The editorials are gloomy. Local authorities report a massive loss of places. The WEA wrestles with difficult funding rules. Education without accreditation is not funded and is treated as if it is of no significance. The education of older adults is being marginalised and left to the voluntary sector through the U3A. University adult education departments are closing.
So, where do you start a discussion of adult education today? How about with a celebration of its success? Yes, it has been a huge success; not merely popular, but loved. It is emancipatory, transforming people’s lives. What is more, modern education would not be where it is today without the pioneering work of adult educators. Let’s just think of some of the triumphs.
1. The stereotype of university solely as a place to go after leaving school still exists, but should be dead. Mature students make up more than half the numbers in Higher Education. It is no longer an exception to see adults on degree courses.
2. Access courses continue to flourish and are a recognised method of entry into higher education. The Open College Networks continue to provide alternative accreditation routes, specifically aimed at promoting adult learning at all levels.
3. The Open University continues to be an international exemplar of good practice and high standards.
4. The issue of class is firmly on the agenda in terms of access and equality of opportunity, even if it has been bureaucratised through OFFA and appears to aim at rescuing ‘talented’ individuals from their class rather than ending the process of the systematic exclusion of the working class as a whole.
5. Policy makers at least pay lip service to the concept of lifelong learning and make the linkage between it and economic and social development.
6. The health and social benefits of learning throughout life have been recognised.
Millions of people participate, millions enjoy it and for many it is a lifeline, a source of support and encouragement through the turning points their lives. It is popular, successful, and has played a major role in the development of education in Britain. So where is it? Where are the newspaper headlines? Where are the party policies and vigorous debates? Where are the campaigns designed to win the votes of these millions?
It isn’t just that other issues such as health, welfare and, right now, libraries are more salient. Paradoxically, the very success of adult education has helped to make it less visible. It now tends to be hidden within general education policy, rather than being treated as distinct. This has resulted in merging of institutions and the loss of separate adult education centres in favour of integrated and mainstreamed provision. Once that happens, adult education is transformed from a discrete service into a marginal and vulnerable part of larger institutions where it tends to be poorly understood.
That lack of understanding pervades the public arena. Adult educators are left floundering about how to make the case for something that seems to have slipped from view. Once one of the great left causes, it is now no more. Even worse, it is often derided by ignorant leftists as a middle class perk -‘flower arranging for the blue rinse brigade’ - rather than a central part of our social landscape.
It is true that some of it did fit this stereotype. And this has meant that affluent students are now part of a process of privatisation by stealth. Individual classes and tutors self-fund and thereby escape crippling bureaucracy and form exclusive social circles. Profitable and popular areas, such as creative writing, which were once used to cross-subsidise more difficult community outreach, have been cherry picked by, for instance, the publishers Faber and Faber, who now run their own Faber Academy for creative writing. This is all well and good, but where does it leave the rest? What happens to those who cannot afford private provision? What becomes of a comprehensive national service and of universal, open access?
This has created a problem; us adult educators have been struggling to find the language to describe the intrinsic worth of what we do. We search desperately for utilitarian justifications and in doing so indicate our weakness, our lack of confidence to assert that adult education is not merely of social or economic benefit, but is a universal human need and human right; the mark of a civilised society.
So how do we get a more confident view of adult education back on the agenda? It will take a long process of patient agitation and activism and I think that we have to ask ourselves a number of questions before we can proceed.
1. How do we describe adult education? How do we break away from pleading for funding as a supplicant to determinedly assert the provision of adult education as a right?
2. How do we make the case that formal and informal learning are not separate but are intrinsically linked?
3. How do we deal with the issue of ownership and control of services? After all, years of voluntary, municipal and government investment have been thrown away with no concern as to the impact on current staff and students, let alone on future generations. If there is one thing that the long process of contraction has shown, it is how utterly powerless adult educators and their students actually are.
4. Where do the boundaries of state and voluntary provision lie?
5. Finally, and this the central issue for us on the left, how do we rediscover, redefine and understand adult education as a popular cause? Harry Barnes’ and others former work with Derbyshire and Yorkshire miners is a reminder of the emancipatory nature of adult education, promoting social advancement and tapping into a long tradition of working class education.
And it is here that I would start my personal advocacy, drawing on the work of the pioneering adult educator and Scottish polymath, Patrick Geddes. Because that is where I ended up working, my focus would be on universities and their role in providing adult education. Geddes wrote about what he called the University Militant. This was not a precursor to Sixties sit-ins, instead it was the idea that the university, in the broadest sense of the word, is the driver of the intellectual development of a society, intrinsically linked to its communities and an open resource. At the moment we are seeing universities justify their high fees by rushing to become ever more like gated communities, importing the middle classes to be educated in some of our great cities, whilst a number of latter day Jude the Obscures gaze through the ornate ironwork, muttering about it ‘not being for the likes of us’.
University adult education was and still can be, if any survives, an alternative mission, one that opens the gates and does not simply teach ‘outside the walls’, but demolishes them. A university should be an open institution, a place of learning for all the community, one that invites people in and goes out to meet them. And by all the community, I mean all the community: employers, employees and trade unionists; people from council estates and Barratts estates; young and old, both role models for learning in their communities; and the poor, the homeless, the marginalised and offenders. The current model that sells higher education for its economic benefits will eventually run aground on the rocks of reality. My campaign would be for an inclusive system that sees education as of intrinsic worth rather than simply a route to a bigger payslip, and central to that would be adult education as community engagement. Doing this would mean abandoning the patronising language of aspiration raising and, instead, getting down to the hard work of meeting the aspirations that already exist, changing the institution to fit the people, rather than people to fit the institution. To my mind, this would be a progressive agenda that should be a part of any contemporary, progressive political movement and a starting point for the renaissance of an adult education that this time round will not be lost because of the whims of politicians.
Peter Ryley has worked in adult education for around thirty years in local authorities, further education colleges and, latterly, the University of Hull’s Centre for Lifelong Learning before taking early retirement following a restructure of the Centre. See here for his blog.