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. 

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One thought on “Refugees welcome – but not in adult education?

  1. Excellent post John. Providers are of course struggling to maintain our ESOL, let alone expand it. What a positive message it would be if the govt could tell us to increase by say 25% as part of the response to the refugee crisis.

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