How healthy is UK research on higher, adult, further and vocational education?

You’d have to be a hermit not to have heard about the recent assessment of research in UK universities. The results were reported, and discussed, well beyond the shores of these islands. Overall, the panel for Education decided that 96% of the research submitted was of international quality, with 30% of the total being ranked as 4-star, or at the very highest level of quality.

These published results are for the discipline as a whole; we don’t know exactly how the panel rated research into adult learning or other forms of non-school education. But we can get a broad impression of how different sub-areas were viewed, as the panels have now published ‘overview reports’ for their discipline.

The overview report for Education devoted one paragraph to its views on research in higher education and one on further, adult and vocational education. Both were largely positive about the quality of what the panel saw, but the overview also notes a clear decline in the volume of research that universities submitted in further,adult and vocational education.

ref higher ed

REF adult ed

Are these generally positive judgements reasonable ones? I suspect that, bearing mind that universities are very selective in what they submit for assessment, it is hard to disagree with them. It is also clear that a lot of research capacity in adult, further and vocational education has been lost in the UK, and replacing it in future will be extremely challenging.

Some may think this is because the sub-area is always treated in educational studies as smething of an after-thought. And if you are in the mood for a good conspiracy theory, then notice that while the sub-header of the second paragraph refers to ‘adult’ education, the text mistakenly refers to ‘higher’ education, which hardly suggests that the panel paid close attention to the content of this paragraph.

Personal training accounts – supporting adult skills in France

The new system explained (with beret, naturellement). From

The new system explained (avec beret, naturellement). From

This month saw the introduction of a new way of supporting adult learning in France. The new ‘compte personnel de formation’ (CPF), or personal training account, is based on the principle of a time bank, which starts when you enter the labour market and continues through your working life.

The new CPF affects all those active in the labour market – workers, job-seekers and apprentices. Essentially it provides for an entitlement of up to 150 hours of free tuition with paid leave from work, accumulated over an eight-year period. Previously, the law guaranteed 120 hours, accumulated over two years, and to be used within six years.

Inevitably there are restrictions on what can be studied, with a centrally-determined list of 3,881 eligible forms of training at different levels, reflecting the government’s priority of supporting ‘short-to-mid-term economic needs’. And there is a requirement for certification, whether through a recognised qualification or through the national system for accrediting vocational learning (validation des acquis professionels). And in order to receive paid leave, you must apply at least 60 days before the course begins.

If these criteria are met, the employer must agree to let you attend. The costs – including travel and subsistence – are met by what looks to me very much like a training levy on employers, administered by a body agreed by the employers and the trade unions which also meets half of your salary costs while away from work.

This interesting system was introduced under France’s law on vocational training, employment and social democracy, and it replaces the earlier system known as ‘droit individuel a formation’ (DIF, individual right to train). It is, of course, too early to say how the system will work, but it has been generally welcomed by workers’ representatives as offering wider choice and greater control, and a recent survey estimated that 74% of workers intended to take it up.

In one respect, though CPF isn’t working as well as the old DIF. The central body charged with drawing up the list of eligible courses apparently ‘forgot’ to include languages. As 30% of requests for DIF involved English language learning, this came as something of a shock, but it is apparently in the course of being remedied.

Otherwise, this looks like a really worthwhile reform. I hope that policy makers in other European countries, and those who represent adult learners, are watching the CPF with lively interest.

The crisis in part-time higher education: its impact in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

Part-time undergraduate study in England is collapsing. Most people shrug, and put this down to the impact of fees. I’m convinced that England’s sudden shift to a high fee system has had some impact on part-time study, in spite of some fairly generous bursaries and fee waiver policies. But is this the only factor at work?

A quick look at the other UK nations suggests that this is far too simple a view. Much of the recent debate about part-time higher education was based on newly-published HESA data. These figures might suggest that part-time study is thriving elsewhere in the UK – but we need to bear in mind that for the first time, HESA now attributes Open University students to the nation in which they study; previously, HESA attributed all OU students to England, which is where the OU has its campus.

For this one year only, HESA has also made its figures available on the old basis – ie, allocating all OU students to England. The new system gives us a better picture of part-time study as a whole, but the old basis allows us to look more closely at part-time study in face-to-face universities. As the table shows, the pattern is very clear indeed.

First, it shows that part-time higher education is in decline in all four UK nations. But it also shows a particularly steep decline in Scotland. In the years 2009-10 to 2011-12, the number of part-time higher education in Scottish universities fell by a quarter, and albeit at a slower pace, the collapse has continued since then.

Why should this be so? Well, we don’t really know, as the only part of the UK to commission serious research into the issue has been in England, though how much notice the Government took of Claire Callender’s findings is debateable. Elsewhere in the UK, the funding bodies and national governments have preferred not to be troubled by inconvenient evidence in the first place.

So I am speculating – though I am speculating on the basis of experience as well as research into related issues. Fees may well be part of the equation. Initially, the Scottish Government abolished fees for full-time home undergraduates only. When it introduced waivers for part-timers, they were complicated, poorly understood and means-tested, so I would expect them to have deterred some part-timers.

And maybe demand for part-time higher education is falling generally. We might expect this to be the case, given that the massive expansion of full-time study since the 1990s means that most school-leavers with suitable qualifications now find it easy to enter higher education, though perhaps not at the university of their first choice.

But institutions also carry part of the responsibility. Some have never allowed part-time undergraduate study; but others have reduced the number of part-time opportunities because they are attracting more full-time candidates than in the past, and only have a fixed number of funded places. Put simply, part-time students fail the ‘convenience’ test, and institutions have therefore replaced them with full-timers.

So thank goodness, you might say, for the OU. Sadly, although the OU continues to make a massive contribution to part-time higher education across the UK, the OU’s undergraduate numbers are falling in all four nations.

In short, our governments have made a right old mess of part-time higher education, and this in turn is further eroding our already battered lifelong learning system across the UK. This will have far-reaching consequences in terms of equality, with opportunities denied to those who were failed by the system first time around, and in terms of long term and sustainable economic recoveryt.

Mechanising education policy with intelligent decision support systems

Last year, the European Commission published a review of findings from research it had funded into adult continuing education. Its author’s comments on corruption as a cause of policy failure in some countries are interesting enough, but I was even more struck by what he had to say about how to exploit computer software to support the process of policy-making.

Paolo Federighi’s basic proposition is appealingly simple: policies based on evidence are likely both to command public support and produce the expected results. In Federighi’s words, ‘The adoption of smart and intelligent policies depends on data that can guarantee the pertinence of public support and demonstrate the adequacy of the impact produced’.

An IDSS for doctors treating overweight and obese people

An IDSS for doctors treating overweight and obese people


These are appealing goals, particularly in an area like adult learning, where policy makers are often reluctant to commit resources. If we can persuade policy makers that we know which types of adult learning intervention can produce positive benefits, then surely that can only be good for our hard-pressed field. But in our messy, fuzzy, anarchic field of practice, how can we produce neatly packaged bundles of evidence that might be useful to busy policymakers?

Federighi’s solution is to apply something called Intelligent Decision Support Systems (IDSS) to the field of adult education research. Basically, an IDSS uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, taught algorithms and data analytics to help support decision-making in real-time, by setting out possible courses of action and evaluating the likely results of these proposed actions.

The growth of IDSS development and use in recent years has been substantial, though I have to admit that it had passed me by until I read Federighi’s report. They’re used in healthcare to assist doctors and nurses in making efficient clinical decisions, in the financial industries to help identify portfolios of investment, and in traffic management to model flows of vehicles and pedestrians. And now the suggestion is that they can be used to support policy-making in education.

Some people will object to this very notion on principle. My Stirling colleague Ben Williamson (who helpfully explained to me what an IDSS is) has written more broadly about the ways in which our lives are shaped by algorythms and digital technologies. And you can see why some might react to this process with abhorrence.

I’m also entirely unpersuaded by the practicability of this idea. The best algorithm in the world can process the information available to it. Adult continuing education is a vast field, yet the resources devoted to rigorously studying it are laughably small.

And even if we had the best research in the world – which we don’t – policy making is itself a complex process, whose actors (contrary to the firm prejudices of many academics) are well-informed, anxious and extremely clever. One group of policy makers – politicians – will want the IDSS to take account of electoral responses to any given intervention. Other groups – civic servants, those who run quangos, and those who manage local implementation – will have quite different needs.

So I am extremely sceptical about the application of IDSS to policy making in adult learning. Nevertheless, the idea now has some momentum within the European Commission, and we can therefore expect to hear more of it. Still, comfort yourself with this thought: another feature of policy is that by the time someone has investigated and reported on the feasibility of IDSS in adult continuing education, the officials who promoted the idea in the first place will all have moved on.

Continuing education and corruption

How countries score on corruption and on the European Lifelong Learning Index

How countries score on corruption and on the European Lifelong Learning Indicators

In a recent report for the European Commission on continuing education policies, Paolo Federighi warns of “a low level of protection with respect to the risks of mismanagement and corruption”. This arises, he says, partly because of the scarcity of clear information about the public financing of a broad and disparate sector.

Federighi emphasises that this is undesirable not only because it is so obviously immoral – it weakens the impact of public investment. And, I argue, it makes it much harder to argue a strong case for raising public investment in adult learning.

At a broader level, Federighi argues that adult learning and the corruption of public life are related to one another. His graph shows a clear inverse correlation between a country’s ranking on the European Lifelong Learning Indicators and its corruption rating. He concludes that “The European countries with a greater corruption index are those in which the conditions necessary to guarantee public participationin learning opportunities are weaker”.

Of course, correlation and causation are two different things. And perhaps both are caused by other factors entirely. But I would like to think that an enlightened and informed citizenship helps make for transparent and honest government, and vice versa.

A metalwork instructor in a 1930s British work camp

The last remaining hut from Glenfinart Instructional Centre, sadly demolished in 2011

The last remaining hut from Glenfinart Instructional Centre, sadly demolished in 2011

Back in November, the Dunoon Observer reported on my research into British work camps, focusing mainly on the Glenfinart Instructional Centre in Ardentinny. The Ministry of Labour opened the Centre in 1934 as a summer camp where young unemployed men were ‘hardened’ through a programme of heavy manual labour, supported by health care and a solid diet. Most of the work involved preparing rough scrubland and pasture for planting, and the area is now largely covered by a very attractive forest.

Subsequently, a local reader contacted the paper. Mr Ian MacArthur’s grandfather was manager of the Ardentinny Temperance Hotel during the period when the Centre was open; and his father, John MacArthur, found work in the Centre as an instructor.

In the Dunoon Observer for 12 December 2014, Mr MacArthur described the background to his father’s appointment as follows: “He worked with a coke-raising forge, the fumes of which eventually poisoned him after a couple of years and hospitalised him”. After a period away from the west coast, John MacArthur applied for the post at the Centre.

The Ministry of Labour had approved this position in February 1934, but decided as an economy measure to merge the roles of woodwork instructor and metalwork instructor into one role. In May 1934 the Ministry listed the wages and salaries of its staff at the camp; the woodwork instructor was being paid 55 shillings weekly, significantly above what local farmworkers would have received at the time and slightly more than skilled engineers were receiving.

Mr MaccArthur also remembered his father saying that the IC manager had arranged for the well-known boxer Benny Lynch to visit the camp, where he fought an exhibition match with the physical training instructor. He doesn’t say who won this encounter, but Lynch was the world flyweight champion, and a popular Glasgow hero. He was then at his peak and his visit to the camp must have been sensational for staff and trainees alike. I’ve also been told that the heavyweight Tommy Farr (“the Tonypandy Terror”) also visited and fought in one of the Welsh camps.

Such memories are, of course, second hand, and we need to check them against other sources. My judgement is that Mr MacArthur’s account broadly confirm two features of the Ministry of Labour’s IC system.

First, the camps provided a fairly limited programme of skills development. As well as woodwork and metalwork, they usually offered some basic literacy and geography, but their major focus was on a regime of heavy manual labour, with the aim of building strength and stamina.

Second, those who ran the camps organised a range of recreational activities for the trainees, from cinema to but the ideal masculine body was central to many of these activities. Given that Benny Lynch symbolised the idealised virile physique, it is sad but ironic to report that his career ended in alcoholism.