The UK is a nation divided. On the 23 July 2016, fractures that had long existed in its societal fabric were thrust into the open, as the voting public narrowly chose to exit the European Union. The result came as a shock to many. Polling companies, political commentators and voters alike – many of whom had predicted a comfortable Remain win – were left scrambling for reasons as to why the referendum went as it did. However, on reflection, it’s clear to see that the signals pointing to the result were plainly ignored.
The past few decades have borne witness to significant structural changes in the British economy. The significance of the primary and secondary sectors – which include activities like mining, manufacturing and construction – collapsed as UK pivoted towards services, and deregulation increased the power of capital. These changes led to the country’s wealth becoming increasingly concentrated in particular regions, most notably London and the South East. Successfully transitioning towards a ‘knowledge economy,’ these areas were best positioned to take advantage of the opportunities offered up by the changes. At the same time, the localities which formerly relied on heavy industry saw those jobs disappear, often being replaced by roles which were lower paid and less secure.
As such, inequality in the UK has continued to widen even during periods of economic growth. The ultimate result of this has been to split the country into two distinct groups – those who’ve benefited and those who’ve lost out from the changes to the UK economy. Research has illustrated the way that this played out in the referendum, with it being shown that households living on less than £20,000 a year have the highest probability of voting Leave. Similarly, the South East, West and London – generally strong advocates for the EU – have a disproportionate share of the UK’s wealth.
If there is a single lesson to take away from the referendum result, it’s that large swathes of the country have been ignored, and that the opportunities available to them aren’t up to scratch. Prosperity must be better distributed to bring the country back together. However, to do this, we need to provide the ‘left behind’ with the skills to succeed in today’s economy, and what better way is there to do this than through investing in lifelong education?
The UK has been a pioneer in adult education. From the establishment of the British Institute of Adult Education in 1921 and the founding of the Open University in the 1960s right until New Labour’s ‘Learning Age’ Green Paper, Britain has traditionally provided many opportunities for its population to upskill. However, this hasn’t been true in recent times. Just one in three adults have taken part in learning in the last three years, and more than two million publicly-funded further education spaces for adults have been lost over the past 15 years.
Part of the reason for this is the UK’s narrow educational focus. The prevailing education model in the country was established long ago, beginning with the early years and concluding with entry into the labour market at the expense of lifelong learning. Compare this inertia to television, where the model of delivery has changed drastically from fifty years ago. With one study showing that 60% of business leaders believed that finding adequately skilled staff was their primary concern, it’s clear to see that the model is no longer producing workers needed by the economy.
A shift towards lifelong learning will help to narrow the regional skills disparity – something that will be necessary given that more than a million jobs are at risk of being automated. The economic benefits of this will be widely felt. The Leitch Review of Skills has estimated that by reducing the number of adults with skills below NVQ Level 1 by 2.5 million could deliver a net benefit to the UK economy of £50-70 billion. These workers will be able to seek out more stable, better paid types of employment.
They’ll also be more adequately prepared to deal with periods of dislocation, meaning that the likelihood of the fractures which led to the referendum result reappearing will be reduced. We’ll also witness social improvements, too. States with higher levels of adult learning also possess greater levels of democratic engagement, improved mental and physical health and a greater respect for diversity. Better educated adults are also more likely to engage with and contribute to their local community, helping to unite as opposed to divide.
For the UK to improve its levels of adult education, it’s important for it to ensure that as many barriers as possible are removed. Increasing investment in adult education will remove financial barriers, allowing for a greater proportion of the population to upskill themselves. The economic argument for this is obvious, too, with one estimate predicting that a £1.9 billion investment in adult education could help to boost the UK economy by £20 billion. We should also look to leverage modern technology to allow educators to reach those who may not be able to attend a physical facility.
Remote learning technology can be used to deliver lectures across the internet, and digital learning libraries can be used to let mature students access materials at a time and in a fashion that suits them. Finally, we need to change the perception around learning, no longer should it be seen as something that is done in our younger years and then left alone, but as an ongoing process to enjoy across the entirety of our lives.
The Brexit referendum result highlighted a divide in our society between those who had benefited and those who lost out from the changes in the UK’s socio-economic structure. While one group had become increasingly affluent, another had felt marginalised and their voices ignored. For the country to be brought back together, its future success needs to be better distributed. To do this, we need to ensure that more people are adequately skilled to take advantage of the economic opportunities of this new era - and only by providing opportunities for individuals to educate themselves can this happen.
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