Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Adult learning - loving it and losing it

There is a nice piece here by Mike Cushman on the value of non-vocational adult education. I agree wholeheartedly with the article and the significant role he gives to adult learning, particularly within discrete adult education centres. Though he provides an excellent defence of the utility of non-vocational learning, I feel the need to make the case should be superfluous. The sheer enjoyment of learning for its own sake is one of the hallmarks of a civilized society. The fact that millions choose to study, enjoy studying, and make it a centrepiece of their lives should be enough for it to be supported and celebrated.

Cushman is right about the narrowness of the New Labour agenda on lifelong learning, though I actually think that he lets them off too lightly. Recent changes to the funding regime through the Learning and Skills Councils are threatening an act of cultural vandalism of greater magnitude even than that experienced in the 80s and 90s. Fine institutions are at risk of near demise. Though my own department is doing well, much University Adult Education has disappeared.

The most important comment that he makes is about the importance of the long-term commitment learners can give to institutions. Writing of the difference between individuals seeking specific qualifications and liberal learners, he makes the following point:

This is in marked contrast to centres where students return year after year, where they feel involvement and ownership and where many of their needs for social interaction are fulfilled. These needs are addressed in a centre where they can meet people very unlike themselves.

I used to work at the former College of Adult Education in Manchester, which closed in 1990 despite its huge enrolments. I still mourn it. The love which the students held for the institution was breathtaking. I cannot forget the moment when an elderly holocaust survivor sat in my office and wept because he was losing his College, his lifeline. Despite what he had seen in his life, this loss could still reduce him to tears. The College had rescued him and now he was being cast adrift.

And here lies the important point. The students certainly felt ownership, but it was a mirage. Everything could be taken away from them at the whim of a politician. They owned nothing. The College had a history going back 250 years. It had not started as a municipal institution, it had been built up through voluntary organisation, subscriptions, gifts and sheer hard work over generations before passing into the hands of the local authority. All that investment was thrown away overnight.

This is the challenge to left thinking. There was a lazy assumption that collective goods could be owned and managed through the state. What we at the College found out was that state ownership is no ownership at all. How in the future do we develop structures of collective ownership of collective goods that makes ownership a reality, that prevents citizens from losing what they most value and feel is rightly theirs? One thing is certain, the mechanism is not the Blairites' beloved 'choice'.

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