Monday, January 14, 2008


Norm reminisces about his early career choices and how he changed from studying law as a result of a chance encounter in the first week of his time at Oxford. My epiphany was more prosaic. When the firm I worked for moved its offices away from the pubs and clubs of central Manchester to the suburban hell of Wilmslow they offered redundancy packages for those who didn't want to go. Fortunately, my boss, who was also part of the job's awesome drinking culture, had been a mature student himself and said to me, "you are too good for this place, go to University". I took the money and ended up at Salford University and nothing has been the same since.

Norm's thoughts were prompted by this piece by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times. Belkin worries about the space that young people have today and the pressure they are under. She celebrates the importance of making mistakes and changing life patterns. This brought to mind my current obsession with the impact of changes in funding on University Adult Education. One opportunity to do just that is being cut off if it involves getting an additional qualification at the same or lower level.

The other thing that struck me is that this feels like a very safe middle class concern. Part of the conventional wisdom of the day is that we are now plugged into "portfolio careers". The working classes have had all that for ages, it is called casualisation. Risk-taking for one person is insecurity for another. Without the security of middle class advantage, especially in terms of education, career change is often enforced and accompanied by poverty.

This is part of the rationale behind the government's position on funding, that they are transferring funding from those who have already had to those who have never had. It would hard to argue with them if that was the real effect. In fact, the changes will damage the unorthodox and accessible, the part-time and the outreach, in favour of the orthodox and, inevitably, the elitist. In order to fund 20,000 new full-time learners we are ending the opportunities for 200,000 part-time learners. And at the Russell Group universities don't you just know who these new learners will be.

Contracting funding will make it very difficult to support groups with low numbers in difficult areas. And as the provision in the community centres and on the estates of Hull diminishes, then, for people who never dreamt that they could attend a University, the serendipity of stumbling across a short course that sparks new dreams and possibilities becomes less likely.

Adult education can be a difficult, challenging and rewarding activity. It involves that very process of risk and change. Abandon it and all that will be left for those without privilege is the casualisation and the insecurity of life on the margins of an affluent society.

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