What’s in a name? Well, quite a bit really

NIACE, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, was founded in 1921 by Albert Mansbridge as the British Institute of Adult Education, ‘a centre for common thought’ about adult education, a representative body and a ‘thinking department’ focused on discussion and advocacy. One of a small number of iconic organisations within the adult education movement, the institute announced earlier this year that it was to merge with the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, an organisation that promotes social inclusion in the labour market and which shares some of NIACE’s core values. A couple of weeks ago, FE Week reported that the newly merged organisation would be called the Learning and Work Institute, subject to the agreement of NIACE’s annual general meeting, which convenes this week.

The proposed name change has understandably ruffled some feathers among NIACE members, and, while many will be supportive, recognising the economic rationale for the merger and the inevitable need to compromise and make accommodations in such a situation, others will see it as representing a decisive break from the institute’s founding purposes. For those in the latter camp, there are perhaps three main issues. First, the stress on ‘work’ will confirm for some what they see as the institute’s drift away from a wider vision of the values of education and its benefits. Second, the decision to drop the word ‘adult’ from the name is a fairly clear indicator of the organisation’s intent to focus more on the education and training of young people and less on adult education, described by Chief Executive David Hughes – perhaps all too accurately – as NIACE’s ‘historic work’. And, third, there is the omission of the word ‘education’ in favour of ‘learning’, another important change though one that reflects a longer-standing trend, towards what Ian Martin has described as the ‘de-politicisation’ of adult education.

NIACE has been through some tough financial times recently, resulting in a succession of bruising ‘restructures’ and the loss of some large areas of work, including its events and publishing activity and some of its research capacity. The main reason for this has been the ongoing reduction in government funding on which NIACE became reliant during the boom years under New Labour. NIACE has been subject to the same trends in funding that have seen university lifelong learning shrink, part-time student numbers collapse and adult further education approach extinction. At the same time, successive governments have moved further and further away from a wider view of the benefits of adult education – so glowingly described by David Blunkett in the early months of Tony Blair’s government and by David Cameron shortly before he was elected in 2010 – to a narrowly utilitarian perspective which sees the purpose of adult and further education as being to make adults more employable and businesses more economically prosperous. This has had an impact on NIACE, as it has on other organisations, though NIACE has done better than most in resisting the distorting effects public funding can have on the values of organisations in receipt of it.

When New Labour began investing more money in the sector and in adult education contract work, in particular, the institute had a choice. It could engage with the changing world of policy and help shape it, perhaps sacrificing some of its independence along the way. Or it could remain fully independent of government, keep its hands clean and remain firmly on the sidelines, unsullied by the new resources flooding into the sector. NIACE, rightly I think, opted to do the former, making a difference on a range of policy fronts though, at the same time, sacrificing credibility in some quarters. The approach worked for NIACE because, uniquely in a terrain beset with sectional interests, it stood up for adult learners rather than a group of providers. It became a close but ‘critical’ friend of government, willing and able to point out when a policy was doing harm rather than good, often behind closed doors but also publicly, when it thought it was necessary (some would argue, given the current state of the sector, it hasn’t thought it was necessary often enough). A lot of NIACE’s best advocacy work was conducted sotto voce, with the institute preferring to be privately effective rather than publicly lauded. The commitment to adults and their learning, and the independence this gave it, kept the organisation from becoming just another contracting ‘think tank’ working at the behest of ministers and civil servants often with quite divergent agendas.

This is a tightrope NIACE’s leaders have continued to walk, with increasing difficulty and awkwardness as funding has shrunk and survival become a more pressing concern. With large numbers of livelihoods at risk, the pull of financial security has become greater, making the balancing act more difficult still. The merger adds yet another pressure and, while it will give NIACE a stronger foothold in its work on young people, employment and skills, there is a clear danger that, at the same time, it will also push it further away from adult education and a wider vision of lifelong learning. Critics see that drift in mission reflected already in the change of name. They are right to say that the choice of name is about more than branding. It says something important about the organisation and what it is about. While learning and work does not imply learning for work, the dual focus is bound to bring the two sides of the new institute’s offer closer together, which is likely to mean a further squeeze on NIACE’s traditional focus on the wider value of learning and its promotion of a pluralistic and inclusive vision of lifelong education. Funding pressures will further exacerbate this.

As John Field has argued, the change represents the end of an era, a cause for concern in some respects but perhaps also unavoidable, given the context. NIACE has struggled for stability for a number of years only to find the same challenges resurfacing with renewed force. Clearly, all good organisations need stability, first and foremost. So too do their staff if they are to do the work required to take their organisations forward. It is to be hoped that the merger will provide all of that. And I have no doubt that the merged organisation will do good and valuable work that will help make a difference to the lives of many young people and adults. Certainly, there seems to be a genuine intention to retain a focus on lifelong learning and to keep alive a vision of education that is about more than training for employment. That is hugely important and welcome, and I hope it can be delivered. It is clearly preferable that NIACE and its values survive in some form, even if that form is, in some respects, a diminished one. However, irrespective of the outcome and the institute’s success or otherwise in retaining its core values, the merger means there will no longer be a dedicated organisation committed to promoting the interests of adult learners to the exclusion of other interests. That loss, inevitable or not, will be keenly felt.