Peter Kingston reports that the numbers of people taking adult education classes has dropped by one million over the last two years. It doesn't take a genius to work out why:
The causes of the decline in student numbers are pretty much agreed: the severe reduction of the amount of public money allowed for courses outside the three priority areas, coupled with the government's expectation that colleges charge higher fees for courses.
It is exactly what every single adult education provider predicted. Now there is to be a new review of adult learning and the government has responded positively.
The inquiry was welcomed by John Denham, the secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills. "I think there's a very good debate to be had about how we continue to ensure that we get as many people as possible with the ability to enjoy that sort of learning - learning very often for its own sake but which brings a lot of personal and social benefits," he says.
This is the same John Denham who wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England on September 7th this year instructing them to make a change to funding that will effectively end much adult education in Universities. Designed to redirect £100 million of funding per year, the measure is a technical one that removes institutional funding for students taking courses at the same or lower levels than qualifications they already hold. It has been misrepresented in the press as ending support for taking second degrees but that is based on a narrow, stereotypical view of University adult education. What it means for us is that a huge programme of short courses, which we built up over the last seven or eight years into something special, will be decimated overnight. As I read Denham's letter I knew I was looking at the end of my career.
Adult learning is complex. People join in at all ages, from different backgrounds and study for different purposes. Some keep attending classes over several years. For many it is about more than learning, it is their lifeline. Our programme is all at level 4 (1st year undergraduate level), so those who have a previous qualification at this level or above will now be barred. This is a lot of people, but losing them isn't the only effect this new rule will have. Because the classes are so mixed, stripping out students with prior qualifications will make the numbers too low to be viable and everyone will miss out, including those trying higher education for the first time.
Although it is becoming a cliché, it is true that progression in lifelong learning is a climbing frame rather than a ladder, allowing people to move in many directions instead of just progressively upwards. Now the government seems to have adopted an increasingly narrow definition of purpose in education, one that relates solely to paid employment, and to a strictly limited notion of progression.
This is illustrated by Denham’s address to Universities UK a week later. Calling, perversely, for more flexible opportunities for mature students, he is reported as saying, "We need relationships that are appropriate, whether with large multinational businesses or small local firms." Note - not with trade unions, not with community groups, not with the voluntary sector, but only with employers. We work with all these and all want to promote learning for different purposes, not just employment. Many are just as vital to our society and economy, such as well-being, health, community development, association and, god forbid, pleasure.
The government’s position seems to be that you can have one crack at learning at a particular level in your life and for anything else you will have to pay full cost or, if your learning is work related, your employers should fund you. The problem is, learners cannot and employers will not pay.
I went back and looked at David Blunkett’s Green Paper, The Learning Age, issued in the first flush of the new Labour government. It recognises that, “People learn for a variety of reasons; it could be to change career, to increase earning power, to update skills, or simply for the joy of learning itself” (1.3). It calls for “universities, higher and further education to be beacons of learning in their local communities” (4.28). I couldn't agree more. However, looking at recent developments, it is hard not to conclude that the government have now narrowed their approach and no longer seek to enable a ‘learning age’.
Adult education likes to describe itself as a movement rather than a service. It implicitly recognises that it serves a broader social purpose. If you look at its history, you can trace its emergence through the working-class autodidact tradition, the trade unions and voluntary groups. The Universities played a key role early on, with the extension movement challenging narrow models of higher education and championing inclusion and learning for all. It was also one of the forces that helped give rise to the Labour Party. How ironic then that New Labour's custodianship of adult education should have been such a disaster, an act of cultural vandalism even, discarding a century of investment in a few short years.
So what is left? Well, we are not going down without a fight and campaigning is starting. Even if we fail to overturn the decision not all programmes will go, though they will be much diminished. The opportunity for a first degree later in life is still there. Perhaps one of the most hopeful signs is that informal learning and self-help groups are springing up again. The autodidact tradition is being reinvented. As for me, my future is uncertain. There is one thing I do know. I won't be able to fill my time with adult education classes.