The slippery world of university adult education

Universities in Britain seem at first sight to be increasingly irrelevant to the world of adult learning. Most of the old extra-mural departments are closed or have become a shadow of their former selves, and while there are some highly regarded researchers into adult learning, they rarely see themselves as part of a wider adult education movement.

Debates at a recent SCUTREA conference certainly provided evidence supporting this idea of decline and marginalisation. We heard that the organisation’s membership is in need of renewal, and that active researchers in the field often see their careers as better served by other, more conventionally prestigious learned societies.

Yet there was also evidence of adult educators’ continuing ability to reinvent and reinterpret their work in new circumstances. Reporting on her research into academic work and academic identities, Janice Malcolm from the University of Kent noted a couple of patterns that seem rather telling.

First, she reported on adult educators who were transferred to other departments when their own was shut down. While they took pride in having worked in an area that was willing to experiment and and saw itself as part of a wider process of social change, they could also be relieved that they no longer faced such high expectations as they had when working with adults.

Second, she found that academics who had started their careers in seemingly conventional social science disciplines in fact were often involved in a wide range of external activities. At least in their early academic careers, and often for much longer, they were active in feminist movements, community groups and campaigns of various kinds. They were also creating new sub-disciplines, and setting up institutions such as journals to support this process.

Turning to our own time, Janice noted that the adult education movement has not disappeared. In research terms, many adult educators now studied workplace and professional learnings, as we can see in the success of the international Researching Work & Learning conferences. She also pointed to the importance of impact in higher education, joking that we should start calling adult learners “impactees”, as well as to analogous developments such as citizen science and academic blogging.

I find this a persuasive argument, in so far as it shows the continuing relevance and significance of adult learning to higher education. Indeed, we could add to Janice’s list. Universities have started to appoint academics to promote public understanding of science, maths, even philosophy; others are starting to specialise in engagement. And early careers academics continue to take on part-time roles with adult education providers, whether to make ends meet or to build up their experience.

So quite a few people in universities have an interest in adult learning. They don’t necessarily see themselves as Adult Educators in the great tradition, and the adult education movement might not see them as obvious allies. But they are there, and taken together they represent considerable potential.

Breastfeeding vouchers and the public misunderstanding of science

I planned to blog about Keir Hardie’s views on labour colonies today. But I was so taken aback by public reactions to a new research project that I decided to leave the old Labour leader for tomorrow.

The project in question is one of a set of trials, which will explore the use of vouchers as a way of improving public health. One, for example, is examining the effect of healthy food incentives on obesity. The study which hit the headlines is testing whether vouchers will raise levels of breastfeeding among women who belong to groups where breastfeeding levels are low.

This story could also have been designed to investigate how the public misunderstand research. It has nearly everything that tabloids love – breasts, social class, irresponsible mothers, moral decline, Northern England, and easy jokes about the ‘nanny state’. All that us missing from the mix – so far – is a crazed terrorist asylum seeker.

So out poured the hostility. Predictably, the tabloids were quick off the mark, while the instantly enraged took to Twitter to attack the researchers’ motives and lament the declining standards of British motherhood. In all the fuss, the original story – that this is a trial – got lost. And I assume it got lost because it stood in the way of a flood of emoting opinion.

It occurs to me that something very basic is missing from the way we discuss science – and research in general. The point of a trial is to find out what the effects are of a particular intervention. You can then discuss the findings, work out whether the intervention should be tried in other contexts, and eventually decide what the practical implications are.

The nature of trials is that sometimes you test an intervention that does not have the effects policy makers would like. At least, not with that population at that time. This is, of course, a cue for the tabloids and emoters to shout about a waste of public money. But that’s trials for you: they produce evidence, and you can then apply logic to analysing that evidence.

In this case, the purpose of the study is to improve babies’ health and raise their life chances as adults. If vouchers have that effect, then they might be worth pursuing further. If not, then the researchers from Sheffield and Dundee will have learned something, which may or may not help lead us to other studies of other possibilities.

This isn’t very glamorous, and some of my fellow researchers will think it is “positivist”. And they don’t mean this as praise. But I prefer collecting and analysing evidence to relying on emotion and opinion.

I wish the medical researchers in this project well, and I also look forward to seeing the results. As I do with another set of studies, which NIACE is supporting, which is using trials to examine pedagogic approaches to literacy and numeracy teaching.