The slippery world of university adult education

Universities in Britain seem at first sight to be increasingly irrelevant to the world of adult learning. Most of the old extra-mural departments are closed or have become a shadow of their former selves, and while there are some highly regarded researchers into adult learning, they rarely see themselves as part of a wider adult education movement.

Debates at a recent SCUTREA conference certainly provided evidence supporting this idea of decline and marginalisation. We heard that the organisation’s membership is in need of renewal, and that active researchers in the field often see their careers as better served by other, more conventionally prestigious learned societies.

Yet there was also evidence of adult educators’ continuing ability to reinvent and reinterpret their work in new circumstances. Reporting on her research into academic work and academic identities, Janice Malcolm from the University of Kent noted a couple of patterns that seem rather telling.

First, she reported on adult educators who were transferred to other departments when their own was shut down. While they took pride in having worked in an area that was willing to experiment and and saw itself as part of a wider process of social change, they could also be relieved that they no longer faced such high expectations as they had when working with adults.

Second, she found that academics who had started their careers in seemingly conventional social science disciplines in fact were often involved in a wide range of external activities. At least in their early academic careers, and often for much longer, they were active in feminist movements, community groups and campaigns of various kinds. They were also creating new sub-disciplines, and setting up institutions such as journals to support this process.

Turning to our own time, Janice noted that the adult education movement has not disappeared. In research terms, many adult educators now studied workplace and professional learnings, as we can see in the success of the international Researching Work & Learning conferences. She also pointed to the importance of impact in higher education, joking that we should start calling adult learners “impactees”, as well as to analogous developments such as citizen science and academic blogging.

I find this a persuasive argument, in so far as it shows the continuing relevance and significance of adult learning to higher education. Indeed, we could add to Janice’s list. Universities have started to appoint academics to promote public understanding of science, maths, even philosophy; others are starting to specialise in engagement. And early careers academics continue to take on part-time roles with adult education providers, whether to make ends meet or to build up their experience.

So quite a few people in universities have an interest in adult learning. They don’t necessarily see themselves as Adult Educators in the great tradition, and the adult education movement might not see them as obvious allies. But they are there, and taken together they represent considerable potential.

Social capital in the trenches

Poster from September 1914, British Library exhibition "Ednduring War: Grief, grit & humour"

Poster from September 1914, British Library exhibition “Enduring War: Grief, grit & humour”

I’ve known for a long time about the Pals’ Battalions in the First World War. Recruiters – who included ‘philanthropists’, civic dignatories and religious leaders as well as the military – played on young men’s personal loyalties as a way of persuading them to enlist in groups. Initially the ‘pals’ came largely from the middle classes, though nowadays we tend to think of them as drawn mainly from the industrial cities.

In war, as in many other situations, friendship and workplace networks are an obvious way of swelling the ranks. It isn’t simply a matter of getting more bangs for your buck, so to speak, by recruiting a whole group rather than individuals. Social capital theories suggest that not only will people volunteer more readily as part of a group, but that they will be able to draw on their learned resources of trust and co-operation once they are in uniform.

This poster, which I spotted at a fantastic exhibition in the British Library, sets out the case very clearly. It was aimed at ‘young men from 19 to 35, especially those employed in Banking and Commercial Houses’, and its main selling point was that the recruit would ‘Serve with your friends’. I guess it must have worked well enough for a time, because the same approach was then extended to the industrial north.

Of course, social capital theory tells us that connections can work in many ways. It suggests that soldiers who know each other well can also organise and co-operate to resist authority. It also suggests that strong bonds might predispose some young men to refuse to serve in war, and indeed the BL exhibition includes a moving statement by a young Quaker and Socialist who stood trial rather than be conscripted.

No one has claimed that social capital theories identify some entirely new phenomenon. The value of connections has entered cliche corner a long time ago, through phrases like “old school tie” and so forth. What the theories can help us do is to understand the nature of those ties, the meanings that they have for people, and the ways in which people use them, for good or for ill.

Should we fine ‘bad parents’?

We all know that family support is vital for a child’s education. Parents provide help with homework, discuss progress with teachers, provide transport to sporting and cultural activies, and generally help to create a culture of enthusiasm for learning. Ideally, they will also model that enthusiasm by learning themselves, and talking with others in the family about how they are getting on.

Inevitably, though, some families don’t meet that admirable ideal. We could ignore that, on the grounds that people’s attitudes and values are their own business and not the government’s. But that is a pretty short-sighted view, especially given what we know about family support for education and people’s life chances as adults. So if we do think something should be done, what is the best form of action to take?

Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of education for England, has suggested that schools should be able to fine parents who allow their children to neglect homework, miss parents’ evenings or fail to read with their children.

Well, it’s a solution of sorts, though it strikes me as hopelessly out of touch with reality. Who will fines hurt most? How exactly will fining people change their attitudes and behaviour? Do schools have the capacity to handle appeals? Will headteachers really send for bailiffs to collect unpaid fines? How will such fines affect relationships between parents and teachers?

More to the point, Wilshaw is ignoring evidence of an alternative approach to parental engagement that actually appears to work. This at first seems strange, given that some of that evidence was produced by the inspectorate, which collaborated with the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education on a series of pilot projects to promote family learning.

Family learning offers a far better approach to engaging disadaged families than fining them. But it requires a much more strategic approach to learning across the life course than either Michael Wilshaw or the current government is willing to consider.

A mosque that enhances social capital

How can we improve relations between Muslims and other members of the community? In many neighbourhoods, where people are rubbing along quite happily together, this question might not make much sense. But it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that suspicions and hostility are also common, and for symbolic reasons, these feelings often find expression when a Muslim congregation decides to build a new mosque.

Equally, though, the decision to build a mosque can also be an opportunity to build bridges between Muslims and their neighbours. I was very forcibly struck by that when I saw the splendid new mosque in Cologne’s multi-cultural Ehrenfeld district. Cologne is famous for its extraordinary gothic cathedral, from which you can see the mosque’s two tall minarets, while the mosque itself is a large modern building on a busy cross-roads on the area’s main street.

In short, it is very visible, and it’s big. As in many other European countries, there were noisy protests when the plans were first announced, and far right groups have called repeatedly for it to be demolished. In contrast to some other cities, though, the protests rapidly became tiny, and have now vanished. Instead, in a city that has some pretty mediocre architexture, the mosque is now more llikely to attract pride.

Koelner_Zentralmoschee_Januar_2013

What struck me was not just the soaring dome and minarets, but the lightness and openness of the building. There are vast windows and massive glass doors, which open out onto a square. We looked through the doors and saw rows of girls in the prayer hall with name plates in front of them, with tv cameras recording. A passer told us that the girls of the madrassa – it was Saturday – were taking part in a competition, and it was being filmed for Turkish tv. The congregation also have an informative and lively website, in German.

I found this openness – architectural and personal – very inviting. The whole aim of the building is to provide a space for worship and other community events that allows outsiders to see what is going on. And though this on its own won’t abolish mistrust and fear, it seems to me very likely to reduce them, and to prevent some of the ridiculous but harmful misinformation that surrounds Islam in much of the west.

For someone who is interested in social capital, this was a very encouraging experience. It is common in the social capital literature to find that most people trust and mix with people who are similar to them, and a number of studies show that ethnic and religious university are associated with lower levels of social capital.

However, while this may often be how we behave, there is nother inevitable about it. I particularly like one article, which confirms that while ethnic and religious diversity tend to undermine the social capital of white majorities, this effect disappears when people interact ‘across the fence’.

For me, the Cologne mosque at least puts windows in the fence, and provides a public space where non-Muslims can interact with Muslims on a personal level. It’s also an impressive statement of the ability of the Muslim community to take control of the debate over their place in the wider society, rather than passively suffering prejudice. In my view, an example worth following.

From work camp to Arsenal: the footballer Jimmy Evans

In March 1935, Arsenal recruited a twentysix year old Welsh footballer called Jimmy Evans. Evans, who came originally from Merthyr Tydfil, was a work camp trainee who was playing at the time as an amateur for Hereford United in the Birmingham and District League.

As a long term unemployed young male, Evans had chosen to join – or was pressured into attending – one of the Ministry of Labour’s Instructional Centres. In 1937, there were thirty ICs, charged with the role of ‘hardening’ young men whose bodies had supposedly been ‘softened’ by protracted unemployment.

Mainly, the young men’s bodies were hardened through a daily routine of heavy manual labour combined with a solid, if unimaginative, diet. But sport also played a role, not just in improving physical fitness, but also in boosting morale and building an esprit de corps.

When Evans entered Shobdon IC, some 20 miles north of Hereford, his footballing skills clearly flourished. Back home in Wales, he had never managed any better than his local Sunday School team. In Shobdon he initially played for the IC team, before joining Presteign and then Hereford United, who recommended that he turn professional.

Jimmy Evans - reproduced with thanks from www.margatefchistory.com

Jimmy Evans – reproduced with thanks from http://www.margatefchistory.com

Having found work, Evans has no longer any direct concern of the IC, though in early May the camp hosted a visit from Hereford United, who duly won 4-0. He stayed on Arsenal’s books until 1937, spending most of the time on loan to Margate, before moving to Fulham, then serving in the RAF before returning to Margate after the War, and retiring from the game at the age of 45. He died in Margate in 1993.

I’m not sure how much Jimmy Evans’ story tells us about the experiences of young men more generally in the Ministry of Labour camps. But it does offer some insights into the importance of sport in the camps, as well as the extent to which the camps were integrated into their local economy and society. Incidentally, I only encountered his story thanks to Jon Price, a knowledgeable Hereford citizen and blogger, who sent me several reports from the Hereford Times, including two that I’ve drawn on here.

Ambitious Policies and Learners’ Voices

The Scottish Government today launched Adult Learning in Scotland: Statement of Ambition. This is one of a number of broad vision statements covering different areas of Scottish education, and its broad purpose is to guide policy development over the next five years. What should we make of it?

AdultLearningStatementofAmb

My initial reaction, as well as my more considered response, is that this is a very welcome statement indeed. The statement acknowledges the central role of adult learning in helping people change and develop – as individuals, as family members, as workers, and as part of the wider community. It sets out broad principles – namely, that larning should be lifelong, life-wide and learner-centred. And it calls for a broad range of provision, with learners involved in planning, developing and evaluating that provision.

Much of this may well remind you of the optimistic policy debate over lifelong learning of the mid-1990s. Key texts such as Learning: the treasure within from UNESCO and England’s The Learning Age expressed similar hopes and values in very similar language. The first main ambition listed in the Scottish statement - for Scotland to be ‘recognised globally as the most creative and engaged learning community’ – could have appeared in any of a score of policy papers from different countries. So could several of the other proposals, such as high quality training for professionals, giod quality advice and guidance, or the recognition of informal learning.

But there are also new and distinctive features in the Scottish statement. The most significant of these is the role envisaged for learners in driving the system forward. The Scottish Government set out to engage with learners in producing the statement, and it contains broad proposals for empowering learners not only in their own learning but in developing policy.

And this is also a key feature in the strategy for taking the ambitions forward. The first step listed in the statement is the creation of a cross-sectoral task group to develop a strategic implementation plan; the second is to ‘ensure learners are involved in the process’.

There are some obvious challenges in taking this forward. What about people who are, or see themselves as, non-learners – who think the system is ‘not for me’? What about working learners, with limited time to spare on meetings that may or may not meet their needs? Will the loudest voices be those of the most articulate and confident – and indeed the best educated and most affluent? And will some people simply become semi-pro learners, constantly speaking for other learners long after moving on from the experiences that brought them into learning?

I’m sure there are plenty of other practical questions like this, but the principle is a good one. Of course professional adult educators will also have relevant knowledge and experience to bring to this debat. And we have plenty of time, as nothing much is going to happen this side of the Scottish Referendum in September – and the issues and challenges will still be here whatever the voters decide.

So it would be interesting to hear from anyone who has tried to organise learner voice in this way, whether in the UK or elsewhere, or who simply has some ideas about how it might be done.

And a few closing words on resources. In practice, the Scottish Government has prioritised young full-time learners, particularly in higher education. As a result of selective funding cuts, colleges alone have lost over 196,000 enrolments of part-time further education students since the current government took power in 2007; almost all of these were adults and well over half were women.

Decide for yourself what this tells us, if anything, about the scale of the political challenge ahead. But the history of adult education has always been a history of struggle, and no one in Scottish adult learning expects a statement of ambition alone to change that fact.

 

Lifelong learning and the global market – will Europe benefit from American competition?

Should lifelong learning be opened up to competition? In particular, wwould the world be better if American providers were allowed to enter the European market – and, presumably, vice versa?

This idea is being discussed as part of the free trade treaty that the European Union is currently negotiating with the United States. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it is fair to say, isn’t at the tip of most people’s tongues in Britain. Essentially, it is a set of negotiations over free trade between the EU and US. In so far as people have heard of it, it is probably in connection with the health service, where the proposed treaty will make it much easier for private health providers to compete across the Atlantic.ttip

But the treaty will cover many areas, including at least some education services. Precisely how these are being handled in the negotiations is something we will probably never know. The whole process takes place behind closed doors, in secret and without democratic oversight, and thse responsible issue only a minimum of officially-sanctioned ‘news’.

Higher education is an obvious target for private firms, particularly in the UK where the universities are legally private (charitable) corporations, albeit that many of their activities are publicly funded. The Universities and Colleges Union has expressed grave misgivings over the likely consequences for higher education in Britain.

But the treaty could also cover other areas of post-school education, especially if they operate in any kind of ‘mixed economy’. This covers further education and skills training, which may involve a mixture of public funding and both private (including voluntary sector) and public provision, as well as adult learning. The American negotiators have explicitly expressed interest in ‘privately-operated adult and other education services’ – including vocational training, and covering services provided digitally along with those delivered face-to-face.

You may well think that the benefits of American corporations providing numeracy skills, second language teaching or local history classes probably aren’t immediately apparent. Past experience, though, shows that where the US has introduced particular services into free trade treaties, it is because someone has lobbied for them to be included. The bubbling world of MOOCs is another likely target for commercial competitors. And their track record suggests that the larger corporations will use the force of the law to protext their rights, challenging regulation and inspection regimes, and blocking the publication of unfavourable comment.

At this point, I should declare an interest: since the mid-80s I have been a card-carrying member of the only political party in Britain to campaign against TTIP, the Greens. So you may decide that I am an untrustworthy witness, or you may share my unease over what I see as a threat to standards and – given the lack of transparency over this process – to democracy. If so, you should at least be writing to share your views with your regional MEP.