Debating adult learning in the House of Lords


Baroness Sharp, copyright Policy Connect

The House of Lords is an anachronistic piece of our constitution, a second chamber that represents two profoundly undemocratic principles: inherited power, and appointment by the government of the day. So I hope that its days are numbered, but in the meantime it’s the only second chamber we have. And it is discussing adult learning.

First, Baroness Uddin has asked to discuss English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL). This follows the Prime Minister’s announcement that the government is providing £20 millions for migrant women to learn English as a way of preventing terrorism. This is the same government that last July sliced the ESOL budget by £45 millions.

Manzila Pola Uddin, formerly a Labour politician, has a strong track record of involvement in adult education and training, and she has helped promote skills training for Asian women. Sadly, she was caught up in the public scandal over MPs’ expenses, in a way that seriously damaged her credibility.  But I’m inclined to think that she knows what she is talking about, and that her views on our government’s slippery track record on English for Speakers of Other Languages should be listened to.

New Picture (1)

Next, Baroness Sharp is debating the role of adult education and lifelong learning in strengthening the UK economy. Formerly the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson in the Lords on further and higher education, Margaret Sharp chaired the 2011 Independent Inquiry into Colleges in Their Communities, sponsored by NIACE, the Association of Colleges and the 157 Group. She is also an active member of the Lords’ Select Committee on Social Mobility, which is due to report shortly.

Adult learning hasn’t exactly been a priority for their Lordships in recent years. But here we are – two debates in a single morning. I’ve just been asked to brief one of the members of the Lords, and it will be interesting to see whether any of my suggestions get an airing. More importantly, while they are unlikely to produce much in the way of direct change in government policy, Lords debates provide an opportunity to shape the wider climate of opinion, and set the longer term direction of travel.


The future of lifelong learning in the European Commission

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Where should political responsibility lie for lifelong learning? Should its home lie in the ministry responsible for education, or in the government department that handles employment? There is a case for each: coherence within education, or synergies within employment. And different countries have different structures, which can also change from time to time.

Within the EU, the new Commission will see a significant shift. Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming President of the Commission, has announced that several departmental portfolios will be ‘reshaped and streamlined’. Among these, responsibility for adult education and vocational training will be transferred from education to employment, a decision that is almost certain to take effect from November.

This means that two important parts of the lifelong learning system will now sit within an expanded Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. As well as inheriting policy remits and staff who ran programmes such as GRUNTVIG and LEONARDO, the DG also acquires responsibility for three EU agencies: the European Centre for Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), and the European Training Foundation (ETF).

The good news is that the Employment DG is considerably larger and more powerful than its Education counterpart. It has historically played a major role in promoting labour mobility across the EU, as well as in developing and administering some of the structural funds, both areas where there are synergies for adult learning. It is usually led by a political big-hitter, in this case Commissioner Mariane Thyssen, a former leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats (the same party as Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council).

In addition, President Juncker has asked both the Commissioners for Education and for Employment to co-ordinate their activities, and to report through the same Vice-President. Previously largely an honorific role, Vice-Presidents in the new Commission will have a portfolio of activities that they are expected to ‘co-ordinate and steer’. In this case, both Commissioners will be steered by the VP for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.

So to some extent, the EU is ‘vocationalising’ all of its policies for education, including higher education and schools. But if this is a wider trend, adult learning in particular is being pushed unambiguously into the field of employment and social affairs, and separated out from the rest of the lifelong learning system. It is also moving out of a DG that specialises in student mobility programmes, and into one much more concerned with sharp end policy. What this will mean in practice is, though, still to be seen.

One risk is that in a larger directorate with a strong focus on tackling the current crisis of employment, adult learning will simply get lost in the noise. This risk is higher for me because it comes at a time when the Commission has set targets for reducing its staff levels. So one simple message, then, is that those who are interested in adult learning need to lobby policy makers – including Members of the European Parliament – and ensure that adult learners’ needs and voices are heard.

There is also a danger that the Employment DG will adopt the narrowest, skills-based definition of adult learning. However, against this we can set the experience of many in the UK and elsewhere, who have found that adult learning can thrive when placed alongside strategies for employment and social inclusion.

And it is worth remembering that the Employment DG carries responsibility for social affairs, including the Social Fund; and that as well as ‘promoting vocational training and lifelong learning’, the President has asked Commissioner Thyssen to address a range of issues – including digital skills, population aging and welfare ‘modernisation’ – that also have an adult learning dimension. So how professionals and institutions position themselves in relation to this agenda will affect the outcome.

Overall, then, I see some grounds for concern in the transfer of responsibility to an expanded DG for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. And of course, this is taking place at a time when the Commission as a whole is shifting firmly to the centre-right. But I also see some potential benefits and synergies, as well as opportunities to raise the profile of adult learning as a field. As ever, it will be partly up to us to shape the direction that events now take.

Join the army? Life chances and social class among young men

I’ve been reflecting on education, class, young men, and the army. Fiona Aldridge, research officer with NIACE, triggered this off when she remarked that her study of rank and file soldiers had shown a population with the same educational characteristics of prisoners. This in turn made me brood on what we, as a society, expect from the lives of our young men.

Faced with Iraq or Afghanistan, or Iraq, it is all too easy to see military service as a high risk activity. And so it is – but is it any more risky than growing up male and working class in cities like Middlesbrough, Portsmouth, or Glasgow?

To be able to answer that question accurately, we’d need to produce age-standardised mortality rates for young males, broken down by class and educational background – and then compare civilians with soldiers. I am afraid that the results would be horrifying, and would suggest that serving on the front line is a lot safer than entering adult life at home.

This is a very uncomfortable thought. And it gets worse. Our society tends to blame lifestyle and family background for poor health; yet death rates among the young from such factors as smoking have fallen steadily in the last thirty years. But as Sir Harry Burns has pointed out, death rates from socially-related factors among young males in Scotland have risen in the last thirty years.

In general, higher death rates among young men result from violence, self-harm, alcohol and drugs. Suicide is the main cause of premature death amoung young men (who are about four times as likely to die by their own hand as young women). To these we can add driving a car, which for young men is far more likely to kill you than riding a bike. And of course there are suicides and substance abuse among soldiers as well, but apparently these are much less common than among the comparable population in civilian life.

So the bottom line seems to be that the army offers young working class males a much better future than does civilian life, at least in the short term, even in a time of conflict. We shouldn’t find this too surprising in a society like ours. After all, as Jay Winter has shown, life expectancy rose in Britain during both world wars; even for young men, the Great War was less lethal than peacetime.

I’m not advocating war rather than peace. What I am suggesting is that we need to see our supposedly peaceful civilian lives in a rather different way. Ordinary, everyday life is extremely harmful to a large and important part of our population, yet we seem to fetishise deaths in military service, and comfortably ignore the far higher toll of those who die while simply growing up.

Changing that will mean giving young men far more control over their own lives, and giving those lives some positive meaning. That will require a massive improvement in their educational outcomes, as well as realistic prospects of meaningful work in adult life.

How far should universities go to avoid engaging with their local communities?


A senior member of a major British adult education provider told me last week that he was disappointed by the higher education sector, finding it aloof and unresponsive. This had not always been his experience, so he was wondering whether I thought the universities were now out of the adult learning field altogether. His view was that this was largely caused by research assessment regimes, which have rewarded academics who impress other academics, while discouraging any wider engagement in the community.

This is probably a reasonable indictment of the old Research Assessment Exercise. Or, more accurately, it is a fair description of how many academics and their managers chose to respond to the old RAE. Nor is this simply a British phenomenon. In many countries, academic research is measured either by the numbers of times that their work is cited by other academics, or by the number of papers that they publish in journals that are highly regarded by other academics.

This is even worse than the old RAE. It leads to entirely predictable games-playing, as academics are clever folk who will devise the most effective ways of achieving high citations, or getting into those highly-rated journals.  Governments appear to be satisfied with this, as they invariably either boast about the number of “our scientists” who perform well on this measure, or berate their nation’s scholars for failing to measure up. But whichever system was used, the result has been to turn academics inwards, encouraging them to speak above all to their own peers, and to ignore the wider community (with the obvious exception of those organisations who pay for and commission various commercially driven projects).

This seems to me entirely counter-productive. If we cannot explain our research to the wider community, and justify it to the public, then we cannot expect our research to command public support. Rather, we should expect much of the public to mistrust academics, viewing them either as self-indulgent and wildly out of touch, or as in the pay of large vested interests. Over time, this is bound to undermine the political consensus in favour of publicly funded academic research.

I am therefore moderately encouraged by a number of recent developments. The first is the inclusion of ‘impact’ in the new research assessment system. This requires academics to show that high quality research has in some way influenced the wider public, and has had benefits for them. This will explicitly include the measurement of impact on civil society and third sector organisations as well as on the public and private sectors. This is certainly not without its problems – not the least of which is that the sector has limited experience of assessing the impact of research on people who are not other academics. But it is a step in the right direction.

The second is the decision of several universities to appoint professors specialising in the public understanding of science. Marcus du Sautoy is probably the best known of these, thanks to his broadcasting collaboration with the comedian Dara O’Briain. Sheffield has gone a step further, appointing Angie Hobbs as professor in the public understanding of philosophy. Again, this seems to me to be a sensible decision by those universities that are far-sighted enough to recognise that an informed public opinion is in their long term interests as much as anybody’s.

The third is the growing willingness of academic researchers to engage with those who criticise and protest against their work. In the most recent case, scientists at Rothamsted Institute of Arable Crops Research offered to meet a direct action group of anti-GM protesters to discuss their concerns. The protesters in turn called for an open debate, which the two sides are now arranging. It is unlikely that this dialogue will resolve all the differences, which run deep, but it is a world away from the violent police-led responses of the past.

These are welcome developments, though it probably goes without saying that I’d like to see them become the norm rather than the exception. If universities are public institutions then why would they not expect all of their researchers to promote public understanding of their work? Perhaps it should be a requirement of all public research funding that the researchers should be willing to communicate their findings to the local community, and indeed listen to what the community thinks of it.



Top salaries have been in the news lately. As well as all the kerfuffle about bankers and railway company directors, we’ve also seen evidence of more serious and informed concerns about what we – as a society – pay our ‘top people’. This debate has generated more heat and hyperbole than light and reason. It also carries more than a whiff of hypocrisy, particularly when we start to touch on public sector salaries. At the bottom and middle of most organisations, it seems reasonable to suppose that a skilled and committed workforce, providing good and reliable services, should be paid as well as anyone else who is making a similar contribution. That can probably be agreed by everyone but the most radical anti-State ideologues. But what about those who lead public services?

This issue was recently considered by the Scottish Government’s review of university governance. Chaired by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, the panel made a number of recommendations, some more controversial than others. One of its members made public his disagreement with some key recommendations on including trade union representation in governing bodies, and subjecting the chairs of governing bodies to election. Rather less attention has been paid to its recommendations on the appointment and remuneration of university principals.

Of course, pay and recruitment are closely linked. Salaries are determined, so far as principals are concerned, by each university’s own remunerations committee. While their deliberations are invariably secret, the committee members do take the market into account, and increasingly so as individuals from the world of business have come to dominate governing bodies. I cannot be alone in having heard one committee chair describe the university principal’s salary as ‘peanuts’ compared with the earnings of chief executives in the private sector. And I suspect that many university principals do regard themselves as comparable with top business leaders, not only in the responsibilities they exercise, but even in the way that their university has to behave ever more entrepreneurially.  After all, our expanded higher education system has grown at a much faster rate than the government grant, even before the cuts set in. Someone has to pay the bills, and it is less and less likely to be the funding council.

But universities are still not private companies. The review of university governance took a clear stance on what universities do, and where they sit in the range of large and important institutions. Its report starts by reminding its readers that universities in Scotland are public bodies who carry out a public role. So far as principals are concerned, the report calls for greater transparency and wider participation in appointment and appraisal. It also calls for principals to enjoy pay rises no greater than those awarded for all staff until existing processes have been reviewed, and for remuneration committees to include staff and student members. It also suggested that SFC should ask universities what they make of Will Hutton’s report on fair pay in the public sector. Hutton’s report was commissioned by the Treasury. Like all good reports, his core recommendations were few in number and easily understood. He proposed that top salaries should visibly reflect the principle of fairness, first in visibly being linked to ‘just desert’ (or performance), and second in publishing the ratio between top pay and the average earnings in their organisation.

These changes, modest and achievable though they are, may or may not be implemented. In its initial response to the review, Universities Scotland delicately avoided the question of its own members’ salaries and appointments, and described the Prondzynski report’s many recommendations as ‘complex’ (even if it is, which it isn’t, this tempts me to ponder what a committee of principals ought to be able to handle). Assuming that the Scottish Government will be reluctant to pick a fight with university heads in advance of an independence referendum, I am expecting a deal of sugar and water to be poured on the Prondzynski report in general, and its proposals for top pay in particular.

Even if it were implemented tomorrow, though, I don’t see the report as entering fat cat territory. Nor was this their concern. On the contrary: the panel emphasised that their main concern was over public perceptions of principals’ salaries, which have produced a controversy that ‘has not helped engender trust in governance’. So let’s now take a look at what the principals are paid, and how that compares with others.

My estimates are based on data from sixteen HEIs; three (Glasgow School of Art, Heriot-Watt, the Royal Conservatoire) had not filed their accounts at time of writing, and I have excluded the Open University, as it is a UK-wide provider, although it has a Scottish director.

In the most recent financial year, the average annual salary for a principal in Scotland came to almost £243,000. They ranged between Aberdeen at the top (£335,000) and Edinburgh College of Arts (£144,000) at the bottom. These salaries are nowhere near the top earnings in the private sector, though they would make owner-managers in small firms green with envy. On the other hand, all of the principals of Scottish universities are better paid than the Lord Advocate or Director of the Scotland Office; assuming Heriot-Watt’s principal has not had a drop in salary since 2009-10, then at least sixteen are better paid than the First Minister (or, indeed, David Cameron).

How fast have these salaries been growing? The Prondzynski review notes ‘signs that increases . . . have been modified or halted since the onset of the recession in 2008-9’. This claim is relatively easy to test. Over the four years since 2007-8, principals’ salaries have risen by an average of 11.4%. All sixteen enjoyed an increase, ranging from just over 2% at Dundee and Stirling to almost 31% at Aberdeen. We should, though, remember that a number of experienced principals have retired over this period, and that nothing stopped governing bodies from recruiting a new incumbent, who lacked the experience and track record of their predecessor, at a lower salary.

An average rise of just over 11% is not remarkable in itself. It is well below the level of inflation; and if the rises have certainly not been halted, the rate of increase seems relatively modest. So the scary headline figures about principals’ salary increases are probably based on a small number of rather exceptional cases, such as Aberdeen. Many university staff will point out that their salaries have been frozen for much of this time, but this is not true of all university staff. The number of Scottish academics earning over £100,000 per annum has risen year on year over this period, a feature of our system that I will discuss in a later blog. On the other hand, middle and lower level earnings in universities have stagnated.

What do these figures tell us about the salaries overall? First, they tell us that university principals are very well paid by public sector standards. I find it quite extraordinary that all of Scotland’s top public salaries are held by university principals. Second, principals are unlikely to perform well on one of Hutton’s key tests of fair pay. The average principal’s salary of £242,800 is well over nine times the figure of £26,200 that the Office for National Statistics reports as the median gross annual earnings of full-time employees in the UK. Third, they tell us that different universities, and principals, behave differently when it comes to pay. There is no obvious relationship between salary and such indicators of size and performance as turnover, proportion of income from non-government sources, student numbers, or research rating. And this suggests that some universities and principals will look poor on the Hutton test of ‘just desert’. Finally, some universities and their principals have exercised restraint during the recession but others have not; over this period, the distribution of principals’ salaries has widened significantly.

The most important question, though, is what these figures tell us about the higher education sector. I have nothing but praise for the way that the Prondzynski review panel emphasised the public and democratic roles of universities in modern Scotland. But it is legitimate to ask whether the huge gap between top and bottom in the university pay scales is consistent with that view. Is a growing gap between the ‘chief executive’ and their academic colleagues compatible with a culture of trust, engagement and high morale within the university? Is a growing earnings gap between university principals and Scotland’s employees congruent with high levels of social solidarity and cohesion? Is a growing gap between the salaries of university principals symptomatic of a breakdown in the cohesion and shared purpose of the sector?

If the answers to those questions worry you as they do me, you might wonder what should be done. The answer strikes me as very simple. The Scottish Funding Council should reflect on the Prondzynski panel’s advice, and get on with asking governing bodies what their university has done to implement the Hutton recommendations.


Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, Scottish Government, 2012

Hutton Review of Fair Pay in the Public Sector: Final report, HM Treasury, 2011

John Field, Higher Education and the Recession, available at

I have taken all salary figures from the annual financial statements of universities.

Learning cities – a view from China

I’ve always been interested in the idea of the learning city. As a way of bringing together different actors, and focusing them on some clear and agreed goals, it represents a potentially productive way of raising skills in a way that is focused on regenerating the city’s economy while providing opportunities for bridging social and ethnic divisions. An invitation to spend a week exploring the concept with colleagues from the Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences was irresistable.

In Britain, the learning city movement has run out of steam. Many city councils signed up to the notion more or less enthusiastically in the heady days when David Blunkett’s policies seemed to promise a new civic understanding of lifelong learning. For some, it was little more than a branding exercise; for some, a way of bringing together different parts of the education and skills system, including institutions (like colleges) that were no longer under local education authority control; and for others, more ambitiously, it was a way of putting learning and skills back at the core of their local economic development strategy.

Looking back, it is clear that the learning city movement went furthest where there was a clear focus, combined with strong civic leadership and partners who were willing to make compromises. Some of the initiatives were quite modest, as in Exeter’s attempt to focus attention on a small number of measurable educational outcomes. Glasgow took a different approach, starting by consulting citizens in its least advantaged areas, and focussing strongly on educational and social inclusion – a strategy that makes sense given Glasgow’s circumstances. Other cities tried to engage with universities and cutting edge businesses to develop new economic sectors such as renewable technologies.

None of the UK cities, though, seemed to me to follow a sustained strategy for enough time to make a significant and lasting impact. Few engaged with a wide enough range of partners, while some found that a few public sector institutions were more interested in competing than collaborating. Nor has central government offered much of a lead. Even in the hey-day of Blunkett’s ‘learning age’, there was little sense of co-ordination between the various different government ministries that were involved in urban policy. In the end, the British learning city movement seems to have amounted mainly to a series of ad hoc and often short term initiatives, with little co-ordination and limited impact.

Will Beijing fare much better? Beijing’s municipal government declared in 2007 that it was embarking on a process of ‘learning city construction’, requiring all 29 of its departments to work to a common set of goals, reporting annually on progress made. Importantly, it found an ‘early hit’ in the 2008 Olympics. As well as setting goals for individual municipal departments to develop new skills in order to deliver a successful global sporting occasion, the municipal government also developed public education about the Olympics movement , in the hope of persuading citizens to embrace both the occasion and the flood of foreign visitors it would bring. And it targeted particular groups, persuading taxi drivers and other key service workers to learn a smattering of English.

Short term successes are important to get momentum under way. Once the wheels are turning, the city government faces a longer term challenge of maintaining and harnessing this initial enthusiasm and drive. This is the stage that Beijing is in now, and my visit included a lecture to adult education practitioners and policy makers from across the city as a way of opening up discussions about experiences elsewhere.

It is tempting to draw some obvious contrasts with the 2012 Olympics and the 2014 Commonwealth Games. I’m not aware of any plans to teach taxi drivers to communicate with overseas visitors in either Glasgow or London, nor to encourage adult education institutions to exploit the enthusiasm and interest that both events are stimulating. As for the idea of co-ordinating plans for a learning city across every city council department for the next five years – well, I’d settle for bringing together four or five of the main actors.

But neither London nor Glasgow is Beijing. It differs in size (Beijing is three times London’s size, and four times Scotland’s), and age profile (Beijing is notably younger than any UK city). It is highly overcrowded and heavily polluted, so that learning city construction has a marked emphasis on sustainability. And of course, the political frameworks differ enormously.

 In China, all major policies are derived from a centrally-determined five year plan. Beijing’s city government may or may not be able to influence the plan, but it has to carry it out, as do the practitioners that I met during my visit. Chinese policy makers are not under any immediate pressure to announce new policies every three years, and package them as the latest and newest thing for an increasingly cynical electorate. Boris Johnson and Alex Salmond might envy the deference of the Chinese media, as well as the absence of cyber-trolls. Ironically, I couldn’t even access my own blog from Bejing, let alone the subversive world of Twitter and Facebook!

But can we afford to ignore the drive and determination of this vast country? Anyone who visits Beijing cannot fail to be impressed. The city offers many lessons to visitors, bad as well as good, but you cannot leave without realising the futility of Europe’s target, agreed in Lisbon in 2000, of becoming ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’. And of course, the EU hoped to achieve this splendid goal by 2010.

Personally, I don’t much mind if our economy shrinks slightly in the future, while China’s grows. We consume plenty as it is, and it’s time the rest of the world had some of what we’ve enjoyed. But let’s not kid ourselves. Bluntly, any politician who tells us that we  can improve our relative competitiveness without bettering China’s investment in education and science is lying.

Learning our way out? Ireland’s presidential election

 I’ m in Dublin this week, attending AONTAS’ annual conference on community education. Ireland’s economic woes have tended to overshadow everything else in recent years, so it will be a welcome opportunity to catch up with colleagues and listen to what is going on in the adult education community. And to find out what the Irish think of their new president.

 As a nation, Ireland exercises an influence out of all proportion to its size. This is partly due to the size of its ‘diaspora’, and their continuing attachment to their ancestral home; partly to its history, which has placed it at a crossroads between Europe and North America; and partly to the wider appeal of a set of symbols and values that many people think of as distinctively Irish. One of these symbols, in recent years, has been the office of President of Ireland.

 The Uachtarain na hÉireann has few real political powers; but the sheer intelligence, grace and force of personality of Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese have endowed the role with real standing in the world. At first sight, Ireland’s latest President looks set to strengthen his role’s symbolic authority. Michael D. Higgins is, among other things, a scholar, intellectual and poet. And although he is also a veteran Labour Party politician, he has signalled a willingness to reach out and include all Ireland’s citizens, in a modern manner (one small symbol of this was his invitation to the Humanist Association to join the inauguration, alongside representatives of Ireland’s main faiths).

 It isn’t for me to judge or predict his likely impact on Irish politics, but I do want to draw attention to two aspects of his inaugural speech. First is his emphasis on social solidarity. In telling terms, he argued that the banking collapse, and the financial damage that followed, ‘has left us fragile as an economy, but most of all wounded as a society’. Building a sustainable economy and an inclusive society will, he suggested, require a common search for new values based on ‘an active, inclusive citizenship’. He quoted the Irish proverb: ní neart go cur le chéile, ‘our strength lies in our common weal’.

 Second, President Higgins signalled a new approach to the presidency’s leadership role.  In promoting inclusion and creative thinking, he announced plans for a series of presidency seminars to explore themes that go beyond a particular and specific political agenda. The first is to focus on ‘being young in Ireland’ – a raw topic, at a time when one young adult in eight is unemployed, with lasting scarring consequences that will follow these young people through their life course, and when emigration is again evoking memories of past despair over Ireland’s future. Other topics pencilled in include the restoration of trust in public institutions, and the ethical compact between economy and society. 

 This is more than a hint at the idea of a learning presidency, and hopefully also the broader ambition of a learning society. Of course, not all of the inaugural speech was new: Michael D. Higgins is far too experienced a politician to forget the importance of emphasising a common past, a unifying heritage. Nor is this the end. Inaugurations are a beginning, and much remains to be done. But for once, an inclusive dialogue, and an open approach to social and political learning, could move to the top of the political agenda.