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Lifelong? Only if life's short

Ian Searle argues that public funding for education focuses too heavily on the young and not enough on older learners

Education in Britain is heavily front-loaded. The older you get, the less interest the nation appears to take in your education and the smaller the resources that go into it. This should change - since the number of young people as a proportion of the population is decreasing, it should be possible to take some government funding for the education of the under-25s and reallocate it to older learners.

The authors of the Learning Through Life report, Tom Schuller and David Watson, divide the life course into four chronological sections - up to 25, 25 to 50, 50 to 75 and 75-plus. The first segment is heavily supported in comparison with the other three. Between the ages of 25 and 50, very little attention appears to be given to continuing education and training, although there are agencies such as trade unions that try to provide it.

From 50 onwards, when retraining is becoming ever more important, the story is even worse, especially with the prospect of people being expected to work until at least the age of 70. For those over 75, the provision is minimal.

While the effect on young people of reallocating resources towards older learners would be small, it could double the amount of money available for the educational needs of those over 50. For these people, the outlook is bleak at the moment. There is an assumption that for economic reasons, public money should provide for young rather than middle-aged and older citizens. A large number of "leisure classes" have been cut or priced out of the range of many older people. About 1.4 million fewer people now attend government-funded further education classes than did so three years ago.

Fortunately, some of them have found us at the University of the Third Age (U3A). But we would be unwise to believe that we can, or would wish to, completely replace the admirable work done in the past by evening classes and other courses in colleges.

The U3A in the UK has never sought core funding from government or other public sources, nor are we likely ever to do so. We are essentially a self-help movement, and are not going to fill all the gaps. But we can contribute. For example, a strong point made in Learning Through Life is the need for increased computer literacy. A recent survey of U3A members reveals that 29 per cent of them do not have access to a computer. This needs to change. However, the availability of computers is becoming less of a problem with increasing library access. Capability is something the U3A can help with, and many local U3As are in effect doing so on a voluntary basis.

It is common practice to discount or ignore the contribution made to educational provision by volunteers. The authors of Learning Through Life are, unsurprisingly, keen to relate their findings to funding issues, which means they tend not to include the monetary value of volunteers in their calculations.

A recent study of U3As in Australia and New Zealand estimates the value of the voluntarism in U3A groups in Australia alone to be worth about A$21 million (£11.5 million) a year to the country's economy. Using a similar methodology, our contribution may work out to be about £13 million a year, perhaps even more.

This voluntary effort has enabled us to pre-empt one of the recommendations of Learning Through Life: local learning exchanges.

Local learning exchanges would enable individuals in a locality to offer themselves as teachers, trainers, mentors and guides. They would provide a physical venue to allow people to meet and explore opportunities and enable the sharing of technology and digital content.

They are an excellent idea, and to some extent the U3A is already offering them. But we cannot do everything, and our determined independence from public resources cannot be the whole picture - we are not going to change the face of learning for adults, especially older adults, without greater public resources than the Government appears inclined to provide.

A relatively small reallocation of resources from learning for the young to learning for the old would have a disproportionately large effect on opportunities for the latter.

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