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Priorities for training and lifelong learning post COVID

Ireland has made welcome progress on lifelong learning rates in recent years.  Although our participation rate has been slowly improving (reaching 13% in 2019), those engaged in lifelong learning are still more likely to be professionals than those with lower skills[1].  This trend is not confined to Ireland, Europe as a whole has faced challenges in improving lifelong learning participation rates for adults with lower skills.  This is acknowledged in the 2020 European Skills Agenda in which the European Commission sets ambitious, quantitative objectives for upskilling (improving existing skills) and reskilling (training in new skills) to be achieved within the next 5 years.

  • 120 million adults in the EU should participate in learning every year;
  • 14 million adults with low qualifications in the EU should participate in learning every year;
  • 2 million jobseekers or one in five should have a recent learning experience;
  • 230 million adults should have at least basic digital skills, which covers 70% of the adult population in the EU.

Meeting these ambitious targets will be challenging, both for the European Union and for Ireland. 

To this end it is essential that lifelong learning and skills development is properly resourced and supported.  It should form a key element of our National Recovery and Resilience Plan, and in particular, our National Economic Plan.  Investing in education and training will help us face big challenges such as climate change, rising inequalities, technological change and demographic change.  High quality education and training accessible for all is one of the best investments a society can make but it does not come for free. Achieving good educational outcomes requires appropriate spending[2].  Adequate and continued investment in lifelong learning as part of a human capital investment strategy.  Lifelong learning is essential to ensure Ireland can meet the challenges that automation and adaptation pose to the future of work.  A recent report from the European Commission found that the transition from education and training to work and then from one job to another is crucial and requires continuous upskilling and reskilling of the adult population[3]. Comprehensive investment strategies in education and training, which cover all stages of life, bring the highest social and economic returns. 

The pandemic has had a major impact on the delivery of education and training, particularly in the area of apprenticeships and vocational training.  Although there may be a temptation to focus on the online delivery of lifelong learning and education and training due to the impact of the pandemic, this would be detrimental to achieving our education and training ambitions.  The crisis provided a powerful test of the potential of online learning, and it also revealed its key limitations, including the prerequisite of adequate digital skills, computer equipment and internet connection to undertake training online, the difficulty of delivering traditional work-based learning online, and the struggle of teachers used to classroom instruction[4].  An OECD study found that in addition to basic digital skills, online learning requires autonomy and self-motivation.  Users of online learning are primarily highly educated adults with strong digital skills and some courses show completion rates as low as 10%.  The study concludes that for or online learning to represent a valuable alternative to face-to-face instruction, it needs to tackle issues of inclusiveness to ensure all adults (including those with lower digital skills, limited access to IT and lower self motivation) can benefit.  It also needs to provide high-quality reskilling and upskilling opportunities that can translate into sustainable employment opportunities for job seekers[5].   

Lifelong learning is one of the key policy tools available to us as we deal with the economic and social fallout of COVID-19, offering the opportunity to mitigate some of the worst impacts of what will be an uneven recovery.  Continuous investment in skills development, adult learning and lifelong learning are the best policy tools available, allowing investment in human capital and ensuring we can manage these transitions. 

To this end Government should fully resource an develop an integrated lifelong learning, skills development, digital transition, vocational training, apprenticeship and reskilling strategy as part of the Human Capital Initiative.  As we deal with the fallout from the pandemic, and adapting to environmental and technological change Government should resource the up-skilling of those who are unemployed or at risk of unemployment.  In as much as COVID-19 has highlighted ‘essential work’, it has also brought into relief the precarity of certain types of employment, particularly work undertaken by younger workers.  We must also begin a Just Transition to more sustainable employment in the context of environmental protection and globalisation.  Through a process of employer-led education and training initiatives, workers will be more adaptable and SMEs more sustainable through the retention of a skilled labour force.