A learned society for research on adult learning

I fell ill in the middle of this year’s SCUTREA conference, and missed the annual general meeting. In recent years, these have provided a forum for soul-searching, and anxiety about the future of the organisation. In this, SCUTREA mirrors the wider field of practice, where concerns about the condition and direction of adult learning are widespread.

Yet in some ways, SCUTREA is in good shape. Nearly 80 people attended this year’s SCUTREA in Glasgow, up on last year, and enough to generate a sense of buzz and energy. Of course this is fewer than attended a decade ago, when well over a hundred people turned up.

That in turn reflected the surge of appointments in areas like widening participation, which were largely practice-driven, and generated a lot of often small scale reflections on one’s own work. This is an entirely legitimate area of scholarship, and one very much in SCUTREA’s tradition (the “T”, after all, stands for “Teaching”). But it probably inflated our expectations.

Of course, there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ or ‘right size’ for a learned society. I have on my desk a copy of the proceedings of SCUTREA’s twelfth conference, which comprises a grand sum of eleven papers, three of them authored by non-academics, and all bar one from the UK. Two more contributions were excluded, one because it was already published elsewhere, and one because the author hadn’t finished it.

So there were thirteen papers in 1982, compared with 55 or so at Glasgow last week. It looks as though we will go through a period when SCUTREA is smaller than in the recent past, but larger than for much of its history. That is unwelcome, but not critical.

What is more of a problem, I hear, is finding people willing to do the work. As old office holders shuffle away, presumably to go and run their local U3A and lobby the local adult education organiser, new volunteers are notable by their absence. I wonder why this is, and two explanations spring to mind.

First, it may be that the emerging generation of researchers into adult learning do not see SCUTREA as their ‘scholarly home’. Much of the best new work is being undertaken by people whose primary academic identity is in disciplines such as history, geography, sociology or mainstream education.

Second, there might be something of  value change as a new generation replaces the old. If it is true that younger academics are more instrumental and individualistic in their values, then presumably they look at the range of learned societies on offer, and engage with those that present the best ways of optimising their careers. Given how competitive it is now to climb the greasy academic pole, I wouldn’t blame them.

Still, I think that SCUTREA has a role. This lies, for me, in bringing people together to exchange ideas and information (which it does very well), representing our collective interests to the outside world (which it does rather badly), and building capacity for the future (which it may not see as its job). Perhaps a clearer and more strategic focus would help to attract new people in to take on the tasks of making SCUTREA run.

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One thought on “A learned society for research on adult learning

  1. Interesting comments John with which I find myself agreeing. Having attended a number of SCUTREA conferences (not as far back as 1982 – but almost) I have always found them welcoming, open and supportive. Stimulating new ideas and collaborations.
    If you track the academic careers (a possible paper) of those in SCUTREA I suspect that many who were ‘high achievers’ (held tenured posts) in this field have moved over the years into the developing field of Higher Education (not a new field – Columbia Univ had a Department of HE in the 1970s). Whether this is pragmatic, strategic or otherwise might be worth asking. In any case educating adults always seemed to me to be much broader than adult education or any other title. And so open to being blown about by the winds of current interests – not necessarily a bad thing!

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