Green Party policy for lifelong learning

Several people recently took part in a Twitter exchange about the policies of the main parties towards adult learning. I expressed the view that all the main parties – including Labour and the Scottish Nationalists – of cutting public favoured reduced spending on what was already a very small field. Effectively, their policy means privatised provision for those who can afford it, and minimal public provision geared to narrowly instrumental policy aims for the most stigmatised.

Natalie Bennett

Natalie Bennett

The only party to take part in the discussion was Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, who sent me a link to the relevant section of their education policy statement. No-one expects the Greens to form the next UK Government, but they are polling well enough at the moment to suggest that they might be able to influence a minority Labour Government if that is what we get. So here is what they have to say about adult learning:

ED260 As stated in the Introduction the Green Party believes that life-long learning will help to create a healthy society.

ED261 As adult education is constantly evolving it demands a flexible approach to new courses whilst ensuring core aspects of education are preserved even where enrolment is low.

Policy

ED262 There should be funded opportunities to study at any level at any stage of life. This is essential for the 21st century; it may be done increasingly on-line, but with local centres for study support groups and face-to-face meetings with tutors.

ED263 To promote accessibility it will be provided in town centres rather than in out of town universities where possible.

ED264 There will be a minimum requirement to provide free education for adults to learn essential literacy, numeracy and life skills including Parenting programmes, and to acquire skills and qualifications which will help them directly gain employment. This will include provision for distance and e-learning, following models such as that of the Open University.

ED265 Adult education should embrace and encourage learning for learning’s sake and as such funding for additional courses will be decided at a local level, without it having to be target-driven and focused only on qualifications.

Like a lot of Green Party policies, there are gaps and loose ends. Funding is one, but so is responsibility for aligning supply and demand. For example, how does this relate to the Party’s policies on decentralisation – and how far will local government have any part in local delivery? Nevertheless, it is welcome that one of our smaller but still serious parties is developing clear policies that do not rely primarily on the free market, with all the inequalities and inefficiencies that untrammeled markets involve.

Note: I am a member of the Green Party

Lifelong learning and the global market – will Europe benefit from American competition?

Should lifelong learning be opened up to competition? In particular, wwould the world be better if American providers were allowed to enter the European market – and, presumably, vice versa?

This idea is being discussed as part of the free trade treaty that the European Union is currently negotiating with the United States. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it is fair to say, isn’t at the tip of most people’s tongues in Britain. Essentially, it is a set of negotiations over free trade between the EU and US. In so far as people have heard of it, it is probably in connection with the health service, where the proposed treaty will make it much easier for private health providers to compete across the Atlantic.ttip

But the treaty will cover many areas, including at least some education services. Precisely how these are being handled in the negotiations is something we will probably never know. The whole process takes place behind closed doors, in secret and without democratic oversight, and thse responsible issue only a minimum of officially-sanctioned ‘news’.

Higher education is an obvious target for private firms, particularly in the UK where the universities are legally private (charitable) corporations, albeit that many of their activities are publicly funded. The Universities and Colleges Union has expressed grave misgivings over the likely consequences for higher education in Britain.

But the treaty could also cover other areas of post-school education, especially if they operate in any kind of ‘mixed economy’. This covers further education and skills training, which may involve a mixture of public funding and both private (including voluntary sector) and public provision, as well as adult learning. The American negotiators have explicitly expressed interest in ‘privately-operated adult and other education services’ – including vocational training, and covering services provided digitally along with those delivered face-to-face.

You may well think that the benefits of American corporations providing numeracy skills, second language teaching or local history classes probably aren’t immediately apparent. Past experience, though, shows that where the US has introduced particular services into free trade treaties, it is because someone has lobbied for them to be included. The bubbling world of MOOCs is another likely target for commercial competitors. And their track record suggests that the larger corporations will use the force of the law to protext their rights, challenging regulation and inspection regimes, and blocking the publication of unfavourable comment.

At this point, I should declare an interest: since the mid-80s I have been a card-carrying member of the only political party in Britain to campaign against TTIP, the Greens. So you may decide that I am an untrustworthy witness, or you may share my unease over what I see as a threat to standards and – given the lack of transparency over this process – to democracy. If so, you should at least be writing to share your views with your regional MEP.

A legal requirement for open access?

Last Thursday, the German state of Baden-Württemberg approved a new law on higher education. It covers quite a number of areas, from access to degree study to an Ombudsman system for doctoral research students, but it is the section on open access publishing that has attracted far the most attention.

Under the new law, universities are required to support their researchers in exercising their right to a non-commercial reproduction of their work after a period of one year. As the publishers do not accept that researchers have any such ‘right’, it is entirely unsurprising that they are bitterly critical of this provision.

Theresia Bauer, the Green Party minister who guided the law through parliament, argues that open access is desirable in principle as a way of informing public opinion. She also cites more practical grounds: the public already pay for the research, and the rising price of journal subscriptions means that even university libraries struggle to pay once more for the published findings.

Conservative opposition politicians have supported the publishers, arguing that it contravenes copyright law. Some prominent academics have even argued that the requirement to make their publicationsavailable in an institutional is an attack on academic freedom.

Mercedes-Benz-welt, Stuttgart

Mercedes-Benz-Welt, Stuttgart

You might not know much about Baden-Württemberg, but that doesn’t make it a minor backwater. It has nearly 11m inhabitants and its capital, Stuttgart, is home to some of Germany’s best-known quality car manufacturers. It could serve as a model of the successful, dynamic city-region, with a high density of researchers among its population. The state also houses a thriving wine industry and the beer is pretty good too (I once enjoyed a pint – yes, a pint – in a bar that claimed to have been Hegel’s regular when he was a student).

If Baden-Württemberg chose to declare independence from the rest of the federal republic, it would be one of Europe’s most prosperous and attractive countries. So I am starting to wonder what would happen if the Scottish Government adopted a similar principle, and insisted that all academics in publicly funded universities in Scotland should similarly make their work available online.

If Holyrood were to reach such a decision, they would find themselves in open conflict with the UK Government, which has opted for the far more publisher-friendly model of ‘gold open access’. Picking fights with Westminster is what Alex Salmond likes best, so long as he is on a winning wicket. In this case, I am pretty sure that he would find widespread support for ‘green open access’, both in the research community and among the wider public who pay for our research.