Flow of Ideas
No Learner Left Unhassled

Glenn Rikowski, London, 12th January 2008


Ten years ago, the idea of lifelong learning appeared to be an exciting possibility for teachers and learners in post-compulsory education and training. The creation of a ‘learning society’ in the UK, and indeed in the European Union, populated with lifelong learners, seemed to offer some solace for teachers depressed by the Conservative Party’s neoliberal approach to education. After flirtation with wider conceptions of lifelong learning not tied to labour power development (see Rikowski, 2004, pp.153-154), New Labour decisively hitched its lifelong learning policies to the neoliberal wagon. It could be argued that New Labour’s lifelong learning project pretty much ended in 2001 with the establishment of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and the local LSCs; lifelong learning completely dissolved into the ‘skills industry’.

Or so it seemed. The recent DIUS report on adult learning (DIUS, 2007) has resuscitated lifelong learning for certain groups currently marginal to the labour market. This ‘inclusive’ policy seeks to leave no learner unhassled.

The Dominant Outlook

The dominant outlook within British lifelong learning policy, discourse and perspectives is that of economic utility based on a perceived need to respond to the challenge of enhancing national economic competitiveness within the context of globalisation (Coffield, 1999). British lifelong learning policy has developed within the contexts of globalisation of capital and the drive to attain national competitiveness (Rikowski, 1996 and 2002).

Practically, one aspect of this involves designing education and training aimed at enhancing the quality of labour power throughout the national capital. This, it is hoped, will give UKplc a competitive edge in a harsh dog-eat-dog, winner-takes-all, global economy. As I have indicated elsewhere (Rikowski, 2004), for both Conservative and New Labour parties this outlook was the guiding light for lifelong learning policy. The many reports, consultative documents, White Papers and Acts of Parliament launched on a lifelong learning ticket from 1996-2001 were about ‘human capital’ development. Human capital, the ‘human’ as capital, is the social form taken by labour power (the capacity to labour) in capitalist society. References to human capital and need to nurture and develop it abound in government documents on lifelong learning (see Rikowski, 1996 and 2004).

Hey, DIUS, Leave Those Learners Alone!

So: onto the DIUS Report (2007). This report is concerned with integrating groups ‘marginal’ to the labour market into the skills net; specifically at pre-level 2 skills. The groups to be given priority are: those on the foundation learning tier; those requiring ESOL; those requiring free adult literacy and numeracy; family literacy, language and numeracy (parents helping children to learn); those with learning difficulties; offender learning; personal and community learning; neighbourhood learning; Train to Gain, involved in helping businesses train; and having an integrated employment service that gets all these groups learning and earning.

There are still elements of a broad conception of lifelong learning for adults in this programme – especially the Personal and Community Learning (DIUS, 2007, p.7), which is non-vocational, informal learning not leading to qualifications, including ‘engaging people who are reluctant to learn, and encouraging them to progress and achieve’ (Ibid.). But all the other elements are concerned with integrating these ‘marginal’ folk into the mainstream labour market. Thus, as far as any lifelong learning element is present, the DIUS Reports proposals indicate subservience to the drive to ensure learners become earners. As John Denham notes in the Foreword:

“I firmly believe that with the imaginative, creative and flexible use of this investment, we can both meet the immediate needs of adult learners and ensure their progression into higher level qualifications and sustainable employment” (Denham, 2007, p.2).

Thus, adult education for the groups listed above is viewed in primarily business terms: an ‘investment’, and one where there should be payoffs for government and capital.

Inclusion and Intrusion: All Must Be Safely Gathered In

It is with these thoughts in mind that the notion of ‘inclusion’ – so beloved of New Labour – can be seen to hold particular terrors. This magical concept appears to be unassailable in education circles in the UK today. Yet if I think about it, there are plenty of scenarios within which I would not like to be ‘included’: a passenger on the Titanic, in a firing squad, or in some of the workplaces I have experienced in, for starters. The key question here is ‘inclusion’ in the capitalist labour market. If the aim of ‘investment’ in adult learning at pretty low levels is to get them into jobs consonant with those qualifications, then they are being ‘included’ into the insecure, poor paying and low skilled end of the labour market. These are the ‘carrots’ being dangled before them. Of course, a few may go on to attain level 3 and above qualifications – and it is to be hoped that New Labour helps them do that. But ‘inclusion’ can seem like ‘intrusion’ when folks are ‘forced to be free’ in the ‘free’ labour market.

The Conservatives are currently arguing for a tougher approach, especially for those on long-term benefits, and especially those on sickness and incapacity benefits. The Financial Times (2008) argues that recent data showing that ‘half a million people under the age of 35 claim incapacity benefit’ points towards a situation where too many young people do not want to work. Namby pamby ‘lifelong learning’ solutions are just inadequate for these folk, according to the Conservatives. Rather, these people should ‘earn their benefits’ through community work programmes that constitute the ‘toughest welfare proposals in Europe’ (in Barker, 2008). Conservative leader David Cameron has gone on to craft plans that seek to ‘pay the private sector for getting millions of people in long-term unemployment back to work’ (Helm, 2008). Thus: two birds with one stone; one set of capitalist enterprises is paid to get the hapless unemployed to work for another set of capitalist enterprises in jobs within the bottom end of the labour market. Forced labour, with profits to be made out of the ‘forcing’ process for some to boot!

Conclusion: No Learner Left Unhassled

No doubt New Labour will respond (i.e. copy and go further) than the Tories proposals for dealing with those long-term unemployed on incapacity benefits. Meanwhile, its softer, residual lifelong learning policy will leave no learner unhassled; and all must be safely gathered in and incorporated into the learning/earning machine. The degeneration of New Labour’s ‘lifelong learning’ policy into surveillance and greater incorporation into capitalist work in the UK melds easily with the Tories’ proposals for the long-term unemployed. They are just different strategies with the same goal in view: everyone must be fully included in the processes involved in utilising labour power for value, surplus-value and profit generation. ‘Learning’ is cast on capital’s alter in the process.


Barker, A. (2008) Tories would force jobless to earn benefit, Financial Times, 8th January, p.2.

Coffield, F. (1999) Breaking the Consensus: lifelong learning as social control, British Educational Research Journal, Vol.25 No.4, pp.479-499.

Denham, J. (2007) Foreword to Adult Learning and Skills: Investing in the First Steps – Executive Summary, London: Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, online at: http://www.dius.gov.uk/publications.html

DIUS (2007) Adult Learning and Skills: Investing in the First Steps – Executive Summary, London: Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills, online at: http://www.dius.gov.uk/publications.html

Financial Times (2008) A generation that is too sick to work (Editorial), Financial Times, 7th January, p.12.

Helm. T. (2008) Pay firms to find work for jobless, say Tories, The Daily Telegraph, 5th January, pp.1-2.

Rikowski, G. (1996) Education, Globalisation and the Learning Society: Towards a Materialist Analysis, unpublished paper, School of Education, University of Birmingham, 8th March, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Education,%20Globalisation%20and%20the%20Learning%20Society

Rikowski, G. (2002) Globalisation and Education, A paper prepared for the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs, Inquiry into the Global Economy, 23rd January, available at Education-line: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00001941.htm

Rikowski, G. (2004) Labour’s Fuel: Lifelong Learning Policy as Labour Power Production, in: D. Hayes (ed.) The RoutledgeFalmer Guide to Key Debates in Education, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

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