The quiet resistance

This is an interview I did with Holocaust survivor and anti-fascism campaigner Esther Brunstein back in 2004. Esther talks movingly about surviving the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, and about how learning became both an expression of humanity and an act of resistence. It was originally published in Adults Learning.

While the starving Jews of the Warsaw ghetto uprising resisted the might of the German army for four weeks in 1943, the Jews of Lodz, without weapons or contact with the outside world, demonstrated their resistance in another way. Esther Brunstein, who was 11 years old when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, describes a man-made hell in which every attempt to learn, to be human, was a profound act of resistance.

In the face of extreme starvation, disease and the constant fear of violent death, people manage not only to survive, but also to create, to think, to appreciate art, to learn. Ringed by barbed wire and under the constant watch of German marksmen, the Jews of the Lodz ghetto read poetry, held lectures, gave theatrical performances, even formed choirs. In this way, Esther Brunstein says, she and the other inhabitants of the ghetto, while they lived, managed to retain ‘some semblance of human dignity’, to believe ‘that some things mattered’.

The story of her survival begins with an early childhood spent ‘in a household of ideals’. Her parents were active members of the Bund, the Jewish socialist movement. ‘I was imbued with it,’ she says, ‘What was made very important to us in the ghetto was to observe, take note, but also, if you were to survive, not to lose your sense of humanity. The importance of surviving was to tell the tale. And, you know, that becomes a mission.’

The Bundist school she attended gave her a ‘strong sense of what was just’ which she carried with her into the ghetto. ‘Before the War, I was acutely aware that there was a hostile environment around me. I felt, as a child, the hostility, the anti-Semitism. When, crying, I questioned my family about it, they said, “These people are not educated, it’s not you personally”. We were fighting for a better world and we hoped that this sort of thing would be eradicated. These were the answers we were given and I’m grateful to this day that I wasn’t imbued with any hatred. Belonging to something that was really idealistic made me, as a child, feel safe and protected. Even if the environment is not friendly, one can feel secure where there is love and understanding and where school actually teaches you the same. This was the kind of air I breathed. It felt good.’

Esther was 11 years old, her two older brothers, Peretz and David, 15 and 18 respectively, at the outbreak of war in 1939. ‘From the beginning of 1939, I remember talk about the imminence of war. I was on school holiday, a camping holiday, when, on the 1st of September, war was finally declared. We were very frightened. Although news about Nazi Germany was everywhere and we knew about Kristallnacht, somehow, we thought, deep down, they are a civilised nation, not to be so scared, it’s going to be a Blitzkrieg, it’s going to be over soon.’ Seven days after the outbreak of hostilities, Lodz was occupied by the Germans. ‘Immediately, life changed. Chaos. Fear. Fear to go out in the streets. Suddenly, you knew you were not protected under the law, at all. If you walked in the street and they felt like beating you up, they did. Somebody’s father was beaten up, badly, because he did not step down onto the road as a German soldier approached.

‘Soon, we were forced to wear the yellow star with the word ‘Jude’. That, as a child, caused me a lot of upset. I shed a lot of tears. I didn’t want to go out. I refused. I hated to be stared at, to look different. I suppose that’s how children are. But children grow up fast under circumstances like that. I met up with a few friends. We all agreed that we had nothing to be ashamed of. It was the Germans who should be ashamed for introducing a nasty, medieval custom. We knew that these things had existed before. We had learned that. We decided we had to walk with our heads held high. Wearing the star was just a detail that you had to get used to.’

Shortly after the German occupation began, Esther’s uncle – another Bundist activist – was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured in a prison outside Lodz and shot. Her elder brother fled to Soviet-occupied Polish territory. Her father too was advised to leave for a place where he was not well known. ‘My father left on the 31st of December, another date I can never forget,’ Esther says, ‘So it was just my mother, my brother Peretz, who also survived, and myself who were left in Lodz, but, of course, it was going to be a Blitzkrieg, so we would see each other again pretty soon. Not long after we had to leave our own apartment because it was outside the designated area for the future ghetto’.

Poles were ordered to leave the 4.3 square kilometre territory proposed for the ghetto and Jews from across the city were forced to abandon their homes and most of their possessions, to move into the small area, which, at the beginning, contained in the region of 180,000 people. The area was officially sealed on May 1. ‘The ghetto, almost from the start, was hell, lack of food, the worst possible hygiene conditions, lack of fuel, but most important, starvation, which reached such proportions, unimaginable for normal people. Then, some kind of normalcy was brought into the ghetto by making it almost like a labour camp. The Lodz ghetto is known for that. All kinds of factories were built and machinery brought in. The man in charge said to the Germans that he could make it a real working place, which would be useful for them. And it was. Everything was produced in the ghetto, even luxury goods that were shipped to Germany. Other things were shipped to the Russian front. From 1941 onwards, we were making everything, uniforms, carpets, blankets, shoes, underwear.

‘For a while, school reopened in the ghetto, though it didn’t last long. But even then it was important for us. It also meant a little soup during the day. The few teachers that were left were absolutely wonderful. When I think of them now; idealistic people. They did everything to keep up our morale. We were sitting in the classroom in winter with blue hands from cold and food, just a little watery soup, and we were trying to learn. They even had reports. It didn’t last long. Just one miserable year. Then the schools were closed.

‘Even then, we started meeting in homes. Five children with an older friend. It was safer and though we wouldn’t have proper lessons, we would do a lot of reading, discussing and, sometimes, even producing a little written work about what we had read. And there were books. When we were herded into the ghetto, we brought books with us. We even had a lending library. I remember that we were reading, in Yiddish and Polish, Les Miserables. Somehow we still managed to feel sorry for Jean Valjean and Cosette. That helped to keep our sanity. But, also, I read with other friends, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. It was a fantasy world. There was another world outside and that was important to know because someday we would all be part of a normal world. We had to believe that.’

As conditions in the ghetto worsened, children, who had been put to work in the factories, began to suffer illness and malnutrition. ‘People stopped walking, physically, stopped walking,’ Esther says, ‘Some kind of pill was brought in which helped, but typhus was rampant, TB, dysentery, coupled with dreadful hygienic conditions and hardly any medication, people were just dying in masses. We were losing friends, school friends, cousins. Then the deportations started. They called it “resettlement”. Nobody wanted to go. After two or three years under Nazi rule you just knew instinctively that it bode no good, but no imagination could manufacture what was actually happening. A very big deportation took place at the beginning of ’42. It was to a camp called Chelmno. Not one person ever survived. There was no camp. It was just total deception. They died in the trucks. The gas was put through into the packed carriages. Chelmno was just a place that you entered dead.’

Throughout this time, amid sickness, starvation and death, political groupings continued to meet. ‘They couldn’t do much politically’, Esther says, ‘but it was important to affirm that your ideals weren’t dead in spite of what was happening. One had to preserve one’s sanity and try to survive. There was a drama group that operated in the ghetto, there was an orchestra, people were painting underground and exhibiting. Lectures were held on every possible subject, even choirs were formed. It’s true that someone might have been there one week and then, the next week, he or she wouldn’t be. But it was so important to have this. I was in a group of five. Like we have book clubs here now, we had book circles, except that we were 11, 12 and 13 years old. We would read and if there weren’t enough books to go around, you would read together with a friend, discuss next week what you read and have an older friend lead the group. That is among my good, positive memories. And to this day I feel a sense of pride that we managed to do it.

‘People’s kitchens sprang up in summer 1940, and they became a meeting place. We often wondered whether the world was at all interested in what was happening to us, all this inhumanity. The Gestapo would come into the ghetto sometimes. People were betrayed. They were beaten and tortured. I saw babies being thrown out of hospital windows onto trucks. That was our normal existence, every day fear, every day hope. People risked their lives by listening to the radio. The BBC World Service was the source of all information. But in 1942-43 it seemed that nothing would ever break the German might. They were so powerful and the atrocities they carried out were so unbelievable. The deportations continued. The worst from Lodz was around August, September 1942, when we lost about 20,000 people. When people did not volunteer, the Germans actually came into the ghetto with trucks and with vicious dogs, going from courtyard to courtyard and rounding everybody up and selecting: those on the truck, those stay behind. Those on the truck went to Chelmno. Not one person survived.

‘But even after that, all the activities resumed, we even created humour out of the intolerable conditions. This was all a means of surviving. It’s hard for people to behave in a normal way when circumstances are not normal. When people are hungry, it does not bring out noble feelings. But at the same time, there were fantastic acts of idealism. I was ill. My legs were very swollen and I couldn’t go to work. If you didn’t go to work you didn’t get your midday soup. But a friend of mine worked in the same place as I did. The girls and boys each gave a couple of spoonfuls of watery soup to me. And every day my friend would arrive with his little tin, which everyone wore in the ghetto. That was a big thing. The enormity of it is hard to appreciate when you have a full tummy.

‘Even in that place, youngsters would meet in the afternoon, in one big room and have a little bit of education. We had, in this place, a teacher who had taught us in the beginning when the school was still open. And he would come, to my particular working place, and we would read and concentrate also on some poetry, learn it by heart if possible, recite it, which was important even if you were hungry. What you learned you learned well. It was important. You couldn’t have formal lessons because you had no books, no classrooms. But one had to keep one’s brain as alert as possible, so it was not fully taken up by this gnawing pain of hunger. It wasn’t on a large scale, but it acquired a name and the name was ‘little school’. It was only for a couple of hours. But a couple of hours were a respite from everything else. In most households, there was death and sickness and hunger and cold, and here we had a couple of hours with others and with an adult, a teacher, talking about things that were totally unconnected with what we were going through, trying to be normal children for a couple of hours.’

Despite the strict prohibition on the use of radios, news reached the Jews of Lodz of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. The emaciated, starved Jews of Warsaw resisted the German army for four weeks, before their eventual capitulation and the final liquidation of the ghetto. ‘When the news reached us of the Warsaw uprising,’ Esther says, ‘I remember, how we rejoiced. We couldn’t do it in Lodz because we just didn’t have contact with a single person outside. But to live through one day under those conditions and to retain a sense of human dignity is a great act of resistance and it has to be understood and taken seriously. By the skin of our teeth we held on to that, trying hard not to become totally demoralised, when nothing matters. To the last minute it mattered to us to remain human and humane. The quiet resistance, this was our resistance. If an uprising could have taken place in our ghetto, it would have, but with the ghetto surrounded by barbed wire and German posts every few yards, it was not possible.’

The final liquidation of the Lodz ghetto took place in 1944. Though the Germans were losing the war, their plan to exterminate the remnants of European Jewry continued apace. The remaining Jews were told to prepare for ‘resettlement’, before being rounded up for the final transports. ‘There was no more selection – we were all herded into cattle trucks. There could have been as many as 50-100 people in each truck. We didn’t know where we were going. We were shoved into the trucks very forcefully, very frighteningly. I don’t know how long the journey lasted. It could have been 24, 48 hours. We finally reached our destination. The doors were thrown open. There were many dead in the carriage. They were just thrown out. We didn’t know where we had come to, but, of course, it was Auschwitz. I can only describe it as something like a lunatic asylum. We could see shaven heads, skeletal creatures. We were told to form rows of five, men on one side, women and children on the other. We were pushed to the selection point and there was Dr Mengele, selecting. It was the movement of a thumb that determined whether you lived for a little longer or you died within hours.’

Esther’s mother was among those who did not pass selection for life. ‘It has left me with a feeling of madness, a feeling that I have been in a world that got unhinged. I can’t tell you how long I was there for, it could have been two weeks, it could have been six. We went through the process of being shaved, the indignity of that. Even then, as a girl of 16, I was aware of this indignity. I don’t know how it happened, but I was sent from Auschwitz to a labour camp and that lasted until January when we were marched to Belsen, which is where I was liberated. I don’t remember the day of liberation, because I had typhus, I was given up for dead, but here I am. I was totally unconscious. I didn’t awaken until four days after liberation.’

Even in the labour camp, located near Hanover, Esther’s sense of humanity did not desert her. In their barracks, she says, workers would meet and recite poetry, sing ‘songs of freedom’. After liberation, Esther was sent to Sweden, along with many other refugees, later being reunited with her brother in Britain in 1945. She worked for a time as a domestic before becoming an actress in the Yiddish Theatre, in the east end of London. Her husband, Stanislaw Brunstein, who fought with the Polish army attached to the British, also worked for the theatre, as an artist and set designer. Esther now writes and gives talks on her experiences, most often to children and young adults. ‘The most important message I try to get across to them is not to be indifferent bystanders in the face of injustice, but to speak up and make your point.’


Are mature students an endangered species?

Last week, UCAS published its final end-of-cycle data on full-time higher education applications and acceptances for 2012. They showed, as expected, that there was a significant drop in the number of full-time students going to British universities in 2012. Beyond this, there was little agreement among commentators and in the media as to what the figures showed or how alarmed we should be by them.

Overall, there was a fall of 27,210 – or 5.5 per cent – in the number of people accepted for places at UK institutions, a fall largely attributable to the rise in the tuition fee cap at English universities from £3,375 to £9,000 (and to the spike this caused in the previous year’s figures). In England, acceptances fell from 415,069 in 2011 to 388,796 in 2012 – a 6.3 per cent drop – while in Wales numbers fell from 26,249 to 24,128 (an 8.1 per cent drop). Both reductions were driven by a decrease in acceptances for students domiciled in England. Scotland and Northern Ireland both saw increases in acceptances, by 1.9 per cent and 5.2 per cent, respectively.

Some coverage of the UCAS figures quoted a 13 per cent (51,000) fall in acceptances in England (and, less frequently, a 12 per cent drop in Wales). This figure is for acceptances by academic year of entry rather than for acceptances by UCAS cycle, which includes students who are accepted but who chose to defer entry. There was a large reduction in deferred acceptances in the 2011 cycle – with students reluctant to enter in 2012 under the new fees regime – with a return to more typical levels of deferral in 2012. The result of this was to produce a spike in numbers for 2011 and to deepen the fall in acceptances for the 2012-13 academic cycle, producing the apparent discrepancy with UCAS’s figure of a 6.3 per cent drop for England. Compared to the 2010-11 academic year, 2012-13 acceptances were eight per cent lower for England and seven per cent lower for Wales.

UCAS provides a breakdown of applicants by age group, showing that, in the UK, there has been a 4.7 per cent fall in accepted applicants aged 25 and over since 2011, compared to a 5.4 per cent drop for people aged 20 and under and a 7.1 per cent drop for people aged between 21 and 24. These figures give no special cause for concern with regard to numbers of mature students, previously reported to be in particular decline. But they do not tell the whole story and it is worth digging a little deeper to get a sense of some of the real trends here – trends which suggest that while numbers of younger students are holding up pretty well (there is, in fact, quite a bit of good news here for ministers) there is a sharp and ongoing dip in the numbers of mature students in the HE system.

In comparing 2012 figures with those for the previous year we need to bear in mind the considerable spike in applications among young people we saw in 2011, as students hurried to avoid the near tripling of tuition fees. This spike helped disguise what was a fairly hefty drop in mature student acceptances last year. In England, accepted applications for people aged 20 and under increased by 10,205, from 314,049 in 2010 to 324,254 in 2011. This represented a 3.2 per cent increase over a period when figures for 21 to 24 year olds, 25 to 39 year olds, and people aged 40 and above all declined (by 4.0, 6.6 and 8.2 per cent, respectively). The number of acceptances for people aged 20 and under fell to 304,277 in 2012, a 6.2 per cent drop on 2011. However, if we compare the numbers with 2010 we see a more modest fall of 9,772, or 3.1 per cent.

Compare this to figures for older students. Between 2010 and 2012 the number of people aged between 21 and 24 accepted into an HEI fell by 12.1 per cent, with similarly significant falls of 12.3 per cent for people aged between 21 and 39 and 10.2 per cent for people aged 40 and above. This is a worrying fall, a sign that it is older students who are faring the worst in terms of falling intake. The latest figures for all applicants for autumn 2013 show a further overall fall of 6.3 per cent, suggesting the decline may be more than the inevitable fluctuation caused by the introduction of a new system. The reduction is likely to be compounded by a perhaps steeper decline in part-time student numbers. Institutions have been reporting significant declines in the number of people wishing to study part-time since the introduction of tuition fee loans for part-time students in 2012.

Given these figures it is not surprising to see the biggest hit being taken by some of the UK’s newest universities, which typically take a more innovative approach to widening participation and tend to include more mature and locally based students among their populations. UCAS’s figures show that London Metropolitan University fared the worst, accepting 3,100 fewer students, a drop of 43 per cent compared to 2011. Numbers fell by between a quarter and a fifth at Bolton, East London, Greenwich, Leeds Metropolitan and University Campus Suffolk, while 10 of the 24 members of the Russell Group also saw a decline in acceptances.

There is little sign that numbers are recovering, with mature students continuing to lose out. Does it matter that mature student numbers are in decline, when recruitment of younger students is holding up? I think it does, for a number of reasons. First of all, as many tutors and vice-chancellors will confirm, mature students make a really significant contribution to the intellectual lives of their institutions. They bring a commitment and determination to their studies, born of the sacrifices full-time study usually implies for older people, together with often rich life experience and freshness of perspective.

Second, mature students are often from non-traditional backgrounds and their recruitment contributes to efforts to promote social mobility and combat social exclusion. Never too late to learn, a report on mature students in HE, published by Million+ and the NUS, found that, compared to young students, mature students are more likely to have non-traditional qualifications, to be from black and minority ethnic groups and to have known disabilities. A failure to reverse the decline in mature student admissions would be a significant blow to government efforts to widen access to higher education. And third, the skills mature students gain are economically useful, something we cannot afford to overlook in a society that is ageing. Creating opportunities for people to access education at the key points of transition in their lives is going to be increasingly important.

There was positive, if overdue, recognition of the need ‘to understand better the HE experience of part-time and mature students’, in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England earlier this month. However, as this analysis shows, the decline in mature and part-time student numbers needs to be addressed as a priority. It is disappointing to see this issue – so critical in terms of both social mobility and economic growth (both picked out as priorities in the letter) – left on the sidelines once again. The letter confirms that widening access to higher education remains a strategic priority for government and calls for an injection of ‘pace and rigour’ in progress in widening access. This is certainly welcome, but little will come of these good intentions if the crisis in recruitment of mature and part-time students continues to be overlooked.

This post was originally published here

Why social history matters

The past, writes poet Michael Donaghy, ‘falls open anywhere’, and it’s important that, when it does, we recognise and understand it. History is important not only to our sense of who we are but also to our capacity to engage actively and intelligently as citizens in democratic society. History and political literacy are intimately linked, which is why we ought to treat sceptically any politician’s attempt to reframe the way history is taught.

The ‘great men’ model which, until relatively recently, dominated the way in which history was taught in UK schools – and which education secretary Michael Gove is, by all accounts, keen to revive – failed most of us because it did not give us an adequate understanding the forces and events that have shaped the communities in which most of us live. When I left school aged 16, I knew a lot about the Second World War, a little about the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, and a few key dates regarding kings and queens and the battles waged on their behalf, but I knew next to nothing about the English Civil War and the extraordinary debates and ideas that ran through it, or about the impact of the Acts of Enclosure, the slave trade, the Suffragette movement or the Peasants’ Revolt. I knew still less about the events and actions, the tensions and struggles, that shaped the town I grew up in.

The fact that our perception of the past changes and is contested makes it all the more important that we are able to make informed judgments about it and defend, if only to ourselves, our own sense of who we are against those who would deny, dismiss or marginalise it. History and, in particular, social history – history that acknowledges the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people and their ways of recording and transmitting them – is a critical part of active citizenship in a democratic society. Growing up in poor or marginalised communities – communities which are, for the most part, off the radar of the mainstream media and whose stories are rarely told, and are, in some cases, in danger of being forgotten – it can be difficult to develop a sense of pride in where you come from and who you are, still less the sense of agency and possibility necessary to make the most of one’s talents and aptitudes and change things for the better.

This was brought home to me really powerfully when I visited a social history project in Edinburgh a few weeks before Christmas (I wrote about it in more depth in a previous post). The members of the Edinburgh Social History Group I spoke to all expressed dissatisfaction with the way in which they were taught history at school. Their sense of having been short-changed grew stronger the more they discovered about the ‘real’ history of their country – from the Porteous riots to Red Clydeside, the stuff that didn’t make it onto the curriculum – and the history of their own community, which, over decades, had waged a series of creative and determined campaigns for better housing and community conditions and better local services. Their response was to develop a project which would provide a lasting record of their community’s campaigning history while reinvigorating, they hoped, the spirit of community activism, particularly among young people. One of the group’s founders, Anna Hutchison, explained:

We encourage them to be proud of where they come from. It’s not all bad. It’s changing slowly. We’ve got a lot more people involved in campaigns and activism now, and that’s through local people going into their schools, into youth clubs, and telling them how it’s done.

The Workers’ Educational Association in Scotland, which supported the group’s social history project, has really grasped the nettle on this, developing a number of similar schemes giving students a chance to draw on the ‘real, lived experience’ of their communities. The flexibility in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence means the resources produced by these projects are now finding their ways into schools, giving young people a chance to gain a real understanding of where they come from and what forces shaped the neighbourhoods in which they live. Seeing for myself how much more meaningful history taught in this way can be, and the difference it can make to people’s sense of agency, I feel uneasy when I read of plans to remove ‘social reformers’ such as Mary Seacole, Florence Nightingale, William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano from the national curriculum in England in favour of the likes of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. You have to wonder what sort of historical role models will be available to girls or to children from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, in particular, under this reformed curriculum – and what impact this is likely to have on social mobility.

Social history is an important component of an education capable of producing the sort of citizens who can revive and sustain our democracy. We need to be able to think critically about our traditions (I mean all our traditions) and to understand that historical interpretation is contested. History, understood in this way, can provide a good grounding in political literacy, helping us develop the skills we need to critically deliberate, and to examine and see through the simplistic rhetoric of politicians, much of which is intended to obscure and mislead (‘the mess we inherited from the last government’, to take a currently near ubiquitous phrase as an example, masks a host of ambiguities and distortions). Just as importantly, social history can give us a sense of ourselves as stakeholders in an ongoing narrative, with as much of a right to a say and as much of a chance of making a difference as anyone else. It can also remind us that other perspectives matter, help us see the world from other people’s points of view, and give us a better sense of our connections to others (all common outcomes, incidentally, of much adult education). The unpleasant and divisive language used by politicians of all parties to vilify and stigmatise the poorest (and least able to answer back) in society suggests that the development of this important imaginative capacity is urgently required.

We badly need a history fit for purpose in twenty-first century democracy, poorly served as it is (in general) both by its politicians and its mainstream media. And we need a history that is inclusive and representative; that tells the stories of all of us, not just a privileged minority; and that gives us a sense of the possibilities concealed in the official narrative of British history (history like political debate is artificially constructed and it’s useful to understand what is being excluded and why). Learning to think historically and to see ourselves as responsible, democratic citizens with a stake in society and a role to play, are crucial skills for active democracy. They are also skills that need to be cultivated across a lifetime. Political education is a lifelong necessity. Understandings change and it’s important that adults can find spaces in which to learn about, debate and, if necessary, challenge these new understandings. Projects like the North Edinburgh Social History Group show just what can be achieved and how transformative this sort of approach can be for adults and, indeed, for whole communities, providing a vital intellectual foothold in a society – a world – that is changing frighteningly fast. If we lose our sense of who we are and where we have come from, we are unlikely to have much of a sense of where we are going.

Where are we now? The coalition’s midterm review

The coalition’s midterm ‘renewal of vows’ was an opportunity for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to reaffirm their commitment to the government’s ongoing programme of reform. The 52-page review document dedicated a page and a half to ‘further education and universities’ and, while there was little new in policy terms, there was a firm undertaking to continue the direction of travel and focus on implementing reforms already in train.

The big society was dutifully name-checked but it is clear that the concept, a usefully obscure peg on which far too much hope has been pinned and too much creative thought expended, will no longer provide a guiding narrative for policy. Despite this, much of the rhetoric of the coalition continues to be framed in terms of decentralising power away from Westminster to ‘counties, cities, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and citizens’. The emphasis is firmly on finding local, as opposed to centrally driven, solutions to local economic and social problems, and to getting the right blend of planning and funding arrangements to achieve this. As the report notes:

It is not the grand plans of politicians and bureaucrats that will ultimately deliver social progress and build social capital, but the ingenuity, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the British people – the Big Society.

The report talks up the coalition’s ‘sweeping reforms to increase local authority freedom’ and its abolition of regional government, pledging to ‘continue to devolve responsibility to local government’ and to take forward Lord Heseltine’s recommendation that local areas should have single funding pots. It also affirms its commitment to giving neighbourhoods ‘greater powers to do things for themselves’ – citing its Social Action Fund to provide opportunities for people to get involved in volunteering and its plan to train community organisers in the most deprived communities – though many in the voluntary sector, faced with ‘crippling cuts’ to charity funding, may find the suggestion that the coalition has ‘offered support to all those who want to improve their communities and their local services’ a little difficult to take.

The section on universities and further education asserts the coalition’s commitment to rectify what it describes as Britain’s historic tendency to undervalue ‘both the academic and technical skills a modern economy needs’. It promises to ‘take the tough decisions needed to ensure that our universities thrive’, adding:

We value them for their intrinsic, as well as their economic, worth: as seats of learning and research dedicated to increasing the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and as centres of innovation and invention, the driving force behind our increasingly high-tech, knowledge-based economy.

It is disappointing that the role of higher education institutions in engaging their communities and contributing to local economic growth is overlooked here. The government’s utilitarian vision, as expressed here and elsewhere, falls some way short of that set out in the Dearing report, which recognised that higher education has a critical role to play in building and sustaining a learning society, as well as in securing economic growth. As the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning argued, ‘universities contribute across the full range of desirable forms of capital – human, social, identity, creative and mental’. It is worth reasserting that higher education is an important public good, as much about cultural enrichment as it is about skills, as much about helping people grow intellectually and achieve fulfillment as it is about equipping them for work.

Engaging adults in higher education, and opening up more opportunities for them to study part-time, in ways that fit around their work and family circumstances, is important both in achieving economic growth and in addressing the needs of adults who do not currently participate in any learning at all. The government has taken important steps ‘to provide more financial support to students from low-income families’ and to extend income-contingent loans to part-time students. However, its good intentions are being undermined by the unintended consequences of some of its other reforms, as can be seen in the sharp drop in the numbers of mature students applying to study full-time in higher education. There are indications that there has also been a sharp drop in part-time admissions and concerns about the impact this will have on institutions which traditionally attract large numbers of part-time students. It is perhaps too soon to claim, as the report does in recapping the coalition’s changes to higher education funding, that it has ‘put universities on a secure and sustainable financial footing’. The government and the sector will need to think carefully about how to ensure part-time higher education study makes its full contribution both to the country’s future economic wellbeing and to widening access and improving social mobility.

The ‘different but equally important’ role ascribed to further education colleges is similarly narrow: ‘equipping our people with the basic, applied and specialist skills they need in the world of work, either at the beginning of their careers, or when they need re-skilling.’ Ahead of the government’s response to the Richard review, there is the laudable, and long overdue, ambition to see a ‘system of apprenticeships to rival those out countries such as Germany’ and a commitment to raising standards in line with Richard’s recommendations. The report undertakes to simplify and increase the rigour of FE qualifications, to make skill provision more responsive to employer demand and to introduce traineeships to support young people at work. It also reiterates the coalition’s commitment to introduce, from August, Advanced Learning Loans for people aged 24 and over. The impact of the latter reform on adult participation remains very much an unknown quantity, despite welcome moves to mitigate some of the potential negative impact of the policy. One of the lessons of the decline in participation among mature students in HE is that the government needs to do more to ensure funding changes do not deter mature applications. A good place to start would be to think about how it communicates with them.

Nobody, of course, will be surprised that, in a short summary document such as this, there is no mention of adult education more broadly conceived or acknowledgement of its wider benefits to a range of other policy agendas, but some recognition would have suggested a better grasp of the interconnectedness of these agendas and of the wider post-16 education landscape, in particular. The pace of reform during the first two years of coalition government has been rapid, and there is much to be said for slowing down the pace a little, while current changes bed down and their impacts become clearer. Ministers tend still to think of the different parts of the post-16 system as discrete and isolated rather than as part of a wider framework of lifelong learning. Achieving a better articulation of the way in which the different parts of the system relate to each other will be a critical test of the government’s reforms during the remainder of this parliament.

This article originally appeared here.