Reinventing the extra-mural tradition

A number of trends have, of late, put community engagement – the so-called ‘third’ mission of higher education institutions (HEIs) – closer to the heart of what universities do. Of course, many institutions have strong civic traditions, rooted in the commitments of their founders and encompassing, in many cases, recognition of the value of university extension and extra-mural activity – so much a part of the stories of some institutions (including a number which have lately closed down their old extra-mural departments). There can be no doubt, however, that in recent decades, this ‘third-stream’ work has taken place at the margins of institutional activity – usually some distance from the ‘core’ business of teaching and research. Ironically, as universities came to receive a greater proportion of their funding from national government, they became more detached from their communities and seemingly less conscious of their civic responsibilities.

There are signs that this has begun to change, with a number of universities, recognising the value of a range of potential partnerships with wider society, beginning to embed public and community engagement throughout their teaching and research activity, to reflect it in their mission statements and strategies, and to create space for it through their formal structures and in their systems of reward and recognition. Several factors are driving the change, among them: the introduction by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of social and economic ‘impact’ as part of its criteria for funding research (giving research-intensive universities a reason to think differently about community engagement); the widening participation agenda, and, in particular, the requirement on HEIs charging higher fees to submit Access Agreements, setting out what they are doing to attract under-represented groups into higher education; and the localism agenda, which has brought with it an expectation that university leaders will contribute to ‘leadership of place’ and local economic and civic renewal by helping join up a range of national policies and programmes at a local level.

The context of economic recession is another significant factor. On the one hand, it has prompted universities to think harder about their potential role in wider society and the value of collaborative working with local, national and global partners; while, on the other, it has prompted government and other stakeholders to actively question the purpose of universities. This is reflected in the government’s ambition, set out in its 2010 HE White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, to ‘deliver a better student experience; improving teaching, assessment, feedback and preparation for the world of work’ and in the government’s encouragement to universities to develop mutually beneficial links with their local and regional economies.

Behind these developments is a growing appreciation – in government, in wider society and within some institutions – that HEIs in receipt of large amounts of public funding have, consequently, a civic duty to engage with wider society, and that, by and large, they have been failing in that duty. The decline in university adult education has been a significant contributor to this failure. Historically, continuing education has been one of the main ways in which ‘civic universities’ have engaged with their wider communities, connecting the global with the local, giving people from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds an opportunity to benefit from higher study, and stimulating innovative approaches to teaching and research.

The university extension movement began in the nineteenth century and was developed through the involvement of the Workers’ Educational Association, which, for much of the twentieth century, offered university adult education to working-class people in their own communities. The gradual decline of the extra-mural tradition was accelerated, almost fatally, by the introduction, under Labour, of the ‘ELQ’ policy, which denied state funding to students studying at a level equivalent to or lower than a qualification they already possessed. Many HEIs have since closed down – or dramatically scaled back – their centres of continuing education, a process which coincided with the growing marginalisation of the so-called ‘third mission’ of universities to engage with their communities.

The revival of interest in community engagement is an opportunity to think again, and think radically, about the extra-mural tradition. The past few years have seen a number of serious, if not always intentional, attempts to reinvigorate this tradition. I wrote about some of these last year in Adults Learning . Occupy London’s Tent City University, while not self-consciously attempting to offer an alternative to mainstream higher education (at least not to begin with), nevertheless represented a recognition that there is a pressing need to create new spaces in which people who might be reluctant to incur substantial debts in return for their education can come together to exchange ideas, learn new things and challenge political and educational conventions. It is one example of a wider movement which is attempting both to resist the marketisation of higher education and to reinvigorate the spirit of the public university as a place, first and foremost, in which people are free to think, to debate issues that matter in their lives and to shape the future. ‘Alternative universities’ have sprung up in London, Liverpool, Leeds and Lincoln, creating new spaces in which to learn, usually for free, in an atmosphere characterised by mutual support, shared learning and a commitment to education as a democratic project, a collaboration between student and teacher.

One of the most striking examples is the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, a ‘cooperative education centre’ with no fees and no formal distinction between students and staff. When I interviewed Mike Neary, one of the organisers of the centre, last year, he made a direct connection between the alternative university movement and some of the milestone interventions of the adult education movement – university settlements, extension classes, free libraries, Ruskin College and the Workers’ Educational Association – in short, ‘the history of how those excluded from higher education have organised their own intellectual lives and learning in collaboration with university academics’. Free or alternative universities are ‘absolutely embedded in the history of adult education,’ Mike told me. They are also usually based in real, public spaces in local communities, while, at the same time, engaging with the world and attempting to change it. In the same way, the university extension movement attempted to create spaces in people’s communities in which it was possible to look beyond them.

There is evidently an appetite for less formal, less expensive and more inclusive higher education spaces, offering what the university extension movement sought to provide: affordable opportunities for people unable or unwilling to access mainstream higher education to benefit from higher study and, just as significantly, to shape it to their own concerns and interests. The growing interest in social impact and university community engagement represents an opportunity to think about how universities might begin to reclaim this space, and re-imagine it for a different time. There are significant benefits – for universities and their communities – to be had from doing so, and these go beyond the extra income to be drawn down in fees. Too often, in recent times, universities have thought about lifelong learning purely in financial terms, and neglected both their duties to their wider communities and the considerable rewards – academic, economic and cultural – which university lifelong learning offered. Continuing education not only supported adults in finding ways to re-skill and re-imagine themselves, it gave critical support to the local economy, strengthened links to the wider community and supported the development of innovative approaches to teaching and research. When this began to whither, so too did the sense of institutions rooted in a community. Among other things, universities lost a remarkable resource of pedagogical expertise in working with adult learners; something that will take many years to rebuild.

Faced with the challenge of an ageing and increasinly diverse population population – a reality with which politicians remain reluctant to engage or even talk about in frank terms – it is absolutely critical that universities provide more and better opportunities for adults to study part-time, in ways that fit around their other commitments. This isn’t just about skills for work. In times like these, universities have a responsibility to support people in thinking differently about the world, and in connecting their learning to action (it is to be hoped than proposed exemptions to the ELQ policy reflect this).

The university extension movement may have passed quietly into history, but there is still much to be learned from it and there remains much innovative practice in the sector, though it is, in the main, marginal to institutional priorities and often not recognised as either community engagement or lifelong learning. Universities must do more to connect teaching and research with the lives of their communities and government should support and encourage them. Yet mature and part-time student numbers continue to decline steeply. Reversing that trend will take a serious commitment to making part-time study and continuing education a core part of what higher education institutions do – something which, for many, will entail a major rethink of priorities. The government can help by reversing the previous government’s ELQ policy and by giving institutions more of an incentive to offer part-time education to adults, for example, by reinstating the part-time premium. But nothing short of a fundamental shift in the way higher education thinks about its community and civic role is required if institutions are to fully realise their duties to wider society and make community engagement a guiding principle of university activity. Revisiting the notion of the civic university and the extra-mural tradition would not be a bad place to start.

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