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?

New Pict

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:

New Picture (2)

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.


The crisis in part-time higher education: its impact in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

Part-time undergraduate study in England is collapsing. Most people shrug, and put this down to the impact of fees. I’m convinced that England’s sudden shift to a high fee system has had some impact on part-time study, in spite of some fairly generous bursaries and fee waiver policies. But is this the only factor at work?

A quick look at the other UK nations suggests that this is far too simple a view. Much of the recent debate about part-time higher education was based on newly-published HESA data. These figures might suggest that part-time study is thriving elsewhere in the UK – but we need to bear in mind that for the first time, HESA now attributes Open University students to the nation in which they study; previously, HESA attributed all OU students to England, which is where the OU has its campus.

For this one year only, HESA has also made its figures available on the old basis – ie, allocating all OU students to England. The new system gives us a better picture of part-time study as a whole, but the old basis allows us to look more closely at part-time study in face-to-face universities. As the table shows, the pattern is very clear indeed.

First, it shows that part-time higher education is in decline in all four UK nations. But it also shows a particularly steep decline in Scotland. In the years 2009-10 to 2011-12, the number of part-time higher education in Scottish universities fell by a quarter, and albeit at a slower pace, the collapse has continued since then.

Why should this be so? Well, we don’t really know, as the only part of the UK to commission serious research into the issue has been in England, though how much notice the Government took of Claire Callender’s findings is debateable. Elsewhere in the UK, the funding bodies and national governments have preferred not to be troubled by inconvenient evidence in the first place.

So I am speculating – though I am speculating on the basis of experience as well as research into related issues. Fees may well be part of the equation. Initially, the Scottish Government abolished fees for full-time home undergraduates only. When it introduced waivers for part-timers, they were complicated, poorly understood and means-tested, so I would expect them to have deterred some part-timers.

And maybe demand for part-time higher education is falling generally. We might expect this to be the case, given that the massive expansion of full-time study since the 1990s means that most school-leavers with suitable qualifications now find it easy to enter higher education, though perhaps not at the university of their first choice.

But institutions also carry part of the responsibility. Some have never allowed part-time undergraduate study; but others have reduced the number of part-time opportunities because they are attracting more full-time candidates than in the past, and only have a fixed number of funded places. Put simply, part-time students fail the ‘convenience’ test, and institutions have therefore replaced them with full-timers.

So thank goodness, you might say, for the OU. Sadly, although the OU continues to make a massive contribution to part-time higher education across the UK, the OU’s undergraduate numbers are falling in all four nations.

In short, our governments have made a right old mess of part-time higher education, and this in turn is further eroding our already battered lifelong learning system across the UK. This will have far-reaching consequences in terms of equality, with opportunities denied to those who were failed by the system first time around, and in terms of long term and sustainable economic recoveryt.

Tom Lovett, 1936-2012

I’ve been thinking recently about community and learning in hard times. These reflections are partly triggered by the way in which many organisations are now talking about ‘community engagement’ in their core mission. But they are also prompted by the death in May of Tom Lovett, one of those inspirational figures whose ideas and interests spanned adult learning, community development and radical thinking more generally. And Tom was not a mere writer; he also created things, including a whole bundle of courses and events around community learning and development, and of course the Ulster People’s College, of which he was a founder and director.

And Tom’s death was also a personal loss. I met and liked him while I was still working at Northern College in Barnsley; then I worked alongside him for four years at the University of Ulster, where he held a chair in adult education. But he had influenced me much earlier.

Adult Education, Community Development and the Working Class was the first book I had ever read about adult learning that made any impression. Before that I had read two other books in our field, both of which I found insufferably self-satisfied and smug. And I discovered that many senior adult educators couldn’t understand why I thought a book about their profession actually mattered – they worked in the field, but they saw all the interesting debates as happening elsewhere, in economics or history or cultural studies.

Published in 1975, Tom’s first book was a seminal work which combined reflection on earlier traditions of radical adult education with an attempt to theorise a progressive practice for today. He wrote not only about Paulo Freire but also about Moses Coady and the Antigonish movement in Canada, Myles Horton and the Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center) in Tennessee. For people like me, this was an extraordinary moment of illumination, lighting up the invisible ties between my everyday teaching and the wider world of civil rights, community organising, and radical social change. Tom published several other books, and continued to write until ill health made it impossible. Much to my joy, he asked me to contribute a chapter to a collection inspired by R H Tawney’s dictum that all successful adult education movements are also social movements.

As well as writing, Tom also taught and worked in the field. He was involved in the Home Office-funded Community Development Project in Liverpool in the early 1970s, and much of his early writing was influenced by the healthy debate among the CDPs over their role and purpose. He then moved to the University of Ulster, first in Derry and than at Jordanstown, where he developed a number of programmes in community development and community relations that brought together working class men and women from across Northern Ireland’s different communities.

Firmly on the political Left, and deeply marked by his Belfast upbringing, Tom developed an argument for adult learning as a core element in community development; he also urged practitioners to become involved in community action, particularly where it involved action by local people themselves, acting to advance their own interests. After retiring he continued his involvement in community development in North Belfast.

I learned a great deal from Tom, and admired him personally. Apart from anything else, he came into adult education the hard way. He grew up in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, then trained as an aircraft fitter at Shorts, then worked on the buses. His formal experience of education came through the Workers’ Educational Association, followed in 1962 by a year at Ruskin College and then an Oxford degree. He faced considerable hostility during the Troubles, with neither side able (or willing) to accept that he respected and trusted people with very different views from theirs. Most of us come from comparatively cosy backgrounds; Tom came through the flames.

So my first reflection is that these are indeed hard times, but we’ve been through worse. Second, there is a large and open agenda for adult learning linked to community development and community action. Third, what we mean and understand by community development and action have changed over the last two decades, and we need to adjust and adapt adult learning accordingly. Fourth, we need to think about digital technologies in this context, not only as tools for learning but as tools for new types of community and civic action. And fifth, I now find it very difficult to imagine a bright working class lad getting himself into university at the age of 26 and subsequently becoming a professor, but I hope I am wrong.