Checking the health of adult learning research

I’ve just spent an enjoyable and stimulating day at the 2017 SCUTREA conference.  The acronym represents a rather unwieldy title, the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults, and it is best understood as the main UK gathering for researchers in adult learning.

For many years SCUTREA drew its audience from academics working in specialist adult education departments. There are fewer of these than in the past, but SCUTREA has held up rather well, and it coninues to be a lively, congenial and stimulating event. What does this tell us about the state of our field?

First, it continues to attract a decent level of participation. Eightynine people registered for this year’s event, which is about the same level as for other SCUTREA conferences in recent years, and the sessions I attended provoked a healthy level of debate. Almost all the participants also offered papers, many looking at adult learning through perspectives influenced by postcolonialism, intersectionality, and queer theory.

Just by way of contrast, I pulled out a copy of the SCUTREA papers from 1982, when there were 11 presentations and 61 delegates, plus 5 ‘observers’ (I wonder whether the observers were allowed to speak). You can see from the titles that the contents were largely empirical with a focus on practice.

Scutrea82

SCUTREA has always attracted overseas researchers, and I was interested to see that this year they outnumbered the 39 UK delegates. Though I haven’t checked, I don’t remember this happening in previous years. What was more familiar was the source of the overseas participants: most came from Anglophone nations, with 14 from Canada, 12 from the USA, 4 from Ireland and 2 from Australia. Only 11 came from continental Europe, with the largest contingents coming from Sweden (4) and Germany (3).

The UK delegates came from 18 different HEIs and one residential college. The largest group from any one institution came from Huddersfield, whose Centre for Research in Education and Society is clearly thriving. In 1982, the largest contingent (7) were from Nottingham. My sense is that the centre of gravity in our field is shifting toward the post-92 HEIs, whose role in further education teacher education gives them a critical mass of academics.

I’ve taken SCUTREA conferences before as a health check for research in our field; so what can we conclude from the 2017 event? I think my own conclusions are firstly that adult learning continues to provide an important focus for research, and that SCUTREA continues to provide asignificant forum for parts of that research. I also think that SCUTREA has a job on its hands to attract a larger share of the UK research community in our field. Taking the long view, though, it is clearly doing fine!

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.

A learned society for research on adult learning

I fell ill in the middle of this year’s SCUTREA conference, and missed the annual general meeting. In recent years, these have provided a forum for soul-searching, and anxiety about the future of the organisation. In this, SCUTREA mirrors the wider field of practice, where concerns about the condition and direction of adult learning are widespread.

Yet in some ways, SCUTREA is in good shape. Nearly 80 people attended this year’s SCUTREA in Glasgow, up on last year, and enough to generate a sense of buzz and energy. Of course this is fewer than attended a decade ago, when well over a hundred people turned up.

That in turn reflected the surge of appointments in areas like widening participation, which were largely practice-driven, and generated a lot of often small scale reflections on one’s own work. This is an entirely legitimate area of scholarship, and one very much in SCUTREA’s tradition (the “T”, after all, stands for “Teaching”). But it probably inflated our expectations.

Of course, there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ or ‘right size’ for a learned society. I have on my desk a copy of the proceedings of SCUTREA’s twelfth conference, which comprises a grand sum of eleven papers, three of them authored by non-academics, and all bar one from the UK. Two more contributions were excluded, one because it was already published elsewhere, and one because the author hadn’t finished it.

So there were thirteen papers in 1982, compared with 55 or so at Glasgow last week. It looks as though we will go through a period when SCUTREA is smaller than in the recent past, but larger than for much of its history. That is unwelcome, but not critical.

What is more of a problem, I hear, is finding people willing to do the work. As old office holders shuffle away, presumably to go and run their local U3A and lobby the local adult education organiser, new volunteers are notable by their absence. I wonder why this is, and two explanations spring to mind.

First, it may be that the emerging generation of researchers into adult learning do not see SCUTREA as their ‘scholarly home’. Much of the best new work is being undertaken by people whose primary academic identity is in disciplines such as history, geography, sociology or mainstream education.

Second, there might be something of  value change as a new generation replaces the old. If it is true that younger academics are more instrumental and individualistic in their values, then presumably they look at the range of learned societies on offer, and engage with those that present the best ways of optimising their careers. Given how competitive it is now to climb the greasy academic pole, I wouldn’t blame them.

Still, I think that SCUTREA has a role. This lies, for me, in bringing people together to exchange ideas and information (which it does very well), representing our collective interests to the outside world (which it does rather badly), and building capacity for the future (which it may not see as its job). Perhaps a clearer and more strategic focus would help to attract new people in to take on the tasks of making SCUTREA run.

How far should universities go to avoid engaging with their local communities?

 

A senior member of a major British adult education provider told me last week that he was disappointed by the higher education sector, finding it aloof and unresponsive. This had not always been his experience, so he was wondering whether I thought the universities were now out of the adult learning field altogether. His view was that this was largely caused by research assessment regimes, which have rewarded academics who impress other academics, while discouraging any wider engagement in the community.

This is probably a reasonable indictment of the old Research Assessment Exercise. Or, more accurately, it is a fair description of how many academics and their managers chose to respond to the old RAE. Nor is this simply a British phenomenon. In many countries, academic research is measured either by the numbers of times that their work is cited by other academics, or by the number of papers that they publish in journals that are highly regarded by other academics.

This is even worse than the old RAE. It leads to entirely predictable games-playing, as academics are clever folk who will devise the most effective ways of achieving high citations, or getting into those highly-rated journals.  Governments appear to be satisfied with this, as they invariably either boast about the number of “our scientists” who perform well on this measure, or berate their nation’s scholars for failing to measure up. But whichever system was used, the result has been to turn academics inwards, encouraging them to speak above all to their own peers, and to ignore the wider community (with the obvious exception of those organisations who pay for and commission various commercially driven projects).

This seems to me entirely counter-productive. If we cannot explain our research to the wider community, and justify it to the public, then we cannot expect our research to command public support. Rather, we should expect much of the public to mistrust academics, viewing them either as self-indulgent and wildly out of touch, or as in the pay of large vested interests. Over time, this is bound to undermine the political consensus in favour of publicly funded academic research.

I am therefore moderately encouraged by a number of recent developments. The first is the inclusion of ‘impact’ in the new research assessment system. This requires academics to show that high quality research has in some way influenced the wider public, and has had benefits for them. This will explicitly include the measurement of impact on civil society and third sector organisations as well as on the public and private sectors. This is certainly not without its problems – not the least of which is that the sector has limited experience of assessing the impact of research on people who are not other academics. But it is a step in the right direction.

The second is the decision of several universities to appoint professors specialising in the public understanding of science. Marcus du Sautoy is probably the best known of these, thanks to his broadcasting collaboration with the comedian Dara O’Briain. Sheffield has gone a step further, appointing Angie Hobbs as professor in the public understanding of philosophy. Again, this seems to me to be a sensible decision by those universities that are far-sighted enough to recognise that an informed public opinion is in their long term interests as much as anybody’s.

The third is the growing willingness of academic researchers to engage with those who criticise and protest against their work. In the most recent case, scientists at Rothamsted Institute of Arable Crops Research offered to meet a direct action group of anti-GM protesters to discuss their concerns. The protesters in turn called for an open debate, which the two sides are now arranging. It is unlikely that this dialogue will resolve all the differences, which run deep, but it is a world away from the violent police-led responses of the past.

These are welcome developments, though it probably goes without saying that I’d like to see them become the norm rather than the exception. If universities are public institutions then why would they not expect all of their researchers to promote public understanding of their work? Perhaps it should be a requirement of all public research funding that the researchers should be willing to communicate their findings to the local community, and indeed listen to what the community thinks of it.