There is a pervasive sense of crisis around British adult education. Public funding for adult learning has been slashed, and on this issue at least there are few differences between Scotland, England and Wales. And the decline began well before the Coalition came to power, let alone before George Osborne announced his plans for massive savings from education and training: Ruth Kelly was cutting adult education in 2006.
But at least New Labour had provided new funding for adult learning in the first place, and supported important new initiatives, even if they did pull back later. Now, though, there is little left to cut.
Local councils in England provide minimal adult education, with a heavy focus on basic skills provision; the picture is more variable in Scotland, where some councils maintain most of their adult provision while others have all but withdrawn. Colleges in all three British nations have been told to reduce part-time adult provision and focus on school-leavers and full-time provision. Only a dozen universities still have a department or centre for adult education.
According to Caroline Lucas*, Member of Parliament for Brighton and Hove, “It’s no exaggeration to say that the very existence of adult education is in jeopardy”. I think she exaggerates, but it is true to say that public provision has been slashed, and what is left is likely to be cut further.
At the same time, none of the pressures that created the debate around lifelong learning have gone away, so at some stage in the future there will be new debates, though probably the terms will have changed. And so will the context: many people still want to learn, and quite a few have to learn, regardless of what the government provides. What, then, is the most likely future?
What follows is speculative, less an attempt to predict the future than to think through the possibilities. One of these is that the various campaigns to save adult learning will succeed, that policy-makers will rediscover their love for lifelong learning, and that we will see a return to the levels of funding that existing under the first Blair government. We have strong collective voices for the sector in many European countries, including England and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland where the Assembly shut down the main independent voices.
This, though, has to be a strategy for the long haul. Winning over the policy-makers will take organisation, persistence and patience. After all, it was Labour’s Alan Johnston who derided adult learners as Pilates addicts, Labour’s John Denham who jeered at subsidies for ‘holiday Spanish’. And it will also require a broad coalition of influential allies, just as the older movement for public adult education relied on the support of the trade unions, co-operatives, women’s institutes and churches.
The second possibility is that a strong voluntary adult education movement will emerge and replace part at least of the state sector. The signs here are rather encouraging: the University of the Third Age movement appears to be thriving, and its local associations manage to run a lively programme of classes and events over the whole UK with little or no support from the state. If older adults can build a national self-help movement, why shouldn’t other groups do so?
I’m a great admirer of the U3As, but they do have limits. As a social capital researcher it comes as no surprise to me that its membership largely comprises the like-minded. Not only are they mostly well-educated and drawn from comfortable middle class occupations; the movement is also overwhelmingly white. The risk, then, is that other groups are simply ‘frozen out’ – or indeed exclude themselves – from the U3A.
And while older people have managed to created a sustainable network-type association, other interest groups don’t seem to have done so. There may be sudden collective rushes to the internet when some issue or other comes to the top of the political agenda, but there isn’t much sign of any more sustained and organised framework for supporting collective learning.
A third scenario is privatization. De facto, this is more or less what is happening anyway in the UK – and not just in the UK. The main European research journal on adult learning is putting together a special issue on marketisation and commodification. Eila Heikkila, in her recent overview of adult learning in Finland, noted that the reduction in public funding had helped to create a much more competitive sector, where providers had an interest in differentiating their offer, and thus widening learner choice. Policy-makers may well find this an attractive message.
The difficulty with this scenario is that a market-led system will almost certainly face massive quality problems, at least at its margins, and will gear provision towards profitability rather than any wider social or economic need. At the very least, then, the state is likely to seek at least a minimal role in securing training for groups such as school-leavers or the unemployed, in whom there is a wider political interest. Beyond that, the market will certainly meet the needs of many adult learners, these will be the relatively affluent and well-educated. It probably won’t reach many of the 25 % of EU adults who have completed no formal education beyond lower secondary education.
My fourth scenario is a hybrid future. Public adult learning will continue, but it will adapt and change, particularly through the adoption of digital and mobile technologies. This implies a weaker role for local face-to-face providers, who will increasingly concentrate on those whom new technologies find ‘hard-to-reach': migrants, refugees, the long-term unemployed, learners with special needs. Public providers will forge partnerships with voluntary and commercial providers, particularly in areas such as workplace learning. While voluntary providers will develop programmes for specific interest groups, commercial providers will sell places on study tours, heritage weekends, bespoke professional qualifications, and so on.
Of these, I find the hybrid model most likely. It will involve some continuing public provision with sporadic attempts at government steering, but will be increasingly dispersed and at least partially privatised. I find it difficult to see how this rather fragmentary and often competitive world will produce anything like a social movement approach, but perhaps that is slightly pessimistic? On the other hand, while I don’t see much sign of an emerging social movement in the real world, there is nothing to stop us taking the long view, and trying to build one.
* I need to declare an interest: I am a member of the Green Party, which Caroline Lucas represents