Mine’s an espresso! Learning with the Popup College

I’m a fanatical coffee drinker, so it was inevitable that I’d get excited about adult education classes in Costa. The courses are the brainchild of PopUp College, founded in Cambridge in 2015 by Jason Elsom as a response to the collapse in publicly funded adult learning, and which now claims to be providing 240 courses in 55 locations across the country.

So far as I can tell, most of the courses are provided through public bodies, mainly colleges. PopUp’s website lists seven partner colleges or college groups. Local Costa stores provide the space; presumably the coffee chain, which is owned by Whitbread, benefits from favourable publicity. 

Courses aren’t cheap: ten sessions of holiday Spanish at the Greenwich branch of Costa will set you back £120, while you’ll pay £75 for Art History & Appreciation at the Altrincham branch. Compare this with the £80 for a local authority ten week Spanish course in Scarborough, or £94 for Art Appreciation with the WEA in Reading, and you’ll see that the prices are broadly comparable. Unlike the WEA or local government provision, there is no pressure for accreditation or assessment. 

The topics and prices suggest that the initiative is aimed at the traditional adult education market, albeit one that has embraced the ‘cappuccino culture’ that now permeates large parts of the urban middle class socio-cultural milieu. It is obvious that the PopUp concept will appeal less to those who find ‘cappuccino culture’ a bit posh and poncy, or who simply can’t afford the fees.

It is also geographically limited. Perhaps predictably, the vast majority of PopUp courses are in London, with smaller clusters elsewhere. At present there are none at all in Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales.

Will the PopUp concept endure, or is it a brief fad? I rather hope it lasts: it seems to me an imaginative attempt to keep part of the adult education system alive and well, and I will watch its development with interest. I’d love to know what others make of this

 

My top books of 2016

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By this time of the year I’m heartily sick of “best of” lists. Sporting moments, movies, dead celebrities, kitten GIFs – there’s no end to the things that can be turned into an annual league table.But books are the oppositive of trivial, and when the Times Higher invited me to nominate my top two books of 2016, I jumped at the chance.

My first choice was related to my interest in the way that education shapes social mobility – a relationship that cuts both ways, as education (including adult learning) produces and legitimates privileges and inequalities, while at the same time providing a pathway for the least advantaged individuals and groups to improve their life chances and access rewarding careers. My sense is that the social mobility debate has been rather Brito-centric, so it was a real pleasure to recommend a set of case studies that applies a shared approach to the issue of social mobility in quite different types of economically-advanced societies.

Second, I opted for a biography of the Frankfurt School. I found Stuart Jeffries’ study conceptually astute, and historically aware, as well as highly readable. He has the ability to place his subjects in their wider socio-cultural context, while also attending to aspects of their everyday lives. I was utterly persuaded of the importance of family and ethnicity in the formation of the first generation: Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer were typical, sharing an upbringing in comfortable Jewish suburban homes, and rebelling against those very capitalist virtues that had made their families rich. Jeffries evokes this milieu beautifully, while quietly insisting that Benjamin was the outstanding intellectual of them all. Habermas doesn’t emerge from the story well, and Honneth merits barely a mention.

Other than sharply analytical curiosity in cultural practices, the book left me wondering how much of the Frankfurt School legacy will survive. We don’t need Benjamin’s soilt tantrums (apparently he was unable to make a cup of coffee well into his thirties), and I certainly hope that their political pessimism and aloofness doesn’t linger, as the next year or two will require inspiration and organised action. We can seek some pointers for that journey in a book I didn’t recommend, Linden West’s Distress in the City: Racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education. While I found this a stunning study of contemporary social solidarities and sharp divisions, set in Linden’s native Stoke, the author is a friend and I provided the foreword, so I felt obliged to leave it out.

What I would say is that reading the book certainly helped me understand the anger, alienation and despair of so many of our citizens. West explores the life worlds of working class people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and political traditions, and both genders; and he does so with humanity and sympathy. West’s compassion and integrity are a long way from the demeaning stereotypes of the post mortem on the Brexit referendum, and he concludes with a call for adult learning and democratic renewal that can make the most of the ‘resources of hope’ that he discerns among those he interviews. I hope he reaches the wide audience that his argument merits.

I was similarly impressed by Jan Etienne’s study of first generation African Caribbean women in Britain.explores the learning lives of a group of older women. As well as analysing these accounts in solid academic manner, Etienne represents them in a creative and imaginative way as scenes from a drama.And she does so with humour (including her interviewees’ mocking of her as a middle class academic), drawing on a rich variety of spoken and written English.

While I don’t buy into the idea of a distinctively ‘womanist’ way of learning, the book develops a black feminist perspective that celebrates sisterhood while never shying away from experiences of oppression. I didn’t feel able to include Learning in Womanist Ways in my Times Higher selection because I examined the doctoral thesis on which it draws, but I found it absorbing and informative, and it makes a major contribution to the literature on learning in later life – as well as to our understandings of what it means to be senior, female and black in contemporary Britain.

From the Times Higher Education, 23 December 2016

Brexit and the closure of Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning

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Provide your own caption!

The University of Leicester’s Council has decided to continue with the planned closure of its Lifelong Learning Centre. This has been an unedifying process for the University, which found itself on the receiving edge of criticism from its own staff, as well as from the local councils and MPs.In the process, the University got itself some extremely unfavourable media coverage, particularly after Private Eye exposed its rationale as being less than truthful.

As a governing body which exists to hold the University’s management to account, you’d have thought Council might have asked the Vice Chancellor why he thought it was a good idea to get into Private Eye. If other members of staff had generated such negative publicity, they would have been accused of bringing the University into disrepute. And the Eye exposed flaws in the University’s case that lay members in particular should have found disturbing. But Council showed no such backbone.

The Centre’s supporters, meanwhile, ran a magnificent #savevaughan campaign. Former students, part-time staff and local people all spoke about what lifelong learning had meant to them, and how it had changed learners’ lives. The campaigners made wise use of Freedom of Information legislation to pinpoint inaccuracies in the University management’s case. Following an embarrassing few months, presumably Leicester’s Vice Chancellor will shortly be asking his colleagues in Universities UK to renew their self-interested attack on the Freedom of Information Act.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, I thought I’d check what Leicester University’s management had to say about Brexit. Generally, the higher education sector in Britain is strongly Europhile, and several universities abandoned their usual non-political stance to argue publicly for a Remain vote. Paul Boyle, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, was one of those who signed an ‘open letter to British voters‘ calling for them to vote Remain. After the result was declared Boyle described it as: “a shocking result for the nation and its universities and a dark day for UK science”.

No doubt Professor Boyle, like many other senior academics, now blames ‘British voters’ for their failure to understand the complexities of the EU, and thinks they should never have been asked for their view on its future. But an informed and tolerant citizenry is exactly what the Vaughan Centre existed to support. Closing it is a slap in the face to the city and its people, and it weakens the University’s contribution to and place within the local and national lifelong learning system.

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Self-congratulation – eight years after the event

None of this stops the University management from boasting in their agreement with the Office for Fair Access about their success in attracting and retainng adult learners, and claiming – rather ambiguously – that they will in future ‘work to better understand the student experience for young and mature students’. Nor does it prevent them from inserting the usual guff about local communities into their corporate strategy.

Finally, I suspect that the minor – maybe non-existent – savings from closing Vaughan will do virtually nothing to help Boyle in his proclaimed aim “to pioneer a distinctive elite of research-intensive institutions”. It will simply further detach the University from the community that brought the University into being.

 

 

The ongoing decline in part-time higher education in the UK

Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency confirm that the number of people studying part-time has continued to fall. While the number of part-time higher education students in further education colleges is buoyant, the numbers at HEIs have fallen substantially.

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Over five years, the higher education sector has lost over 14% of its undergraduate degree students, and over 50% of its ‘other undergraduate’ students ( a category which includes people on Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, as well as since modules and accredited short courses).

This continuing decline reflects badly on governments, whose tuition fee policies have slashed demand for a mode of study that allows people to combine work with learning. It also reflects badly on the higher education sector, which has preferred to recruit young school-leavers onto full-time courses (largely because, in my experience, this enables more accurate mid-term planning) and to close down adult education programmes.

Effectively, the four national governments of the UK are presiding over the dismantling of one key plank of the lifelong learning system. The fact that they seem to be stumbling blindly into this policy by default is neither an excuse nor a help.

 

Does Britain need a new national institute for lifelong learning?

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The Institute’s membership forms are still listed in the URL as ‘NIACE Membership’

I’ve been participating in a lively email debate recently about the way in which adult learners and providers ought to be represented. The debate was triggered by the Learning and Work Institute’s announcement that it had appointed Stephen Evans as its new director, someone with considerable experience in the areas of employment and skills, but less well versed in some other areas of adult education.

One reply to LWI’s email came from a retired university adult educator who used to hold a senior position in the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.While he remains a keen supporter of liberal adult education, he no longer wishes to continue his life membership of NIACE’s successor organisation.A number of other senior adult education supporters and professionals responded to his original message, some of them also resigning their membership.Some have even suggested that a new organisation is needed.
It has been an informative and thoughtful conversation, in which I’m firmly on the “remain” side.Partly this is because of the excellent work that LWI continues to do in support of adult educators of many different varieties, including those involved in areas such as prison education, citizenship education and literacies. I value the work LWI does in promoting adult learning at the main party conferences and in its lobbying, as well as its contribution to European policy debates.
For me, there is far more continuity with the work undertaken by NIACE than some colleagues are suggesting, and far less discontinuity. Of course there has been a shift, and it is clearly in the direction of skills and employability as well as towards younger learners.
But this shift has taken place across the board, including in the field of practice. Many universities have pulled out of extramural type provision, local adult education services have been slashed, and some liberal adult education providers have vanished.While new providers are flourishing, from private initiatives to voluntary and self-help providers, they do not necessarily identify with the adult education tradition.
A profound change in the field, though, is no reason for the adult education tradition to go off and die. I can’t see any reason why adult educators – and their representative organisations – should not engage with labour market training.
Perhaps I am partly influenced in this view by coming from a slightly different corner of our little forest from some other colleagues. My early days in adult education were spent at Northern College, which tried to weld together the best of the liberal tradition with social purpose adult education, and deliberately recruited working class students.
As others were very happy to point out, this separated us both from the numerically dominant mainstream of local authority adult education, and the culturally dominant world of the extra-mural departments. And when I moved to the new continuing education department at Warwick, working in the areas of access and second chance education, plenty of extra-mural specialists were happy to tell us that we were selling their tradition down the river.
So I’m used to hearing how crap employability is, usually by people in comfortable  employment themselves. And when the proposed merger between NIACE and the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion first came up I was fine with the choice of partner (link). I’d known colleagues from the Unemployment Unit (CESI’s predecessor) from its early years, and had enormous respect for some of its specialists such as Dan Finn and Paul Convery. They undertook project work and research with marginalised and stigmatised groups – as did NIACE, particularly through its REPLAN team.
Over time the Unit evolved and changed, as did many other bodies. It merged with YouthAid in 2001 to form CESI, and it sharpened its focus on research. CESI struck me as an appropriate partner, and in the circumstances as a very good one. Others took a different view (see here for Stephen McNair’s critique). To sloganise a bit, unemployed learners and young disadvantaged adults are adult learners too.
And as Paul Stanistreet pointed out at the time of the merger, the circumstances were dire. Carrying on as before was not an option. First, the field was changed and continues to do so, and NIACE’s role was always to represent the field as it is (rather than as we would like it to be). Second, the national policy context changed and is shifting rather quickly as we write these messages; the context after 2010 was always likely to be much tougher for adult learning, with serious implications for NIACE. Third, and closely related, the money dried up. Member subscriptions and book sales won’t fund a national representative body, so the options are limited.
As some of you will know, I’m committed to and proud of the social and civic purpose tradition of adult education. It isn’t the only significant part of our field, nor should it be, but I’m glad that it survives and in some cases thrives. I don’t see resigning my LWI membership as in any way helping to strengthen and maintain that tradition, or even contributing constructively to the future.
And even if a new association is needed, it will have to appeal beyond the old adult educators like myself who look back yearningly to better days. It will also need to engage with colleagues outside England, especially in Wales where NIACE and now LWI play a major role.
I don’t think LWI is perfect, but it’s what we have. My preference is to work with it and help it succeed. One thing it needs to sort out soon is why it has members and engage in them in debate about what it would like them to do and where we all want the future priorities to lie. But it also has to get on with negotiating its place in a world that has become much less hospitable to an open, broad and generous view of publicly funded adult learning. And we shouldn’t blame LWI for creating that world.

“Research and education are the sinews of economic war”: trying to build a European spirit

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Jacques Delors. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

In January 1989, Jacque Delors (President of the European Commission) gave a lengthy speech to the European Parliament. His topic was the implementation of the Single European Act – signed off, among others, by Margaret Thatcher – which created a single market across the ten twelve member states. Creating the single market, he said, required more than moving to free trade within the EU. It also meant giving the European Community ‘a little more soul’.

Liberalising capital movements, harmonising standards and mutual recognition of diplomas were all essential steps. But, he said, the trouble is that people ‘cannot fall in love’ with a single market. In order to win their consent, Delors proposed that the Commission had to think broadly about how to build a ‘European consciousness’.  And it was in this context that he proposed to expand the Commission’s role in education and research.

Delors’ rationale for a European education policy was couched in strictly economic terms, as a matter of competitiveness. Hence the vivid metaphor:

At a time of profound change, research and education are the sinews of economic war

He was also clearly pondering cultural battles, worrying over Japanese domination of audio-visual communications technologies and American domination of content, as well as environmental regulation, international aid, workers’ rights, monetary policy and a variety of other themes. But it is striking that he started with education and research as a means of engaging young Europeans and providing ‘tangible proof that the Community is not a technocratic machine but a human venture’.

This speech also marks the start of Delors’ attempt to broaden ideas of education beyond schooling, and to embrace what he would subsequently call ‘lifelong learning’. He acknowledged that the Commission’s powers over education were limited, but suggested that this could be changed, not least because the challenges facing education itself were changing: “Ten years after we leave school or university, our skills can be obsolescent’.

I stumbled across this speech online, thanks to the European Parliament’s digitisation programme. I missed it twenty years ago, when I was researching for a book on European Union policies for education and training. It therefore helps fill in a gap in the history of European policies for education, and shows that the idea of lifelong learning was there from the start.

Delors’ speech also gives us an indication of what the EU has been missing in recent years. I’m not arguing for or against his political strategy, but rather noting that he had one which involved trying to engage citizens in the process of European construction. Jean-Claude Juncker presumably has strengths, though the only one I know of is designing business-friendly tax regimes, but thinking strategically about how you get people to ‘fall in love’ with a free trade area is not among them.

The fall-out after Brexit rather illustrated this point. Here in Germany, a large number of commentators have lamented the inability of Europe’s currently leaders to win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, in the UK, it turns out that there is a cultural chasm between those who turn out to have developed some kind of European identity and those who identify strongly with their nation.The first group felt bereft after the vote, the second group were jubilant.

I’m not so concerned about the rights and wrongs of this as the extent of the division, and the way in which the referendum has laid it bare. How do we deal with it? And does Europe need a new Delors in Brussels – a Delor for our own times? Or is it once more a project for technocrats, and a playground for globalisation’s winners?

Adult learners in England still under attack

In the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that participation in public adult learning could not get much worse. Data updated today, available here, show that after repeated declines in recent years, the number of adults in England taking courses funded by the Skills Funding Agency fell yet again last year.

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The detailed results of the Statistical First Release show that the collapse was sharper than average among those taking ‘Full Level 2 courses’ –  i.e. precisely the skills level that government is prioritising. This group fell by 12.7% over the year. Even worse, though, was the collapse in those taking ‘below Level 2 courses (excluding English and Maths)’, who fell by 21.4%.The numbers in community learning courses fell by 7.2%.

The system did little better by basic skills learners. The number of ESOL learners fell by 5.8%, Maths learners by 6.6%, and other English learners (mostly literacy students) by 5.5%. In fact, the only groups to increase were adult apprentices (very welcome, but they are still well below their peak level two years ago) and those – relatively few – who took Level 4 courses.

Of course, there will be alternatives to publicly provided adult education, with a thriving commercial sector and a very active third sector (think men’s sheds and the U3A). Meanwhile, the poorest and those with the least cultural and social capital will be left behind.

Little wonder that the All-Party Group for Adult Education, chaired by Chi Onwurah, recently reported widespread fears of a ‘stated danger that national policy for adult education could disappear by 2020’. And this for a country with an aging working population, and a poor productivity record, facing massive technological and social changes.