Bishop of Oxford on importance of lifelong learning and skills in response to technological change

Oxford 5718bOn 5th July 2018 Baroness Bakewell led a debate on the motion “That this House takes note of part-time and continuing education, and in particular the future of the Open University.” The Bishop of Oxford, Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, like others, I warmly welcome this debate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for introducing it so ably. Student numbers in part-time education are moving dramatically in the opposite direction to the one I am sure we all want to see, potentially with really dangerous consequences for our economy and society.

The Open University has its headquarters within the diocese of Oxford, in Milton Keynes. It is a remarkable institution, as others have said, which has pioneered access to higher education and the use of technology, supported by face-to-face learning. It remains at the forefront of all of that, and I echo the affirmation others have made of the need to preserve, develop and build up its contribution to our national life and its international reach.​

Together with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, I have recently been a member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. As we have heard, we examined the changing nature of work. AI can drive our economy forward, but it is a disruptive technology. We know that many jobs will go. Some new jobs will be created. It is not clear what the net effect will be. But we do know two things.

First, the effects of job reductions will not be even across the economy; they will disproportionately affect traditional post-industrial areas and sections of society. The Centre for Cities estimates that 27% of current jobs will be lost by 2030 in Doncaster and Wakefield—towns which already have a higher level of unemployment. That is really significant for those communities.

Secondly, what can be done to mitigate the effects of these massive societal changes? The key is what we are discussing today. It is the only key that has emerged from the work done so far: a really significant—bigger than we have yet imagined—proactive investment in part-time, continuing, lifelong education, accessible in every place and to every part of society. We need a more radical reimagining of our continuing education than the Government have yet embarked on: a part-time education revolution for the 21st century equivalent to the large education revolutions of the past that we heard described.

The technology that is so disruptive to jobs can actually help us achieve that—supported by face-to-face and community learning. This new deal needs to be means tested, as we have heard, at the point of delivery, to prevent the stagnation of much of our economy; it needs to focus on the building of character and the formation of wisdom, as the Open University and others have done in the past; it has to be about more than knowledge and skills; and it needs to be focused disproportionately on the areas of greatest need.


Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con):…In order to respond to changes in the labour market, including from the impact of automation, which includes artificial intelligence, it is becoming increasingly important that people both upskill and reskill throughout their career. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and others rightly pointed out the changes that we must acknowledge and address to help the next generation and those beyond. The right reverend Prelate and the noble ​Baroness, Lady Bakewell, spoke about changes that have come about with the digital revolution. Through innovative industrial skills and digital strategies, government departments are working together to ensure that the population is prepared to seize the opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution might bring.

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