The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education announced in the summer that it was to merge with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion. CESI, itself the product of a merger of the Unemployment Unit with other research and lobbying bodies, had already formed a ‘strategic alliance’ with NIACE. The merger was widely expected, and I fully expect NIACE members to endorse the merger at the annual meeting next month.
I’ve already arranged for my postal vote at the meeting, which will be to support the final stages of the merger. This will mark the end of an era: the British Institute of Adult Education was created in 1921, becoming the the National Institute of Adult Education in l949, and adopting its present name in 1983.The inclusion of ‘Continuing’ in the name was controversial at the time; supporters felt it signalled a commitment to working across all parts of a changing field, opponents believed it represented a capitulation to the vocational agenda of the then Tory government.
The name was not all that changed. The Institute shifted from an association of individual members in 1921 to one that was largely dominated by institutional members; it also attracted increasing levels of funding from government, local and national. Initially dominated by the Workers’ Educational Association, its role broadened steadily, expanding particularly in recent years under the energetic leadership of its director, Alan Tuckett, at a time of considerable government interest in adult learning. It has also merged with other bodies, notably the Basic Skills Agency which it had helped create in the first place.
NIACE became, in many respects, the model for a representative umbrella group. It provided a wide range of services, from publishing to research to staff development to a quiet word in Ministers’ ears. It was respected overseas as a willing and competent partner, an informed source of information, and as the producer of invaluable resources. It managed to negotiate a delicate balance between the two UK nations that it was charged with representing and the two that had much weaker representative structures. It was a source of creative thinking and energy, manifested in such influential developments as the annual Adult Learners’ Week.
After such a glorious past, why has NIACE felt such an urgent need to change? One factor was undoubtedly a sharp collapse in funding, as central government and its agencies felt the impact of austerity.NIACE has already had to shed staff and abandon activities (including much of its publishing arm), and CESI is in the same position.
Financial retrenchment has been accompanied by the weakening or demise of many established adult education programmes, above all in local government. Formerly powerful allies such as the universities were cutting back on general adult education, and even on part-time degrees, while colleges’ capacities to deliver local adult programmes were throttled.
The other major factor is surely the clear vocational turn in adult learning. In many ways this represents an opportunity: from adult apprenticeships to employee development, from personal learning accounts to MOOCs, there is a huge role for a national representative body to engage with providers, help support teachers and trainers, and lobby and advocate at national level.
I can see that the merger with CESI will add to NIACE’s capabilities, as can be seen in the impact the two organisations are having jointly on the Government’s Welfare-to-Work programmes. And I very much welcome the clear focus on equity and inclusion that both organisations already share, and are promising to pursue in the future.
Do I have concerns? Of course I do. I fear that the need to adapt and change will damage core values, and that the new, merged body will find itself drawn to focus on young adults, to the cost of learners aged 25 and over – let alone those who are learning in the third and fourth age. And there is a risk that the merged Institute will be pushed into becoming a partner of government rather than its critical friend. But drifting on as things are is a strategy for irrelevance and marginalisation; better by far to work with those who will join from CESI, and who will bring new skils and capabilities.
That does, though, leave the vexed question of the name. Last week NIACE sent out the papers for its annual meeting, which spelt out the proposed new name: the Learning and Work Institute. The online weekly, FE Week duly ‘revealed’ this news. The name will duly be debated at the annual meeting on 4 November. Is this a name which trips off the tongue, and will it lend itself smoothly to an acronym? How will it play in Wales, where NIACE Dysgu Cymru has established itself as an important player in the devolved nation?
We shall see, of course. But whatever the name, the task of representing and supporting a large, diverse and rapidly changing field is going to present much more significant challenges than a bit of rebranding.