The remarkable resilience of SCUTREA

The 2019 conference of SCUTREA provides an opportunity for thinking about where adult learning research now stands, particularly in the UK. One friend and former colleague recently told me that compared with a decade ago, he thought the programme looked ‘a bit withered’.

It’s true that attendance has declined in recent years. But it’s still attracting a decent turn-out, with some thirty-five separate papers, a couple of workshops, a keynote, and a panel debate. By way of contrast, look at the contents page for the 1982 proceedings, which lists eleven papers.

There’s also a marked and very welcome gender shift, with most of the 2019 papers involving at least one female presenter; international researchers are a much more visible presence than in the earlier years. And although as a co-presenter I am of course biased, the 2019 programme looks much more lively and stimulating than the rather stodgy fare on offer in 1982.

So I guess it depends what dates you choose for your comparison. For the most part, adult learning is still a comparatively small part of the research community in most countries; seen from this perspective, the 2019 programme suggests a sub-area in reasonably good health, and with plenty to say for itself.

But maybe it’s time to revisit the name? Not just because it’s a strange and rather meaningless acronym, but more importantly because much valuable research is undertaken by people outside the university sector.


The 1982 papers

Comparative and international research in adult and lifelong learning

I’m currently working with some German colleagues on a paper about comparative adult education research. Our starting point is our impression that this area of study is not in great shape. And this is in spite of the funding available through European Commission sources to support international and comparative activities.

As a quick way into this area, I carried out a simple search of article titles in three journals. First, I looked for the word “comparative” in titles in the International Journal of Lifelong Education and Adult Education Quarterly; then I searched for “lifelong learning” and “adult education” in titles in Comparative Education and Compare. I confined the search to articles published between 1999 and 2015, and excluded book reviews and short notes.

The first thing to say is that this is a very rough and ready measure. Even though I think these are decent journals, there are many others that I could have chosen. And my search terms meant that I missed some important contributions, including an analysis of the OECD’s PIAAC survey of adult skill, while the dates excluded a European comparative study using fresh survey data. But this was only ever meant to provide a starting point, as well as a simple test of whether our hunch about the poor health of the area is accurate.

Second, there are many more papers on adult learning in the two comparative education journals (42) than papers on comparative studies in the adult education journals (9). Compare came out top with 27 papers, thanks partly to special issues on lifelong learning in 2006 and 2009; Comparative Education also had a special issue on lifelong learning, in 1999. AEQ came bottom, with 2, and neither of the adult education journals published a special comparative issue. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to find it an interesting pattern.

New Picture

Annual totals of relevant titles in all four journals

Third, if the trend data don’t show a decline, neither do they suggest an area in rude health.  What they do show is the importance of special issues devoted to research on adult learning; and it is worth bearing in mind that as well as the direct boost of a special issue, the articles that feature in it will then generate furthe debate and in turn stimulate more papers. Given this, it is a bit worrying that the last special issue in  these four journals appeared in 2009.

It’s wise not to over-generalise on the basis of limited data and a simplistic analysis, but let me hazard some informed suppositions. I think the special issues were probably largely a response to the rise of policy interest in lifelong learning. It strikes me that the adult education journals aren’t as open to comparative research as the comparative education journals are to studies of adult learning. There is little evidence here of a European effect, though some of the papers may well have drawn on evidence that was provided through EC funding.

All in all, people who care about comparative adult education research have a bit of a challenge on their hands. Or perhaps this is something that we are happy to leave to the OECD and European Commission, who will then undertake surveys that we can contentedly critique, without actually doing much comparative research ourselves?


Michael Gove and the future of educational research in Britain

How will the Government’s plans for teacher training affect research? Like a number of other countries, teacher training in England will involve an expanded role for schools. Michael Gove expects universities to work in close partnership with 500 designated teaching schools; he will designate a number of University Teaching Schools, which will combine teaching with teacher training and research. It also looks as though the Government intends to take an even closer role in setting approved numbers for initial teacher training, and meanwhile it is considering ending the requirement for lecturers in further education to possess a teaching qualification.

Almost everyone expects these changes to lead to significant reductions in teaching funding for university education departments. How else can the new partnerships be funded? And the new policies will be implemented in a context of austerity, where colleges and schools are looking to make savings in their training and development budgets, and where we are all wondering how potential applicants will view the new tuition fees. Finally, teacher education and development is already pretty turbulent: funded student numbers can go up and down, and one bad inspection report can jeopardise a whole programme.

Reductions in teacher training numbers, cuts in funding, and increased unpredictability: all of these will lead some universities to review their involvement in education. The most globally-minded have the least to lose in cutting education altogether; as they see it, the subject is volatile, poorly funded, attracts few overseas students, and does nothing for their global league table performance. Those universities that struggle to recruit at the best of times, on the other hand, may be keen to dance to any tune Gove calls, but are unlikely to fit his definition of excellence.

Elsewhere, there will be choices to be made, based on a range of criteria. I worked at a reasonably distinguished university that was deeply disappointed at the research performance of its education department, but took the view that links with a hundred local schools and their teachers were a valuable strategic asset. I know of other institutions where the decision will be much more finely balanced.

Even at best, we can expect many education departments to lose funding for their teaching. This will inevitably have consequences for their research. The reason is that hardly any university department, in any subject, can do decent research on the basis of its funding council grant for research. If it loses significant levels of teaching income, then the University will look to make savings. They can maintain research if the cuts are small, but if they are large enough, then they will have to cut back on core staff numbers.

Hence the impact on research. The recent fate of adult education research in British universities is a signal of what can go wrong. Most of the researchers were partly financed through the teaching grant, based either on their role in teacher education (mostly masters’ level courses) or in adult education (mostly part-time). Once the teaching went, the research income alone was not enough to sustain their activity. While there is still a body of research, it is much smaller than a decade ago – and much more fragmented, with much of it taking place outside education departments.

Should we care? There is a case for arguing that the education research community – expected to be the second largest discipline in the next Research Evaluation exercise – is artificially inflated by the presence of initial teacher education in the universities. The ESRC’s review of the health of the social sciences showed that many lecturers come from the field of teaching, and become active researchers at a relatively late stage of their careers. I have certainly heard it said that many of the late entry researchers have experienced a narrow and weak research training, and I’ve also heard it said that the discipline has a long tail of writing that is parochial, uncritical and lacking in rigour. So you could conclude that educational research is ripe for a cull.

Yet at its best, educational research in Britain is highly regarded. The latest QS world university rankings place four British (Cambridge, Oxford, the Institute of Education and King’s College) in the world’s top twenty. Nine come from the USA, three from Australia, and one each from Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore and Japan. This ranking is of course methodologically limited: it is often criticised for rewarding size, favouring systems with high levels of international staff, ignoring the ‘halo’ effect of prestigious universities, and relying on citations accounts that are biased towards English. But it is supported by other evidence suggesting that for its size, Britain’s educational research community is pretty strong.

Will the changes in teacher training damage this track record? Based on the recent experience of adult education research, I think it highly likely that it will lead to a significant erosion of research capacity. Whether this matters, other than to the individuals involved, depends of course on your view of what educational research contributes to the wellbeing of our society.