‘Sirs, ye are brethren’

I was dismayed to read that Leicester University proposes closing Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning – formerly Vaughan College – one of the oldest and most historically significant centres of adult education in the country. It is perhaps unsurprising, given the general decline in university lifelong learning and UK universities’ ongoing neglect of their historic ‘third mission’ of community engagement, that the centre should be seen as an easy target for cost-cutting. Nevertheless, the proposal plainly runs against the grain of Leicester University’s founding settlement and its current commitment to making its knowledge and expertise available to local communities, and it will mean a loss of opportunity for hundreds of adult students for whom chances to learn are increasingly scarce. The university would do well to reconsider it. A reappraisal, even now, would be a welcome indication of a university prepared to swim against the tide, look beyond the easy options, and reassert its place at the heart of its local community.

The college was founded by liberal clergyman and social reformer Reverend David Vaughan in 1862 to provide education for working class men. It began in a local parish school where educated volunteers offered working people classes and lectures in a range of academic subjects, and was soon renamed Leicester Working Man’s College (in line with its founding intentions), as demand and student numbers increased. Teaching and one-off lectures were offered alongside social events and musical evenings. As with many other ‘working men’s colleges’, the aim was not only to make higher study available to working people but also to cultivate comradeship and Christian values. Its biblical motto, ‘Sirs, ye are brethren’, reflected Vaughan’s intention to promote both ‘sound learning’ and ‘Christian intercourse and brotherly love’.

The ambitious aim of colleges such as Leicester was to give working people an opportunity to study academic subjects hitherto considered unsuited to them in an atmosphere similar to that of a university – a recognition of the reformers’ conviction that workers needed a rounder education beyond basic and routine occupational skills. Vaughan’s inspiration was London’s Working Men’s College, founded by Christian socialist F.D. Maurice in 1854, which aimed to promote fellowship and critical debate through a curriculum that included politics, science, literature and the arts. While the focus of these colleges gradually become more practical, the London and Leicester colleges retained their founding focus, although ‘useful’ subjects such as bookkeeping and plumbing became increasingly important. Perhaps because of this, these are the only working men’s colleges to have survived. A greater focus on vocational education brought with it greater competition which, over time, rendered many redundant.

Leicester, on the other hand, continued to flourish, opening up increasingly to women (who were admitted from 1880 and by 1912 outnumbered men) as well as men while retaining a broad educational offer for its students. In 1908, as Vaughan Working Men’s College, it moved into its own premises on Leicester’s Great Central Street, working increasingly with Leicester Workers’ Educational Association. It merged with University College Leicester in 1929, becoming part of the wider department for adult education. This brought greater focus on part-time undergraduate education. In 1962, Vaughan College moved again, to a new, purpose-built building, adjacent to the Jewry Wall Museum and a Roman archaeological site, at St Nicholas Circle in Leicester’s city centre. When I visited a class at the college, in 2003, as editor of Adults Learning, it was a vibrant, popular centre of adult education, still attracting a diverse range of adult students through its broad-ranging curriculum. Things began to change in 2013 when the university decided to close and sell off the site, moving Vaughan to its main campus. At the time, the university gave assurances that this would not be a precursor to the centre’s closure and that adult learning services would be protected. Nevertheless, last week, the Leicester Mercury reported that the centre would be closed under proposals being considered by university management and that staff had been issued with redundancy notices.

Vaughan has played a hugely significant role in the history of Leicester, as well as in the history of the university. Demographic change means that adult education will be increasingly necessary, particularly at higher levels, if our economy is to prosper. Despite the dramatic collapse in part-time higher education numbers precipitated by introduction of the ELQ rule under Labour – effectively cutting funding for adults studying at a level equivalent to or lower than their highest existing qualification – and the escalation in tuition fees under the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition, part-time higher education opportunities for adults are a growing priority. Second chances matter more than ever. It would be good to see Leicester University taking a lead and protecting its adult provision, remembering that institutions such as Vaughan are much easier – and much cheaper – to retain than to set up from scratch. It would be sad indeed to see the Vaughan Centre join the ranks of institutions lost to short-term cost-saving while its students join the lost generations of adult learners denied opportunities their predecessors took for granted. As it is the only provider of its kind in the area, the impact on Leicester, and its social and economic wellbeing, would be considerable. The University of Leicester should think again.

There is a petition to save Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning. Please consider signing it (and do read the comments which make the case for retaining the centre very eloquently): https://www.change.org/p/the-university-of-leicester-save-the-vaughan-centre-for-lifelong-learning. There is also a related Twitter account: @savevaughan

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