The crisis in adult education

The Learning Age

It won’t grab many headlines, even in the specialist education press, but there is a growing crisis in adult participation in education and training, with stark implications both for our economy and our democracy. If the trend continues it will soon be necessary to reinvent from scratch a part of the education system which has taken over a century to build up.

The government yesterday released its latest figures on adult participation in further education and apprenticeship training – and the news, predictably enough, was bad. They revealed an 11 per cent fall in adult participation in state-funded learning overall between 2012-13 and 2013-14, a nine per cent drop at Level 2 (GCSE or equivalent), and an 18 per cent decrease at Level 3 (A-level or equivalent), the point at which qualifications begin to make a significant difference in terms of future earnings and life chances (and lifting people out…

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Protesting an honorary degree for Judith Butler

The poster for Butler's lecture (copyright unifr.ch)

The poster for Butler’s lecture (copyright unifr.ch)

Judith Butler is a well-known American scholar and political activist. Her work on gender and sexuality is widely cited, and her book Gender Trouble was something of a best-seller. She has influenced scholars in a number of disciplines beyond feminist and queer theory and cultural studies, and is well known in educational studies. Her work on the gendered body has been taken as a sharp tool for understanding educational identities and purposes. Researchers in adult learning citing her work include Barbara Merrill, Valerie-Lee Chapman and André Grace.

Given Butler’s fame and standing, I was slightly surprised to discover that the Anglophone media had ignored the kerfuffle over her recent honorary doctorate. The University of Freiburg/Fribourg awarded Butler her degree on the recommendation of its philosophy department, and the Berkeley scholar duly collected her award. But she did so amidst a storm of fury from conservative Catholics, objecting to her views on family life and gender construction.

Butler’s formal lecture (on non-violence) was given with security guards at the doors, while some thirty Catholics audibly protested outside with hymns and candles. The university’s professor of dogmatic theology (let me know if you come up with a better translation of ‘Professor für dogmatische Theologie’) announced that he disapproved of the honorary degree and was boycotting the lecture.

This was relatively a small and generally polite protest. The lecture hall was full, and the only anger was apparently shown by latecomers who were refused entry. An alternative event, with mulled wine and bible readings, attracted a negligible audience. Meanwhile, the university’s rector received dozens of angry emails, and the local Bishop was urged to withhold his usual mass during the University’s ‘Dies academicus’.

Butler is, of course, no stranger to controversy. She has been particularly criticised for her views on Israel and once won fourth prize in a competition for bad writing. I haven’t heard of religious fundamentalists taking any particular exception to her previously, though I can see that her views on the social construction of gender might offend those who believe that the two genders were made by God. So I found it rather odd that the national broadcaster quoted Barbara Hallensleben, professor of theology at Freiburg/Fribourg, as saying that Butler’s view of gender was consistent with creationism.

Given that the controversy passed off safely, I would imagine that Butler rather relished the whole experience. It’s only slightly surprising that it wasn’t picked up by at least some specialist journalists in the Anglophone media; I only came across the episode because I was working in Hamburg and saw it reported very briefly in the press. Academic fame can impress insiders like me, for better or for worse, but out there it remains a very small niche.

Education and social mobility in Scotland

Alan Milburn

Alan Milburn

In a lecture in Edinburgh last week, Alan Milburn spoke about the ways in which education can break what he ‘the link between demography and destiny’. As Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Milburn’s views on social mobility are well known in the UK. Basically, he believes that there is barely any movement into or out of different socio-economic classes in Britain, and that this is reducing opportunities for all, as well as damaging the effective workings of our society and economy.

Some may be surprised that any such lecture was needed in Scotland, but they shouldn’t be. As Milburn said, ‘Almost half of senior Scottish judges were educated in private schools compared to just 5% of the population as a whole and the country’s top universities remain dominated by students from better-off backgrounds’. Elitism doesn’t stop at the border.

And this is reflected in our higher education system, with social selection being as marked in Scotland’s universities as in England’s or Wales’s. Milburn also noted the challenges facing colleges in promoting social mobility – though here I would add that we still know virtually nothing systematic about the social and economic effects of Scotland’s distinctive system of short-cycle higher education, which is largely provided in colleges – arguably at the expense of other activities, including vocational training and part time education.

What was more surprising, to me at least, was how low down the pecking order the issue of social mobility is for Scotland’s policy-makers. The Scottish Government has been praised for moving towards an outcomes-based approach to policy monitoring, but the quality of its outcome indicators leaves a lot to be desired.

As Milburn put it, when it comes to child poverty, ‘Under the framework we will know about the proportion of children with low wellbeing scores, who are not eating fruit and vegetables, or playing sport, or who find it easy to talk to their mother – but there is nothing about early childhood development, school readiness, university access or any measure of how poor children do on educational attainment’.

So one starting point for action may well be to look much more systematically at what we know about education and social mobility, particularly where the education is publicly funded. And I would say to Mr Milburn that as well as schools, colleges and universities, we need to think about how social mobility is affected, for better or worse, by adult learning.