In the traditional view, social policy aims at insulating people from the market. The priority is now to help people adapt to a competitive labour market, become more “marketable” and also feel more responsible for their own employability, in particular by investing in human capital.
From this point of view, equipping people with individual accounts is a way to promote LLL.  These “accounts” may cover a wide range of schemes, from individual saving (real) accounts (for which usually an individual’s savings are matched by another party’s contribution: employer and/or government), to individual drawing rights (which may be considered as “virtual” accounts), and vouchers (usually public funded). Beyond the diversity of labels and modalities of specific schemes, we will use here the general label of “individual learning accounts” (ILAs) to designate all the schemes that provide an individual with resources he/she can use to take-up further training on his/her own initiative.
Several countries have introduced (or at least experimented) ILAs (CEDEFOP, 2009). Our aim here is twofold. First, we would like to better understand the theoretical and political underpinnings of these schemes, and try to make the link between both the design and implementation of these ILAs and these underpinnings. Second, we would like to draw some lessons by assessing the outcomes of ILAs against the objective of promoting further training.
In Section 1, we draw on the distinction between two political paradigms (i.e. sets of assumptions, concepts, values, and (potential) policy practices), which may provide the underpinnings for ILAs: the asset-based view versus the capability-based view (following Gautié, 2005, Gazier and Gautié, 2011). Section 2 analyses some experiences of ILAs, in the light of the distinction presented in the previous section, focusing on three national experiences: the United Kingdom, the United States and France.
1. The Underpinnings of ILA: Two Political Paradigms
1.1. An asset-based view of LLL and ILAs
1.1.1. Providing people with assets
Asset building strategies may be considered as the cornerstone of the “social investment state” (Sherraden, 2003). The phrase “asset-based policy” was coined by Michael Sherraden in Assets and the Poor, 1991. In the American context, the stake was to fight poverty with innovative practices, the traditional transfer policies of the Welfare States having failed. The aim is to empower the individuals to have greater autonomy, and help them not only to cope with critical transitional stages in life (like unemployment or the birth of a new child) but also to carry out their personal and professional projects.
The objective is not simply to change the modalities of redistribution, by replacing the provision of flow of resources (social allowances and benefits, income replacement) by the provision of a stock of assets. More fundamentally, the idea is to change the relation between the individual, society and the State. In today’s advanced industrialised countries, “people are invited to constitute themselves as individuals, to plan, understand, design themselves as individuals...” (Ulrich Beck, quoted by Giddens, 1998: 36). They are required to be responsible (no freedom without responsibility) and forward planning (a precondition for selfsufficiency). Providing people with assets aims at changing people’s behaviour – the so-called “asset-effect” emphasized by Sherraden – by making them more responsible and forward looking.
But building on these general principles, there is a diversity of approaches in this broad “asset-based policy” paradigm. Following Prabhakar (2009), it is possible to distinguish between two dimensions of the asset agenda, even if he acknowledges the differences between the two dimensions must not be overstated.
In the first view, asset-building is a way to redefine social citizenship, and to promote a “stakeholder society” (see for instance Ackerman and Alscott, 1999). Asset-Based Welfare refers to the “property owning democracy” that Rawls advocates in the preface of the second edition of his Theory of Justice: “One major difference [with the traditional welfare state democracy] is that the background institution of property-owning democracy, with its system of (workably) competitive markets, tries to disperse the ownership of wealth and capital […]. The idea is not simply to assist those who lose out through accident or misfortune (although this must be done), but instead to put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs and to take part in social cooperation on a footing of mutual respect under appropriately equal conditions” (quoted by White, 2001). In this view, asset-building should rely on universal schemes, and people should be free to use their assets as they want.
In the second view, the asset-agenda is more focused on social policy reform. Assets appear as a tool to foster economic and social development, by changing attitudes (the “asseteffect”) and choices (the incentive effect – the ownership of assets altering the balance between costs and benefits). This may require more targeted schemes in terms of beneficiaries. But it may also justify restrictions on how the assets can be used, in contrast with the first approach focused on social citizenship.
1 This refers to the key concept of “decommodification”, which “is meant to capture the degree to which welfare states weaken the cash nexus by granting entitlements independent of market participation” (Esping-Andersen, 1999: 43).
2 In its 2001 report “Making a European area of lifelong learning a reality”, the European Commission pointed to ILA as a way to enhance participation in training: “The Commission will evaluate various models of individual funding schemes (e.g.‘individual learning accounts’) to assess their impact on investment, participation in learning and on learning outcomes”. But the major influence came from OECD: ILAs were presented as an innovative financing strategy “to put flesh on the bones on the lifelong learning vision” (OECD, 2001, p.122).