Where New York leads: reflecting on market forces and adult learners

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Adult learning in the USA can be an expensive business. For example, New York University charges $125 to join a half-day course on Imperial London and $450 for six three-hour evening classes on Management Principles for Non-Profit Organisations. Presumably enough people are willing to pay these sums for the courses to be viable, but these eye-watering fees also mean that the States can provide many examples of alternative provision.

On a recent visit to New York I came across two cases of alternative provision. The first is the School of Practical Philosophy, which has been running since 1964. The School is registered as a not-for-profit, and describes itself as ‘run by its students on a voluntary basis’. Teachers are apparently not paid; fees vary but a ten week advanced course costs $175, while a one-day event on Plato will set you back $50 (including a Greek lunch and an evening wine reception).

Interestingly, the School has now established itself in the UK. According to its website it has venues across the north west of England, where its offer seems more geared towards mindfulness than the broader programme of its New York parent. I have no idea how successful it is.

The other private venture that intrigued me was the Brooklyn Brainery, the hipsterish name of a not-for-profit which describes its raison d’etre as ‘accessible, community-driven, crowdsourced education’. Its courses are relatively cheap ($13 for an evening on the history of gin, for example), interesting, and short, lasting mostly between one and four sessions. Its founders crowd-sourced the start-up funding, much of which went on premises, and are still involved in organising the programme.

I’m not setting these up as models for others to follow, though I think they are both pretty admirable, but rather as examples of the way in which adult learning doesn’t disappear simply because state agencies don’t provide everything. If established providers are too expensive, or too rigidly tied to qualifications and lengthy study programmes, then other bodies will flourish in the gaps. We’ve seen that here in the UK where the University of the Third Age has flowered for one large group of learners neglected by the public system .

The first obvious problem is who gets left behind in this process, which largely favours those who are already the most committed to investing in their own continuous learning. The second is that the content and pedagogy follow the interests and preferences of the most easily recruited learners.

And guess what: the popular courses are short, fun introductions to regional world cuisines, along with ‘how-to’ sessions on how to go about buying a house in New York City. Again, that’s not at all a Bad Thing, but it’s not going to solve our society’s most pressing problems. We still need to think about how adult learning can help us achieve the kinds of community we want, and then ensure that it receives a reasonable degree of public support.

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Adult educators and the UK honours system

Alan Tuckett

Arise, Sir Alan

I’ve been quietly celebrating the award of a knighthood to Alan Tuckett, a lifelong adult educator who is probably best known for his leadership of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education. Celebrating because the award acknowledges the way in which Alan didn’t simply ‘do his job’, but used his position to provide leadership and visibility for the wider field of adult learning, so that the knighthood can be understood as a public recognition of an important but often overlooked field.

All of this said, I don’t approve of the UK honours system on principle. The system rests on patronage and has been thoroughly tainted by cronyism and rewards for people – notably civil servants – who simply have ‘done their job’. It perpetuates the language of Empire and aristocratic rule, so I find it hard to see how it sits with the egalitarian and meritocratic world of adult education.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of Alan, who will no doubt exploit the platform afforded by his knighthood to argue the case for adult learners and those who work with them. Disagreeing with your friends’ decisions is just a part of life. But I now wonder about other leading British adult educators in the past: how many were offered honours, and how many accepted?

Answering these questions proved harder than I’d expected, but here is what I’ve found so far – thanks partly to a Twitter exchange with John Holford and Alan, and partly to a largely frustrating trawl online.

Albert Mansbridge, co-founder of the Workers’ Educational Association and its first secretary, became a Companion of Honour in 1931.

William Emrys Williams, secretary of the British Institute of Adult Education from 1925 and director of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs during WW2, was awarded a CBE and a knighthood. While his CBE was awarded in 1946, his knighthood came as a result of his work at the Arts Council and as Editor-in-Chief at Penguin Books.

Basil Yeaxlee, secretary to the much-discussed 1919 Report on Adult Education and secretary of the Educational Settlements Association, and author of a doctoral thesis on spiritual values in adult education, received his CBE in the same year as Williams. Like Williams, he received this honour in recognition of his contribution to services education and welfare during WW2.

More recently, Bob Fryer – Principal of Northern College and chief executive of the NHS University – was made a Companion of the British Empire in 1999. I assume there are other recent cases that I’ve either forgotten about or didn’t hear about in the first place.

Then there are those who refused, or weren’t offered in the first place. EP Thompson, Raymond Williams, Michael Barratt Brown, Raphael Samuel and Sheila Rowbotham were all associated with what would today probably be called the ‘hard Left’, and I very much doubt whether it entered anyone’s mind to offer them an honour.

Elizabeth Monkhouse, a leading figure in the Workers’ Educational Association and a prominent acdemic who served on the Russell Committee, does not seem to have taken an honour. Given her eminent record of public service, I find it hard to believe that she did not receive – and therefore reject – the offer of an honour.

Richard Hoggart, on the other hand, refused offers of both a knighthood and peerage. Like Williams and Thompson, Hoggart was shaped by a career in extra-mural teaching, who served as assistant director of UNESCO and as warden of Goldsmiths College.

Robert Peers, the UK’s first professor of adult education, does not appear to have been offered an honour; neither does Sydney Raybould, pre-eminent amoung the post-war adult education academics.

Others might be counted as adult educators depending on how you define that rather loose term. Sir Richard Livingstone, for example, did much to champion residential adult education, but was knighted for his role in university management.

And then there are the ‘genuine’ aristocrats who actively promoted adult learning. Trudie Pearson, first national chair of the Women’s Institutes in Britain, and later director of the Women’s Land Army, became Lady Denman on her marriage to the third Baron. The WI’s residential adult college is named after her.

My list of adult educators with honours is regreattably brief. If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them.  Meanwhile, arise Sir Alan, and more power to your elbow!

A new focus on adult skills in Germany?

Inside Germany, news of the coalition agreement was met more with grudging relief than enthusiasm. It followed an election in which both main parties haemorrhaged support; for the Christian Democrats, the outcome probably spells the beginning of the end for Angela Merkel’s long period of political dominance, while the Social Democrats’ loss of support is starting to look existential.

So the new coalition is a partnership of two weakened, and possible vulnerable, political giants. Nevertheless, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats will jointly be ruling Europe’s largest economy, which is also by far the EU’s most influential member. So regarless of any internal weakness, it is well worth looking at the text of the coalition agreement – and, given my interests, you won’t be surprised that I’ve been keen to see whether it mentions the broad area of lifelong learning.

In fact, the agreement pays a remarkable amount of attention to adult and/or continuing education:

  • Chapter Four – which is devoted to an ‘Offensive for Education, Research and Digitisation’ places a strong emphasis on the role of public policy in securing adult skills. It promises a national strategy for continuing education, focusing mainly but not exclusively on its role in securing digital skills.
  • Chapter Five, on ‘Securing Good Work, Wide Security, and Social Participation’, speaks about a strong, broad alliance for lifelong learning in digital skills.

It should be clear that the priority here is workforce skills, and above all digital skills. In this the new strategy will be building on the existing initiative ‘Berufsbildung 4.0‘ (vocational education for the fourth industrial revolution), as well as continuing earlier atttempts to improve possibilities for mobility between roles.

However, the agreement also stresses that opportunities for digital updating should be available to people ‘at any age and in any life situation’, and looks to the public Volkshochschulen to play a central role in delivering the new digital skills. It also promises to develop basic workplace and family skills provision as part of Germany’s national decade for literacy (2016-2026).

This aspect of the coalition agreement almost certainly reflects the hopes and priorities of the Social Democrats. While it will have to be implemented by Anja Karliczek, the minister for education and science, who is a Christian Democrat, the finance minister is a Social Democrat.

This matters, because financial means will not be easy to come by. The adult education section of the German teachers’ union has broadly welcomed the agreement’s potential for developing workorce continuing education, but pointed out reasonably enough that it says next to nothing about funding. That is a task for the new minister and the new Parliament, and it is here that the weakened standing of both partners may come into play.

Funding adult skills in France: here comes the ‘big bang’

Considerable controversy has surrounded President Macron’s plans for labour reform in France, especially measures designed to promote labour flexibility and limit trade union powers. Less widely reported are parallel interventions to promote skills and learning, but this is where the focus is now moving.

The politician responsible for the labour reforms is Muriel Pénicaud, an experienced human resources manager who became Minister of Labour in May 2017. After completing her first set of labour reforms last year, Pénicaud has turned her attention to training and skills, an area where she (and Macron) believe existing French policies to be antiquated and inefficient.

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“The training system is neither fair nor equitable”: unequal participation

On 5 March, the Minister announced the long-awaited content of her reforms, claiming that they had been ‘largely’ agreed with employers and unions. Above all, there are new arrangements for personal training accounts, or compte personnel de formation: whereas the old system was counted in time, the new entitlement will be calculated in cash, with the funds being collected through the social insurance system. Each individual employee’s account will be credited with €500 a year, capped at a total of €5,000; those with low skills will have a higher sum of €800 a year, capped at €8,000.

Further changes will bring part-time workers into the system, as well as absorbing the congé individuel de formation (CIF) into the CFP. A new tripartite agency, France compétences, will regulate the training costs and scrutinise quality, to avoid the kind of malpractice that dogged the initial foray into learning accounts in England and that has marred the CPF to date.

How much of this will happen is another matter. France’s unions and employers’ associations responded with their own counter-proposals. Pénicaud has initially dismissed these as too modest and conservative, arguing that what was needed was les incremental change than a ‘big bang’ (the French for which turns out to be – yes, big bang) which combined radical reform with a simplification of a complex and inefficient status quo.

Pénicaud’s ‘big bang’ also extends to other areas of skills pilicy. She is in discussion with social partners over how to improve skills levels among the unemployed, and has initiated discussions on an overhaul and expansion of the apprenticeship system. Taken together, these reforms will unsettle relationships not only with the unions buts also with employers’ organisations and France’s powerful regional governments. The outcome is still uncertain, but I’m backing Pénicaud to win.

How can we explain the UK’s strong performance in the European Adult Education Survey?

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Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey (AES) suggest that participation across most of Europe is rising. I’ve already taken a look at the figures for Austria, which show a surge in participation following rthe adoption of a national policy for lifelong learning in 2011. But the figures for the UK are equally striking: if the AES is to be believed, participation in the UK rose from 35.8% in 2011 to 52.1% in 2016.

As Tom Schuller pointed out in a comment on my post, the UK’s performance is something of a puzzle. Recent years have seen significant cutbacks in all forms of public adult education provision in all four UK nations. The Learning and Work Institute, which monitors participation rates over time, last year described the continuing falls in participation in all forms of publicly funded adult learning as ‘disastrous’. So what might explain the UK’s strong showing in AES?

First, the AES is confined to adults aged 25-64; the European Commission considers this group a priority because it is of prime standard working age. It is likely, in my view, that cuts in publicly funded adult education impact most heavily on the retired, who do not have access to workplace learning.

Second, the AES is a household survey and covers all participation in the twelve months prior to interview. By contrast, the European Labour Force Survey is a workplace survey which covers training in the previous four weeks. According to the LFS, training participation in the UK fell from 20.5% in 2011 to 18.8% in 2016 (though the LFS shows an even sharper fall between 2010 and 2011).

Third, the AES divides adult learning into ‘formal’ and ‘non-formal’. Its definitions of these terms follows the UNESCO International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). Formal education and training comprise ‘education that is institutionalised, intentional and planned through public organisations and recognised private bodies and – in their totality – constitute the formal education system of a country’, and which is ‘recognised as such by the relevant national education authorities’.

Non-formal education ‘may include for example learning events (activities) that occur in the family, in the work place, and in the daily life of every person, on a self-directed, family-directed or socially-directed basis’, and ‘may cover educational programmes to impart adult literacy, life-skills, work-skills, and general culture’.

In the case of the UK, the AES found a huge rise in participation in non-formal education – from 24.3% to 47.5% between 2011 and 2016; at the same time, participation in formal ecucation and training fell, from 14.8% to 11.9%. In other words, the UK rise in overall participation is due entirely to growth in non-formal learning rather than formal education and training. The Survey also suggests that the growth was particularly strng in job-related non-formal education and training, while non-job-related participation showed a small decline.

This leads me to wonder whether what we are witnessing in the UK is a growth in overall participation rates, combined with a fall in the quality and depth (and cost) of activities. The AES offers some support for this hypothesis, in that it shows a clear drop in the duration of learning: the average time sent by UK participants overall fell from 167 hours in 2011 to 121 hours in 2016. The fall was particlarly marked in the average time spent by participants in formal education and training.

So perhaps an apparent growth in UK participation doesn’t translate simply into more learning going on, but rather a redistribution of opportunity – and thinning of resources.

Any other suggestions out there? Am I daft in ignoring the possibility that AES has got it right, and against all expectations the UK is experiencing a lifelong learning renaissance? Or are the survey results just a blip?

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, the UK’s participation in the AES doesn’t necessarily end with Brexit. Non-EU member states taking part include Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey. Brexit will complicate matters, though: as members of a federal state, it will probably fall to each individual national government – which is where responsibility for education policy lies – to decide whether to continue co-funding AES in the future.

What has Austria got to teach us about adult learning?

Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey are now available. Broadly, they show a rise in learning participation across the continent, with rising participation rates between 2011 and 2016 in eighteen of the nations taking part in both waves, and falls in only six; one country – Norway – reported no change at all.

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Austria – worth a closer look?

Growth was particularly strong in Austria, where participation levels among the working age population shot up from 48.8% to 59.9%. It seems unlikely that the 2016 result is a blip, given that the Labour Force Survey also reported comparable growth rates over this period. For an outsider, the obvious question is how we might explain this impressive growth spurt.

An article by two Austrian specialists points to key factors which they think might lie behind rising participation levels. First, the proportion of the workforce involved in workplace learning has risen. Presumably this largely reflects enterprise-level decisions on continuing training investment, as well as a growing willingness to participate on the part of employees.

Second, they attribute growth in ‘non-formal learning’ (the Survey’s term for general adult education) to changes in public policy as well as learner demand. In particular, the authors point to the emerging impact of the Initiative Erwachsenenbildung (‘adult education initiative’), a joint programme of the federal government and the Länder, launched in 2012 to promote free basic skills and second chance courses for adults to achieve lower secondary school leaver qualifications.

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The Initiative clearly has its weaknesses, but they seem to result from practical design flaws rather than the underlying concept. An external evaluation noted that the insistence on achieving formal qualifications and rigid limits on the length of participation were deterring some of the very people that the Initiative was designed to reach. Overall, though, it concluded that the Initative was making considerable progress in tackling educational disavantage and was meeting a clear need.

It’s early days in the release of AES findingss, and anyway I suppose a cynic would say there’s nothing new in the Austrian adult education initiative. We already know the value of concerted campaigns directed towards well-defined target groups and backed by adequate resources. It’s still useful to be reminded of this, though, particularly at a time when some governments are disinvesting from adult learning. And it is certainly interesting to see the broader evidence of sharply rising participation. If you get the chancd, Austria certainly merits a second look.

 

 

 

 

Training policy – a return to the tripartite system?

Skills featured prominently in the budget debate this year. At least, they did on the Government side of the debate: Philip Hammond, the U.K. Chancellor (or Finance Minister), made skills a central plank in his strategy for improving productivity and growth. The leader and other senior figures in the Labour Party have so far focused on other issues, notably housing, poverty and unemployment, though they may get around to addressing the skills proposals later on. And I will also try to blog on the issues of productivity and skills in the next few days.

Meanwhile I wanted to draw attention to Philip Hammond’s mention of the trade union movement and employers’ representatives. Apparently the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress have formed a partnership with the Government over the design of a National Retraining Scheme. It will start relatively modestly, it seems, with investment in digital and construction skills. And it includes continuing support for UnionLearn, which seems to me a good idea.

To be honest, I found myself rather surprised by this section of Hammond’s speech. Three-way partnerships in training policy between state, employers and unions are well established in many European countries, including Germany and the Scandinavian nations. And they were once normal in the U.K., particularly after the 1964 Industrial Training Act set out a national system of tripartite sector-based Industrial Training Boards. Hilary Pemberton argued that this legislation failed to transform deep rooted cultural attitudes, making it easy for the Thatcher Government to do away with it.

Whether Hammond’s National Retraining Scheme will do any better is a moot point. It clearly represents a much more modest form of tripartism than the ITBs, but perhaps this will prove an asset – particularly if the Retraining Scheme is linked firmly with measures to promote skills utilisation. The history is less than promising, but if the Government is able to persist with the Scheme, it might prove very interesting indeed.