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!

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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.