I spent a week in August stewarding at the local rugby club during Whitby Folk Week. The fact that it was the 50th Folk Week is interesting in its own right, reflecting the rise of a particularly tenacious and passionate sub-culture in the 50s, 60s and 70s, as well as its continuing and changing existence today. But as I was standing by the entrance I was struck by a couple of advertising cards, offering courses and coaching in musicianship, as well as a flyer for Newcastle University’s degree in folk and traditional music.
I’ve been struck for some time by the steady growth of private sector adult learning. No one really knows how large it is, though an investigation in 2009 identified 12,300 private training providers in the UK operating above the VAT threshold. While there were a dozen or so very large providers, most private trainers and educators consisted of one or two people, many of whom made money because many of their costs were concealed (for example, by using home as an office). And many – like folk musicians – offer education and training as a by-product of their main activities.
In much of the UK, I suspect that participation in publicly provided adult learning is very much in the minority. We don’t know whether this is the case, as there is no up-to-date study of the private sector, but it seems a reasonable conclusion.
Recent deep cuts in budgets for public providers, from colleges to councils, have significantly reduced public provision. The very same cuts have increased the private sector workforce by making people redundant or retiring them early, and giving them an incentive to offer their own programmes.
At the same time demand for learning, whether for vocational or personal development, is still rising, and the background factors that generated the 1990s debate over lifelong learning have not gone away. So it is inevitable that private providers, as well as voluntary sector bodies, are stepping in.
I realise that many people won’t welcome this process, but in principle it seems fine to me – with provisos. There is nothing intrinsically positive about state provision of services in itself; on the contrary, a strong state sector is capable of drifting into monopolistic behaviour and box-ticking, where provision is shaped by the interests of providers and a need to perform compliance with bureaucratic demands.
But there are risks with the sort of creeping privatisation that we have seen for the last three decades in the UK, with no significant public debate or the least signs of any policy lead. For me, the first and most obvious is equity. Those who attract the attention of providers are bound to be those who are best resourced and most motivated. Those who aren’t immediately attracted, or are poorly resourced, are likely to find themselves bypassed or funneled into a residual ghetto of under-funded and over-regulated public provision.
Second, training markets are typically rather inefficient. This is partly because the returns to investment are usually long term and – at individual level – unpredictable. While we know that actively learning is likely to produce benefits, people’s ability to identify exactly which types of learning are most efficient at delivering those benefits may be very cloudy. Without some sort of support – what we usually call guidance and counselling – decoding the claims of providers is likely to be challenging, and investment decisions will often produce poor returns.
Third, private training provision is of very variable quality. I’ve chosen to illustrate this blog with a flyer for two musicians of impeccable competence, both of whom I admire greatly. But we know very well that the private sector in education and training has more than fifty shades of grey, with parts of it edging over into overt corruption and fraud, with providers issuing certificates for completion of courses that never took place.
Privatisation of large parts of adult learning seems to me to have gone past the point of no return. Its further growth appears to be unavoidable, and this means that some of the problems and issues need to be addressed. And it is hard to see how this can be achieved without a steering role for the state.
Meanwhile, if you are a lover of traditional music, I can heartily recommend any gig featuring Emily Askew and/or John Dipper.