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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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.

Skills and hostility to migration

Today saw publication of the results from the 34th British Social Attitudes Survey. Every year, a team of social researchers asks a sample of around 3,000 people about their views on current social issues. You can find the results on the NatCen website: http://www.natcen.ac.uk, and I always find them well worth reading.


The 2014 Survey included some revealing questions on people’s attitudes to immigration. We already know from previous research that the most highly educated individuals tend to be the most welcoming towards immigrants. Because the Survey belongs to an international consortium of similar studies, we can compare this pattern across countries. The results show that when analysed by level of education, attitudes in Britain are more polarised than in other European countries.

I’d be interested to know why this is so. My guess is that it might have something to do with our polarised education system, which in turn creates considerable social and economic distance between people from different socio-economic classes. It may also have to do with the strength of the low skills economy here, as well as the strong cultural stigma attached to low skills in Britain. These are (informed) guesses, and it’d be great to see some serious research on the issue.


The 2014 Survey also allowed for comparison of attitudes over time. For me, the most interesting finding here concerns the decline of race/ethnicity and religion as the basis for accepting immigrants, and the rise of skills and qualifications (along with command of the language). This suggests greater tolerance on one level, as well as a shift towards selection of immigrants on the basis of the capabilities that they bring. 

Is this connected with the educational polarisation that the Survey also reported? It could be that there is a degree of self-interest at work: the highly skilled and educated are the most mobile, and therefore can be expected to favour migration in general; the least skilled and educated are most vulnerable to competition from unskilled migrants, and therefore favour selection by skill. Or perhaps skills and qualifications now serve as a socially acceptable basis for discrimination (not only against foreigners, of course). But again, it would be worth going further into these figures to see what lies behind them.

Finally, the Survey also reports a small rise in those who think immigrants need to be committed to the British way of life. Exactly what this means is of course rather fuzzy, as the report makes clear. And we should remember that the Survey took place before the Brexit vote and before this year’s wave of terror attacks, whose effects on social attitudes are still unknown. 

Adult learning and the election (5): the Democratic Unionist Party

Judging by my Twitter feed, everyone in Britain is suddenly an expert on the Democratic Unionist Party. Theresa May’s decision to invite the DUP to support a minority Conservative government has got everyone interested in Northern Ireland politics – or at least in finding out enough to pour scorn on May’s new partners. But beyond the parody and fluff of social media, what does the DUP stand for?

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I’m going to focus on one area and one area only: its policies for adult learning. I know all about the DUP’s social conservatism, its links with the Orange Order, and its support for Brexit. None of these concerns me in this post.

The DUP manifesto outlines plans for what it calls ‘An Industrial Renaissance for Northern Ireland’, which includes an industrial strategy aligned to the wider UK strategy.  One of the five core pillars of the DUP industrial strategy is given as ‘Enhancing Educattion, Skills and Employability’. This section of the manifesto offers quite a lot of detail about growth of tourism (unlikely to be a high skills sector) and maximising trade exports.

On skills, the manifesto outlines continued funding for the Assured Skills and Future Skills programmes, continuity for the apprenticeship system, a focus on digital skills in further and higher education, a closer alignment of degree courses with ‘the strong and emerging sectors of our economy’, and ‘increased involvement of industry in shaping the skills agenda’. What the latter means is unclear, but otherwise the focus is largely on tweaking existing activities.

The manifesto also includes the DUP’s proposals for education, but these are almost entirely concerned with schools and teaching. The most controversial is likely to be the  ‘removal of discrimination in teacher employment’, or in other words reshaping recruitment policy in Catholic schools. There is nothing more about adult learning, which is unsurprising given than the Northern Ireland Assembly Government has worked hard to dismantle the public adult education system.

Then the manifesto sets out 30 DUP demands for the Brexit settlement. These include a relaxed border with the Irish Republic, a renewed system of agricultural subsidies, and a ‘successful, outward-looking, knowledge-based economy for Northern Ireland’.

There are also three proposals for continued partnerships with the EU that are relevant to further and higher education:

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It is pretty obvious that the first of these is vague in the extreme; the second is vague and qualified; and the only example offered of the third is participation in the EC research programmes, which are almost certain to be uncontroversial in the final Brexit settlement. Oddly, and in contrast to the Conservatives, there appears to be no mention of the EU Structural Funds.

So Conservative ministers are unlikely to find themselves inspired by the DUP’s radical thinking on adult learning. On the other hand, the DUP are highly unlikely to find anything objectionable in the Conservative plans for adult learning, of which I take a reasonably positive view.

 

Adult learning and the election (4): a cheap and dirty poll

In the last fortnight I’ve posted my summary analyses of the three main parties’ plans for adult learning. All three have had plenty to say, so for election day I’ve had a quick look at how many people took a look at each.

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My chart shows the share of total readership for each party. Dear readers, you placed Labour ahead of the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats coming a clear third.  What do I read into this outcome? Not a lot, but I do find it mildly interesting.

In particular, I think you’ve been a bit tough on the Lib Dems, whose manifesto had some really interesting ideas about adult learning, including some positive proposals for family learning. I suspect the Lib Dems’ fate is to have good ideas without most people paying much attention.  But given the near certainty of a Conservative victory today, wouldn’t you expect them to have topped the list?

It’s back – or did lifelong learning never go away in the first place?

Recently the Further Education Trust for Leadership asked me to contribute a post on the way that lifelong learning has returned to the policy agenda. I thought it would be timely, given the General Election here, to focus on the UK.

You don’t have to dig too deeply into the party manifestos and the recent debates over the UK’s industrial strategy to find considerable policy anxiety over adult skills. Brexit, by removing an alternative source of skilled labour which has been trained at someone else’s expence, is adding to fears that we simply won’t have the human capacities to meet society’s needs at home and compete in a global economy.

Little wonder that policy communities are thinking hard about future options. But we now learn that the UK is far from alone. As part of its work on education, gender and work, the World Economic Forum is drafting proposals for A New Deal for Lifelong Learning, to be debated at the WEF’s Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2018.

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While I am pleased that such an influentual grouping is taking lifelong seriously, the WEF will be concerned primarily with lifelong learning as a social and economic good, which can support strategies for inclusion and growth. So the risk is that the great and the good who meet in Davos will take a narrow and instrumental view.

Still, I am heartened to hear that WEF has asked Alan Tuckett to join the dialogue on A New Deal for Lifelong Learning. As the person who invented the term ‘seriously useless learning’, I think we can expect Alan to put the case for a broad and generative approach to adult learners.