifelong Learning, ed Hodgson A (2000), Kogan Page Limited, UK