Why must learning be sullied with cynicism?

Virtue is its own reward. Is this really the case? I was thinking about virtue during the political conference season. I even got to harangue the Labour Party conference about something extremely virtuous, preceding Nelson Mandela at the rostrum by an hour or so. I was talking about lifelong learning. I can already feel you flipping the page – just like I could see delegates filing out for a coffee when I began to talk.

Lifelong Learning is about virtue. No one opposes it. No one says mid-life education is a waste of time. All agree it does us good, and is therefore, full of virtue.

But two things reminded me today that even lifelong learning attracts the grubbier side of life. The 1999 London Skills survey, published in August, initially reveals a good level of interest in skills development and qualifications. But it also reveals a distressing level of cynicism about learning. Over a quarter of respondents did not feel their qualifications were of any importance at work. A third were not considering any sort of education and training and 15 per cent said they never would.

What is depressing about this is the way that these attitudes were more prevalent among the older and lesser skilled. This opens up the prospect of people now in work having nowhere to turn if they lose their jobs as the global economy presses in on us all.

Trade unions have tried to create some interest in the virtue of re-training. We are particularly concerned that the young IT-competent workforce understands the need for skill while the older workers retreat into themselves. Many unions have now introduced new competencies with the arrival of “learner representatives”. Something in the manner of safety reps, “learner representatives” are urging colleagues to take advantage of Individual Learning Accounts, the University for Industry, the Union Learning Fund, Basic Skills strategies and other local learning opportunities. No one opposes this. Wise employers see this as clearing the workforce’s mind of traditional obstructionist refusal to greet the future.

But what’s this I see? More complaints about cost. More resistance to influence. More grubby refusal to applaud the workers’ attempts to upskill themselves.

First the Government removed from the Employment Rights Act the obligation on employers to discuss training issues with their employee representatives. Then someone suggested that learner representatives might have legal rights to paid time off to help spread the word about skills.

Employers instinctively reach for the “no” switch. When will we ever learn that Britain’s plight is skills shortages and social exclusion? Only the virtue of lifelong leaning can save the day – but still work-based education risks being a poor relation for the state and an unacceptable cost to the employer. Virtue its own reward? Don’t make me laugh.

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