Refugees welcome? European adult educators can help receiving nations to prepare

A film about and by young refugees

A film about and by young refugees

I blogged last week about the role of adult education in helping refugees settle and integrate in their new country. Another obvious role for adult learning us to the existing population learn how to rub along with the new arrivals.

Many German institutions are responding to the crisis, adult education centres among them. Let me take one example, a course offered by a Volkshochschule in the hold town area of Hamburg. Its title is “New Home in Hamburg?”, and it comprises three meetings, each of two and a quarter hours, on Tuesday evenings. Here is the publicity statement.

The topic of flight and migration is ever-present in Hamburg, it affects many people. How does the current situation look for refugees in Hamburg? What are the procedures that they face, and what routes did people have to take who have fled here? What does it mean for Hamburg institutions which are actively offering support and how can I become involved myself? What is the media image of refugees and how does it affect perceptions? Among other things we will show the short film ‘Hotel California’, which was produced together with young refugees. It deals with their experiences in Germany and offers a good basis for discussing the refugees’ politics, which we will complement with the experiences of politically active young refugees.

I’m not arguing that this is an example of best practice; apart from anything else, the published programme went to print well before so many people fled the conflict in Syria. But it is certainly one practical example of how providers can contribute, and one we could adapt more widely across Europe.

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Whatever became of Paid Educational Leave?

Paid educational leave was one of the flagship initiatives of the 1970s movement for lifelong education. The idea of paid time off to learn was widely supported by trade unions and social democrats, and embraced by the OECD as a central part of its plans for recurrent education.

The German trade union confederation has published postcards, flyers and videos explaining  workers' rights to PEL

The German trade union confederation has published postcards, flyers and videos explaining workers’ rights to PEL

Its high point came in 1974, when the International Labour Organisation adopted a convention on PEL, subsequently ratified by 34 member states. In the UK, it was warmly mentioned in the Russell Report, if in rather general terms. And a number of local initiatives developed, in the public and private sectors.

Since the 1970s, though, much of the steam has gone out of the PEL initiative. The steady erosion of trade union membership, as well as the demise of the large state-owned industries, played a part. Some local forms of PEL survive, such as the staff learning account at the University of Warwick, but otherwise you rarely hear about it.

Not in France and Germany, though, where PEL is alive and well. The right to a ‘congé individuel de formation’ first passed into law in 1971. The law has been amended several times subsequently, and the right – to paid leave for up to 1,200 hours in a lifetime – is conditional on certain criteria, but continues to exist, and is widely used.

Thirteen of the sixteen German Länder have laws entitling workers to at least five days of paid leave per annum for the purposes of study. The worker decides what he or she will study during their Bildungsurlaub, at their employers’ expense; the laws prohibit employers from using it to substitute for training.

Now the German trade union confederation has launched a campaign to publicise the right, and encourage wider take-up. Boardly, its ten-point argument is that PEL promotes civic engagement, democratic citizenship, confidence, and competence. Their tenth and final point is that ‘Bildungsurlaub is fun’.

Refugees welcome – but not in adult education?

A quick look over the North Sea can be quite illuminating. Nobody knows exactly how many of the current refugees will eventually settle in Germany. The Federal Bureau for Migration and Refugees has spoken of as many as a million by the end of 2015; this may well be an overestimate, but to a Brit these numbers are staggering. 

As in the UK, overall policy responsibility for refugees lies with the central federal government, while the task of dealing with refugees when they arrive is delayed to the Länder, local government and voluntary bodies. Unlike the UK, nobody is busy arguing about who ought to decide overall policy; but there is a widespread view in the Länder that Merkel has given them a massive task without anything like the resources needed, so other services will have to be cut.

I’ve been in Hamburg, working with colleagues responsible for UNESCO’s Third Global Report on Adult Learning & Education. The refugee presence is highly visible, with a reception tent outside the central station giving out food, water, and advice. There are queues for accommodation or for onward travel to Sweden. On Saturday, local footie fans gathered across the road to express their views on the situation, watched by a score of helmeted riot police.

Hamburg has the status of a Land, with its own minister for social affairs. Interviewed in Die Welt today, he predicted that the scale of current immigration would transform the city. The Land is building new neighbourhoods specially for the new refugees, but it is ensuring that the populations will be mixed, with new houses for ‘non-refugees’, integrated schools serving the whole community, and focussed support from the labour office to ensure that “people who have a good prospect of remaining here will be rapidly integrated into the labour market”. This in turn is underpinned by a range of adult education initiatives, from language courses to skills training.

And this brings us to the nub of this post. The OECD, in its recent report on the refugee crisis in the rich nations, recommends language courses with an emphasis on employability as the most powerful motor for integration. This is a sensible message, of course, but we run up against two obstacles in the UK. First, our governments are busy cutting ESOL provision, along with other programmes for adults. It goes without saying that I think this decision is stupid, damaging and plain wrong,  but I see no sign of it changing any time soon.

Second, the UK Government’s priorities mean that we are taking mainly children and mothers. This may be praiseworthy on humanitarian grounds, but these groups are unlikely to enter the labour market for some time – if at all. And if past experience is anything to go by, they will be housed where there are spaces available, which will usually mean side by side with other refugees.  

Taken together, these factors will constrain network building (social capital), and reduce the likelihood of integration. What can adult educators do to improve the situation?

First, there is nothing to stop non-governmental providers from simply reallocating resources to programmes for refugees. Universities have already done this: Warwick, my old academic home, has agreed to fund twenty bursaries and waive fees. Voluntary adult education providers and university outreach services may well be strapped for money (and much of it tied down by funder regulations) but they are also well placed to raise money. I’d happily donate to an appeal, and I best many others would do likewise.

Second, there is nothing to stop other groups – trade unions, community groups, mosques, parish councils, firms – from organising volunteers to help teach English and find sources of support. I can already hear Comrade Angry pointing out that this is the state’s responsibility. Actually it isn’t. And even if it was, getting ESOL back on the agenda properly will take too long. Saying “refugees welcome” is one thing; welcoming actual living refugees is quite another. 

How do mature students perform in higher education?

New PictureThere has been a lot of research into mature students in higher education. My strong impression is that the main focus of it is on access – that is, the rate at which adult students enter institutions, the subjects that they study, the ways in which they study, and their experiences while studying. There has been much less study of how they perform academically, or of how they fare after they graduate.

The fate of non-traditional graduates in the labour market is being investigated by the EMPLOY research project. And a study for HEFCE has recently compared how different types of student perform academically within higher education. The media have shown great interest in HEFCE’s findings, though perhaps predictably they have concentrated largely on evidence that state school students are more likely to achieve a first or upper second class degree than the privately-educated.

My focus in this post is on quite another group: mature age students, whether studying full- or part-time. First, though, a couple of health warnings. We should treat the degree classification system as a very rough and ready indicator of ability and attainment. The proportion who achieve a first or upper second varies over time (usually it grows) and between institutions. It’s difficult to say why these variations occur, not least because any discussion triggers defensiveness in the academic community, and ‘dumbing down’ accusations from the tabloids. But if degree classification is far from perfect, it tells us something.

My next qualifier concerns the methods used in the study. The researchers undertook a statistical analysis that allowed them to compare groups by controlling for other factors. For example, the method only compared mature students who had been to state schools and were studying at pre-92 universities with younger students with the same background, and so on. This aspect was not much reported in the media, who simply headlined the finding that – to cite the BBC – State students outperform private in degree grades. 

Though the media ignored this point, it matters because it means that the researchers are trying to compare like with like. But of course, they cannot take account of factors for which they do not have information (such as income level, family background or first language). And they could only look at very large groups, taking all mature students together (defined as over 21 at time of entry) and all minority ethnic groups together (despite huge variations between different groups).

This procedure makes a big difference to how we understand the performance of mature students. The crude data for 2013/14 show that 64% of mature graduates achieved a first or upper second, compared with 75% of young graduates. But once they controlled for other factors, the researchers found a “dramatic” shift in their figures: taking everything into account, mature students were 7% more likely to gain a top degree, as opposed to 11% less likely.

New Picture

What this means is that for mature students, the negative variation in degree results is largely explained by other things than their age. For example, it might be down to their prior qualifications having prepared them less well than recent A-Levels, or their tendency to cluster in universities (and colleges) that award relatively few first and upper second class degrees. And it might also mean that adults have a relative advantage in being able to draw on life experience, which would explain the large shift between the observed gap of -11% and the +7% gap in the statistical analysis.

Then we come to part-time students, who are of course largely likely to be adults who combine study with other activities such as caring or work. The observed gap between part-time and full-time students is large: 75% of full-timers gained a first or upper second, compared with 57% of part-timers. When other factors are taken into account, the gap fell, but by only 4%, from 18% to 14%.

New Picture (1)

So, all other things being equal, there appears to be a serious educational disadvantage from studying part-time. Like all statistical models this is a pattern at the level of the whole population, and a lot of individuals may have very different experiences, but that does not invalidate the method. Rather, it tells us that we need to look elsewhere to explain the relatively poor performance of many part-time students – and, I hope, then to do somethiing about it.

And as an academic veteran, I can think of a few possible causes that lie within the power of universities. Academic support for part-timers tends to be less effective, partly because facilities are often closed outside ‘normal’ working hours, for example. Other factors can be very challenging for institutions, particularly those that result from the busy lives of people who have full time roles elsewhere, and who are students for only a relatively small part of their lives.

What the research does not justify is the sharp decline in part-time and mature-age study that has taken place across all four nations of the UK. The collapse in part-time higher education in particular is a scandal: it makes a mockery of claims to be promoting forms of study that combine learning with work, and it is undermining social mobility. In the end, then, it will damage both society and the economy.

Evaluating proposals for European research

h2020Funding for research is tight and getting tighter, at least if you listen to researchers. Mind you, academics’ complaints are not much of an indicator: many of my colleagues moaned endlessly during the early years of this century, when public funding for academic research reached unprecedented heights.

Budgets have been tightened or cut since then, yet the institutional and sytem wide pressures for external funding are greater than ever. Competition for research funding is particularly fierce at the European level. I’m currently in Brussels, along with a couple of hundred other social scientists who are helping to evaluate proposals under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme.

Overall, the Commission is making €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020), with a strong focus on research that will promote technological, economic or social innovation. Like all EC programmes, the funding is drawn from member states’ budgets, in this case the budgets for publicly funded science and research.

Of the total, just under €10m was set aside for 2015 to support research and innovation on the theme: Young Generation in an Innovative, Inclusive & Sustainable Europe. I’m currently in Brussels helping to evaluate the 145 proposals that were submitted, which it’s likely that five will be selected.

Putting together a proposal is a lengthy and painstaking business. It involves bringing together partners of different kinds and from different European countries, as well as securing the formal commitment of each of the participants, and getting them all agreeing on a detailed plan of work. At the end of all that, the odds of your getting funded are one in thirty.

We’re going to have a tough week making the decisions, but the process is much, much toughter on those who have produced the proposals.

Wow, now I’m “a Woman of Outstanding Leadership”

Lucky me – I’ve just been selected as a woman of outstanding leadership. I know this because I’ve received an email telling me so, and inviting me to join the International Women’s Leadership Association. But I don’t think I will.

A 1975 Yes to Europe rally.

A woman leader speaking at a 1975 Yes to Europe rally.


The email has three links for me to click on, but I didn’t open them. The warning sign is clear enough: the sender’s address has the suffix .tk, which is the domain name for Tokelau, a territory of New Zealand located in the South Pacific. And a quick check shows a number of complaints about the IWLA.

This is, of course, not the only dodgy invitation I’ve had in the last few years. In fact, my earlier comments on the “Super Professor” nonsense have become far and away my most popular post, with well over 12,500 views to date and a steady flow of comments. I only write about these bizarre invitations as a bit of fun and to warn the unwary; they also allow me to post gratuitous images.

Jewish refugee children and a 1930s work camp

Refugees are very much the talk of the moment, evoking memories of earlier groups of people who sought and found refuge in these islands. One of these was the Kindertransport movement, which after Kristallnacht helped to settle thousands of refugee Jewish children from Nazi Germany. As with today’s Syrian refugees, it was a surge of public opinion that forced the government to act; and again with contemporary echoes, government opened its borders to under-17s, on the understanding that they would return to Germany when things improved.

Much of the responsibility for practical arrangements was delegated to local authorities and voluntary bodies. However, the government did make some facilities available, including a holiday camp at Dovercourt Bay near Harwich, as well as a number of other sites where refugee children could be housed until voluntary agencies or individuals could find a more permanent home, perhaps a foster family or a hostel.

National Archives: From the the First Annual Report for the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany Limited, November 1938-1939

National Archives: From the the First Annual Report for the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany Limited, November 1938-1939

One of these was a former workhouse in Suffolk. Bosmere and Claydon Union Workhouse was a substantial building, originally constructed in the 1760s and upgraded in the nineteenth century. In 1920, the government took it over for use as an Instructional Factory, training ex-servicemen in handicrafts until 1923. Two years later it re-opened as a training farm, preparing the unemployed in batches of 300 for emigration to the white Dominions of Canada and Australia.

Organised emigration came to an end with the global crisis in 1929. As part of the Labour Government’s plans for compulsory training of the unemployed, the Ministry of Labour took the farm over in 1930 as a Transfer Instructional Centre, in which capacity it trained young unemployed men until it too closed in February 1933. It seems to have remained empty until 1939, when the government made it available to a voluntary group for use as a transit camp where boy refugees could learn English and handicrafts while awaiting transfer.

The Kindertransport movement is reasonably well documented. The Ministry of Health kept administrative files on the care provided for the children, the Home Office kept records of their movements, the Foreign Office reported on the persecution of Jews in Germany, and the security services speculated on whether the political views of 16-year olds were of any interest to the state. The National Archives has placed a sample of these files on its website, together with teaching notes.

There are also reasonably good records relating to individual children. Some recorded their memories for the Kindertransport Association or the Association of Jewish Refugees. Diane Samuels recorded oral reminiscences for her play about the movement, and other memories are held by the Wiener Library.

I’ve picked two of these stories, but many others are available. Max Dickson, formerly Max Dobriner, was first placed in Claydon and then moved to a former labour colony site near Oxford. He served in the British army, first in the Pioneer Corps and then the Commandos, and later interrogated German prisoners of War, taking part in the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals before returning to Britain and marrying a local girl.

Sigi Faith, born Siegfried Samuel Feitlowitz in Hamburg, was ten when he arrived at Harwich. He found the diet at Claydon monotonous, but otherwise recalled it as great fun: “The house had been converted to house some 800 boys and was just perfect for a 10 year old – no discipline, attendance at meals was optional and it was much morefun building a raft and drifting in the nearby river”. After a few months, he was placed with a family in Oswestry, subsequently moving to London where he founded a chain of shoe shops. His parents escaped to Shanghai and survived.

After the last of the children was moved, the camp was used to house Italian prisoners-of-war, and became derelict after the War. By 2003, one intrepid visitor discovered that the site had apparently become a gathering place for sexual adventurers; I cannot confirm this personally.