Adult education matters. It matters at home, in work, and in the community. It matters to families, to the economy and to our health and wellbeing. It makes society fairer, more resilient, more creative and more democratic. It ought to matter in the ballot box too. Its demise is indicative of the huge price this and future generations are set to pay for the politics of austerity.
The figures are stark. Since the coalition came to power in 2010 more than a million publicly funded adult learning opportunities have disappeared. Over the same period, according to the Association of Colleges (AoC), funding for post-19 further education has been cut by 35 per cent. The 2015–16 adult skills budget is to be cut by a further 24 per cent – a move which has prompted the AoC to warn that state-supported adult education will be a thing of the past by 2020 if the next government does not offer a change of direction.
At the same time, the escalation in tuition fees in higher education has prompted a dramatic decline in mature student numbers, particularly in part-time provision, which has all but collapsed. The new vice-chancellor of the Open University, Peter Horrocks, described the slump as a ‘tragedy’ for individuals, family and society. The OU has lost a quarter of its total student numbers since 2010, while, across the sector as a whole, the number of people studying part-time for an undergraduate degree has fallen by 37 per cent.
Yet it could not be clearer that we are living through times that demand more adult education, not less. We need more of it if we are to respond to growing skills gaps in engineering, technology and construction, for example. We need more if we are to respond to the productivity gap – productivity in the UK lags woefully behind that of our economic neighbours – and develop a higher-skill, higher-wage economy in which the benefits of growth are shared more equally. Ours is an ageing society. The jobs of the future cannot be filled by young people alone. If we are to fill those posts adults need more and better opportunities to refresh their skills and to learn new ones, adapting to the rapid, incessant pace of technological change. What we have seen, instead, is a relentless squeeze on such opportunities.
But adult education matters in other ways too. Crucially, it gives people let down by our enduringly class-ridden education system a vital second chance to succeed. We are far too willing to divide our children up into winners and losers. That’s not what education should be about (though, all too often, that is precisely what it is about). School isn’t for everyone, for a range of different reasons (most, seemingly, inexplicable to those who followed the gilded path from public school to Oxbridge before washing up at the Treasury). It’s a matter of social justice that we do not brand those who have not succeeded at school as failures. They are not, as anyone who works in adult education will tell you. They want to succeed, to make a positive difference for their families and communities, as much as anyone. What they lack, increasingly, is the opportunity to do so.
There is, for me, another crucial function of adult education, which perhaps goes along with a commitment to a fair and equal society in which everyone, and not just the wealthy, has the opportunity to live a meaningful, fulfilled and happy life. I believe adult education is as an essential part of the fabric of any civilized, democratic society. It is not just about employability – and that should be reflected in the sort of provision on offer to adults. Adult education provides safe, open and collaborative spaces in which difference and diversity are tolerated, where people can question and challenge, provoke and create, where they can ask awkward questions and develop the skills of political engagement. It engenders solidarity, makes us feel less powerless and hence more willing to engage politically, and, crucially, helps us learn to live and think together. These may not be popular values within a coalition government which has maintained its hold on the electorate’s imagination through a smoke-and-mirrors approach to policy debate, frequently happy to confuse, frustrate and obscure rather than speak truth about the challenges we face as a society. Nevertheless, they are absolutely essential if we are ever to build a fairer, more equal and democratic society, populated by creative, resourceful and resilient citizens.
The funny thing is, many politicians would agree with much of this, publicly at least. What is lacking is the political will and imagination to make it a reality. It’s far too easy to cut adult education. As the civil servant who urged Vince Cable to withdraw all funding from further education advised, ‘nobody will really notice’. And we may get to this point yet, if the massive cuts planned for the next parliament are implemented. The scale and immediacy of the cuts planned by the Conservatives, in particular, are likely to wreak yet more devastation on a beleaguered further education sector, followed, no doubt, by the usual hand-wringing and disingenuous protestations about ‘the need for tough decisions’. But all the main UK parties are, to some extent, pro-austerity; they all make a fairly urgent priority of ‘balancing the books’, though they differ as to the scale and pace of cuts. Given the protection afforded to other budgets, however, this makes further cuts to adult education more than likely, whoever is in power (though, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has argued, the differences in scale and pace are not insignificant).
Unsurprisingly, then, adult education has not featured much in the main parties’ manifesto thinking, despite the acknowledged threats of demographic change, low productivity and skills shortages. In fact, the manifestos, as a whole, do not have much to say directly about post-compulsory education beyond universities, and there is little appreciation of the well-documented role adult education can play in supporting related agendas, such as health care. There are, however, some important commitments, including that of Labour and the Liberal Democrats to protect in real terms the education budget, including some post-16 provision, and a few welcome shifts in emphasis, notably the Lib Dems’ pledges to establish a cross-party commission on lifelong learning and to enable more part-time study, and Labour’s promise to raise the standards and status of vocational and technical education (including turning high-performing colleges with strong links to industry into specialist ‘institutes of technical education’). The focus on apprenticeships, from all the main parties, also deserves a cautious welcome though it remains the case that many still are not deserving of the name. It should also be acknowledged that apprenticeships, though important, are not for everyone, and are not the answer to every one of the challenges of vocational education. It shouldn’t be paid for at the cost of the adult skills budget.
The elephant in the room in all of this is, of course, the resumption of austerity politics, and the certainty of still more massive cuts to government spending, though no party of course is prepared to detail them. The growth we have seen over the last couple of years has coincided with the coalition taking its foot off the austerity peddle. We can expect an enhanced push towards austerity in the new parliament, particularly if the Conservatives are in charge, with the IFS warning of ‘colossal’ spending cuts to come: £55 billion’s worth – on top of £35 billion already cut. This won’t be achieved without significant damage to the faltering recovery and a great deal of pain, including the loss of a significant part of what many of us regard as the architecture of a civilized society.
Adult education is part of this architecture. Its demise is important not only for the reasons set out above, but also because it is indicative of the high price we are set to pay for austerity politics and our own acquiescence in an unwarranted drive to reduce drastically the size of the state. It is incredibly short-sighted, and all, I fear, for a goal that is ideological rather than economic. This will be the real legacy of debt the two coalition parties leave for future generations. Under the cover of austerity they have imposed cuts that put at risk institutions critical to the humane functioning of our society. A new cycle of austerity cuts would see some of the notable achievements of our civilization, adult and continuing education, public libraries, an NHS run for patients rather than profit, lost. Resisting the narrative of austerity – and the supporting fiction that it was excessive public spending that necessitated it – must, realistically, be part of any attempt to save these institutions. If we don’t make our resistance felt, the world our children grow up in is likely to be colder, crueller, poorer, more indifferent, less caring and thoughtful, more divided and less cohesive, less well resourced, less democratic, less resilient and less hopeful. And of course it will be less skilled and more unequal too.