‘Politics is what makes us – it’s part of what we are’

As First Minister Alex Salmond launches Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government’s white paper on an independent Scotland, I thought it timely to republish this article, written for the autumn 2013 issue of Adults Learning, which examines what adult educators in Scotland are doing to create new, more creative and construtive spaces for learning and debate in the run-up to next year’s referendum. Interestingly, for the students I interviewed, the central issue was not economics – which has been the overwhelming focus of the media’s coverage – but identity

Campaigning ahead of next year’s referendum on Scottish independence has, for many, generated more heat than light. Sensing a need for safe, impartial spaces for reflection and debate on the issues driving the campaigns, adult educators in Scotland have been creating a range of opportunities for people on all sides of the argument to come together and discuss the future of their country

‘It’s the biggest decision the Scottish people will have to take politically, maybe ever,’ says Andrew Morrison of next year’s referendum on Scottish independence. ‘There’s still 12 months to go, but I think this is the time to inform ourselves.’ Andrew is one of two groups of adult students who have taken part in Talk Scotland, a course run by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in Edinburgh which seeks both to inform learners about the choice they face and to give them an opportunity – and a space – to think about the kind of Scotland they would like to see. Such spaces are in short supply, with often negative and divisive campaigning belying just how much people care about the issue and just how much depth and variety of opinion actually exists. ‘A lot of the campaigning – especially what is coming out of Westminster – is extremely negative and pretty ill-informed,’ says Sarah Kilbey, another Talk Scotland student. ‘People need to be encouraged to know, to think and to find out more. I was looking for something to help me get more informed and to look at the bigger questions. The course really made me think. It’s about putting things into a wider context and encouraging people to think out for themselves what the really important issues are.’

Sarah’s description will resonate with the many adult educators who see their work as part of a tradition which contributes to wider democracy by enabling people to think, talk and engage politically, and, by doing so, to create a more open, imaginative and inclusive debate about the kind of society they want to live in. ‘I hoped people would be helped to come to some sort of vision of what they wanted for Scotland,’ says Talk Scotland tutor Colin Campbell. ‘That, for me, was the main purpose of the course. There is a real lack of space for people to come together and discuss this kind of thing – sometimes it’s thought that discussing politics is bad. But it is so important that there is a space where people can listen to each other, hear other opinions and do that respectfully. That’s of vital importance to democracy, that experience of coming together and articulating political ideas.’ For Elizabeth Bryan, WEA Area Tutor Organiser for Edinburgh and the Lothians, such activities go to the heart of what the WEA and adult education is about. ‘We have always run political activities,’ she says. ‘It’s been part of our social purpose from the very beginning. And there’s a real interest and need amongst our membership who want to look beyond the publicity and debate between the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns. People are looking to learn much more and to consider the issues and the implications, to try to understand it better in order to make a decision. There has been a bit of nervousness around about teaching political studies at a very political time in Scotland, but what else should we be doing in adult education? That’s our role.’

While many have expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of discussion generated by the official campaigns, beyond the purview of mainstream politics there has been a genuine flowering of intelligent, creative activity and debate, with adult education at its heart. Talk Scotland is just one of a range of adult education activities underway in Scotland, from Scottish history projects to public lectures, but it has become an umbrella theme for a wide-ranging programme of adult education classes, workshops, projects and public events, run by a number of providers in Edinburgh. The first Talk Scotland course was piloted over eight weeks from January to March this year (a second course followed after Easter and a third starts this autumn). It gave students the chance to learn about how devolution and the Scottish Parliament works (it included a visit to the Parliament), to explore the main policy areas for which the Parliament is responsible, and to examine Scottish political history, using primary source material such as the National Library of Scotland’s political collections. The latter stages of the course focused on the kind of future students wanted for Scotland, and what would help achieve that – for example, a stronger union, further devolution or independence. The aim, says Elizabeth, was both to make students more aware and better informed about the Scottish political system and its history, and to ‘provide a place and a space for people to investigate and think and study politics, and Scottish politics in particular’.

There is a feeling among the students that Scottish history, and Scottish political history, in particular, has not been well-served by the Scottish education system, at least until the very recent past (the Scottish Government has sought to address this by ensuring Scottish literature is taught in Scottish schools and by giving history teachers greater freedom over what they teach). All too often, it has been left to adult education to teach students in Scotland about their own history and culture. Christian McWilliam, one of the first intake of Talk Scotland students, recalls that it was only through the WEA that she was able to study and discuss Scottish literature – ‘a chance I never had at school’. ‘The education system has taken our national identity from us,’ she says. Unsurprisingly, discussion ranges well beyond conventional party or campaign politics, taking in questions of value and community, justice and equality – but culture and identity (and the relationship between the two) are to the fore. ‘The argument is always geared to us not knowing where Scotland will be economically in 10 or 15 years,’ says Andrew. ‘But no-one knows what the UK economy is going to do in 10 years time. But that’s not the main issue. The issue is identity, it’s not economics. Economics is important, but the issue is identity.’

Fellow-student Steven Horton also sees identity as a critical issue, though from a different perspective. ‘I grew up in the English education system,’ he says. ‘We were taught that people who are English are English and people who are Scottish are British. So all the pioneering work any Scottish person has done is British. There is no separate Scottish history or identity that I was aware of as a child … I had to travel the world in order to meet Scottish people who taught me anything about Scotland as it is from their perspective.’

The course has brought together students of different political outlooks. Tony Galloway, who is a Conservative councillor and a member of the Better Together campaign, joined, in part, out of a curiosity as to why anti-Tory sentiment was so strong in parts of Scotland. But, within the group, political affiliation did not matter. ‘In our group it was obvious there were different opinions but we didn’t declare our positions,’ Andrew explains. ‘We managed to have the debate without saying I’m on this side or you’re on this side because it was to do with ideas rather than sides.’ Christian identifies a problem with conventional politics, and mainstream political culture in Scotland, which involves all the main parties: politicians no longer seem capable of expressing an opinion beyond the official line of their party. ‘The problem today is that no individual politician thinks for themselves,’ she says, giving as an example the poll tax, which was introduced in Scotland by Margaret Thatcher’s government ahead of the rest of the UK and which proved hugely unpopular. ‘That was the problem the Tories had. If any Tory in Scotland at the time of [the introduction of] the poll tax had thought to themselves, “What on earth are we doing here?” it might have been different. But I think the Tories lost their soul.’

Like a number of students, Christian sees democracy in Scotland as in need of renewal. ‘Bringing lots of different people together in one place used to happen all the time,’ she says. ‘When I was a child people coming together in a big hall to discuss politics was common. It was a great way to gather different opinions and to bring people together – from the richest farmer to the poorest farm servant – which is what we need now … We have to listen to all opinions. We have to take opinions from everywhere or we can’t make our own minds up. So many people don’t believe that politics affects their lives. People don’t think politics affects them and that’s why they are so disenchanted with everything. But politics is what makes us. It’s part of what we are.’ Encouragingly, the students have continued the debate outside of the classroom, with some setting up an informal group which meets every few months to talk politics. That sort of informal, discursive learning is integral to what the WEA is all about, says student Marion Dillon.

The Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group, which draws its core members from Edinburgh City Council, the Workers’ Educational Association and the University of Edinburgh, also offers an important, though more formal, space in which people can come together to discuss politics. Nancy Somerville, who works in Edinburgh City Council’s Community Learning and Development team and is a member of the group, recalls how it came to be set up, as a response to the resurgence of interest in democratic politics that followed devolution and the setting up of the Scottish Parliament. ‘There were lots of projects and courses happening in the city that were to do with democracy,’ she explains. ‘A community worker at Leith Academy thought it would be a good idea to get everyone together to share knowledge and experience, and our group came out of that gathering. We had the idea that our role could be to put on public seminars under the broad theme of active citizenship.’ The seminars, which focused initially on the workings of devolution and the new Parliament, had two main aims. ‘One was to give the public an opportunity to talk about current issues in a non-party political setting, and bring in experts to give their views,’ Nancy says. ‘The second aim was for the events to be participatory, so that some of the time would be taken up with the people who had gone to the event discussing what they had heard or questioning the speakers and putting forward their views and ideas as well. And that’s carried out right through really – finding topical issues and then making the seminars participatory.’

Since then, the group has put on seminars on a wide range of issues of topical concern in Scotland, from peak oil to prostitution, often attracting in excess of 100 people. The group has also put on hustings in the run-up to elections. The idea, says group member David Maguire, Principal Officer for Engagement and Involvement, Children and Families, at the City Council, is to focus on issues that aren’t being discussed in the mainstream. ‘We try to make sure those perspectives are to the fore. And it’s all done in a way that is challenging and doesn’t simply replicate dominant narratives or dominant views of the world.’ The group hosts two or three events each year, all following broadly the same format. ‘We always start with a welcome about the group, then an introduction to the specific session,’ says David. ‘We then have an input from a leading expert, commentator or analyst, or an elected member. There are always key questions the speaker is addressing. After they’ve spoken we break into groups so members of the group can debate the issues raised. That goes on for half an hour, though we try to make it longer. We then have feedback, which is done in an interactive way, bringing in the speakers but also other people from across the room. It ends with a thorough discussion of those issues. 

‘When it works well it is very engaging. There is a real vibrancy to the events. They’re fun as well as challenging. We always try to make sure one of the questions asks “What is to be done?” We don’t want it simply to be a talking shop. We don’t see our role as taking action – it is to make this kind of discussion happen. But that can be seen as quite a complacent perspective. So we try to incorporate that as much as possible. We don’t want people to go away thinking the world is a terrible place and the forces of reaction are ranged against them. We want to always have a sense of what can we do about it, as individuals, at a community level or at a city level.’ ‘We always have information sheets about the topic and organisations people can contact, websites to get help or groups they can join,’ Nancy adds. ‘We never want them to leave thinking, “Where do we go from here?”’.

Their latest seminar – the first of a series under the banner ‘The Big Vote’ – returns to the kind of major constitutional issues considered in the early meetings. The guest speaker was author James Robertson, who spoke on ‘What kind of Scotland do we want? And what is the best constitutional route to it?’, and the issues addressed included what we vote for, what we vote against and what kind of debate we want. Discussion covered the economic grounds for independence, Scotland’s history, both as an independent power and as part of the union, the need for impartial, trustworthy information and the centrality of culture and identity to the debate. Another seminar is planned this autumn examining the difference a yes or no vote could make, and considering whether or not Scotland requires a new kind of politics. ‘That’s the role of social purpose adult education, that broad role of adult education within civil society, playing a critical, questioning role of authorities and of experts and of power,’ says David. ‘There was a feeling that this was a real opportunity to reconnect with that. And that is a strong current in what we do.’

One of the themes of the Big Vote seminar was the feeling that the mainstream debate was poor and that impartial information was hard to come by. ‘People are struggling to get what they feel is balanced information, because of the way it is presented in the media,’ says Liz Highet, Senior Community Learning and Development Worker at Edinburgh City Council. ‘A lot of people are looking for it because they want to make up their own minds but they want something to base it on and they don’t know where they can get that from. One of the things that appeals to people [about the seminars] is having a politicianless debate – to have the opportunity to explore ideas and not have to go down one side or another, to listen and talk and share and weigh things up.’ Nancy agrees. ‘There’s quite a bit in the mainstream media that seems a bit sterile – independence will be a utopia or a disaster. But in fact there is a lot going on, on the ground and in other types of media. There’s a bit more mature debate, rather than scare stories or fluffy clouds and puppies.’ ‘People are looking beyond the mainstream for a more creative space for debate,’ adds David.

The group is run entirely on good will. There is no budget for the work, with seminars held in the City Chambers – ‘a building that belongs to the people’. The council staff who do much of the organising do it in the margins of their other work, out of a commitment to its value. ‘We all do this as part of our jobs but it’s no one’s sole job,’ says Nancy. ‘We’re all trying to fit it in somewhere, as a voluntary thing, really. Nobody is forced to be part of the group. Those of us involved are all keen to do the work and interested in it.’ With social purpose adult education in retreat in most places, the hard work and commitment of educators is critical in keeping this creative space alive. ‘In Edinburgh, and in the WEA, we have been able to keep that space,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But you have to make it. We still have a strong liberal programme here, but the referendum had given a focus for our activities. The Edinburgh Active Citizenship Group and the libraries are very good at offering public events and seminars. But certainly funding this work is challenging, and you often need to screw it into other funded projects. It’s difficult but we are working hard to maintain it.’ Nancy is in no doubt about the value of the work. ‘No matter what happens it is a really exciting time but if you look at the mainstream media it’s like the opposite. It is an opportunity to debate the big issues – What sort of Scotland do we want? What’s the best way to get it? It’s important that we give people the space to honestly debate these things, to raise questions and to get answers, outwith party politics’.

1963 and all that: What Robbins thought about mature students

When Lionel Robbins published the report of his committee on higher education in the United Kingdom in October 1963, higher education in the UK was an elite system, run by and for a small proportion (less than five per cent, predominantly male) of the population, many of whom were fiercely resistant to the thought that expansion might be either feasible or desirable, for reasons which appear now to amount to little more than a combination of class spite, snobbery and chauvinism.

While that was already beginning to change, thanks to a range of social and economic pressures that were slowly teasing open the doors of the academy (there were 31 universities at time of publication, including seven which had been founded within the previous five years), the Robbins report provided a compelling rationale for the rapid expansion of the system, arguing that higher education courses ‘should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’ (the ‘Robbins principle’). Its main recommendations, including the proposal that ‘colleges of advanced technology’ be awarded university status, were accepted by the Conservative government of the day within 24 hours of publication and the further expansion of the university system began almost immediately.

As Lord Moser, one of the few surviving members of Lord Robbins’ team, recalls, the report ‘changed the whole tone of public discussion on higher education’. Critically, it demolished the contention that there was a strictly limited ‘pool of ability’ at the level of higher study, arguing instead that there was a large pool of untapped talent which the country could not afford to ignore. Robbins recognised that this was an economic issue, of course, but his view of the purposes and potential benefits of higher education was much broader than that. He set out four objectives for a ‘properly balanced system’: ‘instruction in skills’; the promotion of ‘the general powers of the mind’ so as to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’; to maintain research in balance with teaching so that teaching is not separate from ‘the search for truth’; and to transmit ‘a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. The return on education, he argued, was ‘not something that can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. Higher education was an important public good which should be supported largely through the public purse.

Robbins also recognised the importance of ‘second chance’ education and saw that the prevailing model of full-time residential education would not suit everyone. He urged that greater provision be made for mature students, recommending the ‘rapid development’ of courses for adults, and encouraging universities to admit ‘non-standard’ students. Higher education, the report said, ‘is not a once-for-all process. As the pace of discovery quickens it will become increasingly important for practitioners in many fields to take courses at intervals to bring them up to date … there are far too few students taking refresher courses and courses of further training’. It was particularly important, it continued, that such courses were made available for women returning to work after raising children and that these women were financially supported in their studies. He appreciated that full-time study would not necessarily be the right mode for delivery for this group.

The report also gave recognition to the important role of liberal adult education in giving students without advanced qualifications an opportunity to engage in higher study. It called for the further development of full-time courses for adults in residential colleges, such as Coleg Harlech and Ruskin College, and recommended that ‘consideration should be given to assisting them in the immediate future by capital grants and also by enabling suitable entrants to obtain adequate financial support for their studies’. Highlighting the activities of extra-mural departments, the Workers’ Educational Association and local authorities in providing adult education, the report noted that demand existed ‘on a large scale’ and that there was ‘clearly much scope for further development, in conjunction with the television services, for example, and other new media of communication. We hope that the universities and their partners will cooperate in this task. If this country is to maintain its proud record [in contributing to ‘the general education of the community’], further support for this kind of study will be needed in the future’.

Robbins didn’t see mature study merely as a nice-to-have but, rather, as an essential part of a university system within which everyone with the ability to study has the opportunity to do so. It is also clear that Robbins is not arguing for new types of institution to cater for these ‘non-standard’ students. The needs of the future, the report says, ‘should be met by developing present types of institution’ in such a way that ‘irrational distinctions’ and ‘rigid barriers between institutions’ are not perpetuated. While ‘it is inevitable that some institutions will be more eminent than others’, it says, ‘[t]here should be no freezing of institutions into established hierarchies; on the contrary there should be recognition and encouragement of excellence wherever it exists and wherever it appears’. Robbins’ vision allows for difference in function, where difference rests on ‘excellence in the discharge of functions’, but not for rigid differences in status. Equally, he did not look to different kinds of institution to cater for different kinds of student but, rather, expected that, as the system expanded, mature and other ‘non-standard’ students would become part of the institutional life of every university.

So, what has been the long-term impact of the Robbins report on widening participation, particularly for mature students? The Robbins principle that higher education should be available to all who are qualified and wish to study has underpinned developments in widening participation and lifelong learning, including the expansion of higher education opportunities to students who do not fit the traditional profile of 18 or 19 year old school leavers. There has been a huge expansion in total student numbers. There are now around 2.5 million students in the UK compared to a quarter of a million when Robbins published his report. By 2009 mature students (those aged 21 or over) represented almost a third of the first-year undergraduate population. At the same time there was a comparable growth in the numbers of part-time students, the vast majority of whom are classed as mature. Robbins was a catalyst for much of this change.

Yet, in some respects, I suspect the nature of the change would have disappointed Robbins and his committee. Although most institutions now welcome mature and part-time students it is clear that they are more welcome in some than in others. Much of the growth in numbers has been thanks to ‘new’ universities, including the former polytechnics whose foundation, in the mid-sixties, introduced into the system the sort of binary division Robbins argued against. The division survived the merging of polytechnics into the university sector in 1992 (we now have ‘pre-’ and ‘post-92’ institutions). Although these institutions have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of widening participation and opening up opportunities, for mature and part-time students in particular, there remains, in the eyes of the media, at least, and perhaps the public too, an impression that these institutions offer second-class higher education. At the same time, the innovation shown in these institutions has obscured the fact that many ‘elite’ institutions have remained stubbornly resistant to change, with a corresponding failure to widen participation to the extent of newer institutions, in which mature students (and other under-represented groups) have remained concentrated. For many of these older institutions more has not necessarily meant different, and they remain more or less rooted in the notion of universities as residential finishing schools for already privileged youngsters.

After 50 years, Robbins’ vision remains compelling. Universities minister David Willetts has made much of the continuity between the Robbins report and his own government’s vision for higher education. Certainly, the loans system devised and introduced by the coalition makes serious efforts to ensure that higher education remains accessible to all who have the talent, irrespective of ability to pay, despite the huge escalation in fees. The extension of loans to part-time students for the first time would also have pleased Robbins, particularly given his concern about women’s access to higher education. However, while there is some continuity, there are also large differences, which are more fundamental. Critically, Robbins thought very differently about the purposes and benefits of higher education. The coalition view of the benefits of university has narrowed beyond recognition to a truly grim utilitarian calculation based on individual earnings. Robbins, on the other hand, takes a much broader view, acknowledging the role of universities in creating rounded, cultivated individuals capable of promoting ‘common standards of citizenship’.

Mr Willetts notes that the Robbins committee considered the introduction of loans and that, in later life, Robbins came to regret the decision not to do so. This suggests common ground but, again, the differences are profound, and instructive. While the committee considered loans it also raised concerns that fear of debt would be a significant disincentive to students from non-traditional groups. And while Robbins may have come to think differently about loans in some respects, it is clear that he was never entertaining the possibility of loans to cover the full cost of a degree. This is because Robbins explicitly rejects the idea that the benefits of education ‘can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. The wider benefits to society are of much greater importance; a recognition that underpins Robbins’ notion of higher education as an important public good, deserving of public support. He saw that the whole of society benefits from an educated citizenry capable not only of contributing to the economy but of playing a full part in civic life. It was likely that the ‘social advantages’ of investing in education greatly out-weighed the commercial ones, he argued.

A difference in approach is reflected also in the dramatic decline in part-time and mature student numbers – something which would have greatly dismayed Robbins who was acutely aware of the importance of this sort of provision both to the economy and to efforts to widen participation (particularly to women seeking to return to education after having children). Full-time mature student applications have fallen by more than 18,000 (a 14 per cent decline) since the trebling of tuition fees and the introduction of the new loans system. At the same time, part-time student numbers have collapsed, by 40 per cent, according to HEFCE figures. These shocking numbers would, I think, have appalled Robbins, but they may not have surprised him. In the section of his report on adult education, he highlights the need for ‘adequate financial support’ for mature students. Later, in considering the possible impact of a system of loans, he recognises that fear of debt can produce ‘undesirable disincentive effects’. He also observes that any drop in recruitment to higher education by those with the talent for it (but not the resources to fund it) is not only a private loss to the individual but a ‘social loss’.

It is clear, though we seem curiously reluctant to say so, that higher fees are having a significant negative impact on the recruitment of mature students, particularly those who would prefer to study part-time. There is a strong case, I think, bearing in mind the important public and economic good part-time study represents, for government to provide some sort of subsidy to enable institutions to lower costs for part-time courses, which are typically more expensive and time-consuming to run. Getting rid of the ‘ELQ rule’, which denies access to loans to students studying for a second degree (and played a big part in decimating university lifelong learning under the last government), would also be a positive move, opening up more opportunities to the kinds of adult student Robbins was particularly concerned about and lending meaningful support to his conviction that education is not a ‘once-for-all process’. Despite government efforts to ameliorate some of these problems (such as the very welcome partial relaxation of the ELQ rule), the continuing decline in mature and part-time student numbers is extremely bad news for social mobility and there remains a serious risk that the loans system will ultimately result in a two-tier system, with less-advantaged ‘non-standard’ students obliged to opt for the low-cost, ‘second-class’ model, while the elite institutions remain the preserve of the already privileged. This, I imagine, would be just about the last thing Robbins would have wanted.