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.

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One thought on “The slippery world of university adult education

  1. In regards to calling adult learners “impactees,” I recall when I used to be called a “returning adult student.” I started my undergraduate degree in 1977. It took me 20 years to finish and graduate. I would take a class, take a break and have a baby, take another few classes, take another break and have another baby. After 20 years, I finally finished all of the requirements. When I first started returning to the university, I truly stood out since I was one of the few “adult” students on campus.

    I went on to earn my master’s degree and am now pursuing my doctoral degree in adult education. I teach for a small university where we have many “non-traditional” students. I like this term more than “returning adult” student since I always wondered from where I had returned. Perhaps with life-long learners firmly in place at universities across the globe, a label will be unnecessary for those who did not enter college directly from high school or for those who take longer than what is acceptable to finish a college program.

    I agree that the potential is considerable. It may increase once labels have been omitted.

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