Commercial adult education: cupcakes

Demand for adult learning shows no sign of diminishing, yet in many countries the volume of public provision is in decline. That is certainly the case in the UK, where the Learning and Work Institute tracks participation on a regular basis. Meanwhile, provision by voluntary and commercial organisations appears to be thriving.

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It isn’t hard to find examples of new forms of private provision: you can spot them simply by walking around with your eyes open. I photographed these images in a shop window while we were heading for coffee in the Edinburgh suburb of Roseburn. While I mustn’t over-generalise on the basis of a narrow and unrepresentative sample of advertising placards, a few thoughts occur to me.

Businesses sometimes offer courses as a by-product of their main activities, as in this case. Consequently the additional costs of running even an extensive course programme alongside the core activity appear to be quite modest. Prices can seem high (my partner, who is not an adult educator, was shocked in this case by the fee of £65 for a two and a half hour class). The offer is unconstrained by government regulation, or by expectations of a community benefit. There is no bar on participation, but there is also no focus on social or educational disadvantage.

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Alan Tuckett sometimes compares adult learning to an infestation of weeds: “However hard you try, you can never kill it off”. If it dies off in one place, it soon pops up in another. And while there are benefits from a healthy range of private and voluntary sector provision, I also think there are risks; what we need is a balance, with public policy playing its part alongside other actors.

Education, organisations and civil society

I’m just back from the annual conference of the Commission of Organizational Education of the German Society for Educational Research. This year’s topic was ‘Organization and Civil Society’, a theme close to my own interests in adult learning in connection with social capital and active citizenship.

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The topic was obviously an attractive one: as well as the two keynotes, one in German and one in English, there were 25 papers. A high proportion of papers came from postgraduate researchers, which suggests that the future of this area should be in safe hands. Highlights included studies of:

  • learning through different types of ‘citizen science’, including such grassroots initiatives as the Quantified Self movement;
  • learning and identity in migrants’ voluntary organisations;
  • the development of support for basic literacies in labour office programmes for the unemployed.

Both keynotes came from outside educational studies, which related to a feature of the conference that I found interesting: many of the papers drew on contemporary management and organisational studies, with neo-institutionalism being a particularly strong source of conceptual inspiration.

Among other strong intellectual influences were Pierre Bourdieu, whose work on cultural capital and habitus informed a number of studies of civil society organisations. Unsurprisingly, Bourdieu’s concept of social capital, which relates to the role of networks in elite formation, received little attention.

The other strong thread was reference to contemporary discussions of learning, including organisational learning. Key here were thinkers like Illeris, who have developed broad theories of learning based on syntheses of more empirical literature. If the Communities of Practice or professional learning literatures were discussed in any of the strands, I missed it.

Methodological preoccupations surfaced in a number of discussions of papers drawing on qualitative data. A number of presenters emphasised that they had undertaken a systematic approach to content analysis, and this attracted quite a lot of discussion. I was struck particularly by the influence of Ralf Bohnsack’s work on reconstructive social research, a book that has made virtually no impact in the English-speaking world – though it has parallels with the way in which I and other colleagues have used ‘sensitising concepts’ (including that of ‘habitus’) to guide qualitative data analysis.

I was struck by the lack of clarity and consensus around the idea of civil society. Some papers treated schools and similar formal state institutions as part of civil society, some included major charitable agencies, and others limited their focus to voluntary and community groups.

Interestingly, the conference took place in the Evangelische Hochschule Darmstadt, a ‘university of applied science’ associated with the Lutheran church, whose tradition of diaconical service had a significance influence on the development of the welfare state in Germany. And it allowed me to visit the artists’ colony at Mathildenhöhe, an extraordinary collection of art nouveau buildings sponsored by the Grand Duke Ernst Lugwig.