Adult education has changed dramatically over the two decades I have worked in it. Increased levels of policy attention, beginning with the wonderfully optimistic note struck by Helena Kennedy’s 1997 Learning Works report and David Blunkett’s 1998 green paper, The Learning Age, and for a short while attended also by increased funding and some bright ideas for implementation, have not led us to the promised land of wider participation and political acknowledgement of the wider purposes of education. Instead, like the train Woody Allen finds himself on at the start of Stardust Memories, they have brought us to a vast scrap yard of thwarted and abandoned ambitions in which only courses offering basic or vocational skills, mostly to younger adults, remain pristine, carefully maintained by a succession of journeyman ministers indifferent to the wider value of education. If things continue as they are – and there is no reason to suppose they will not, given the feebleness of the opposition – we will soon reach the point where the aspirations of ‘lifelong learning’ live on only in the dismal and increasingly empty rhetoric of politicians.
The current situation is, of course, in large part the result of cuts in funding, which began under Labour, and have been remorselessly deepened by the current Conservative government and its Conservative-led predecessor. The sharks of austerity have cut back on great swathes of provision, savaged the public library service, hollowed out local democracy, and attacked vital public institutions, such as the BBC, making short-term savings but creating an impoverished legacy for succeeding generations. In further education, where the majority of adults in education learn, the adult skills budget was reduced by 35 per cent between 2009 and 2015. In 2015-16 alone, the government slashed an unprecedented 24 per cent from the budget. As a result of these cuts, there are more than one million fewer adults learning in further education than there were in 2010, with the Association of Colleges estimating that 190,000 adult learning places would disappear in 2015-16 alone. The characteristically measured AoC was moved to predict that, on the current course, adult further education would be a thing of the past by 2020. What a terrible legacy for a government which believes improving UK productivity to be the challenge of our time!
While the sector has been granted some respite from the grind of year-on-year funding cuts, the post-16 area review process is likely to result in still less choice for adult learners and, for providers, a considerable distraction from what should be their core business: teaching and learning. It remains to be seen what impact the devolution of the adult skills budget (along with the absorption of the previously ring-fenced community learning budget) will have, but, with local resources tight, there is clearly a danger that learners whose employability needs cannot be addressed straightforwardly through a narrow focus on training for employment will again lose out, as might providers in the third sector, whose role is less well understood and who are largely absent from the area review process. Skills devolution represents a huge challenge to voluntary sector providers, who play a crucial role in getting adults who lack the confidence or motivation to engage with formal learning to re-engage through less formal routes, but whose voice tends to be drowned out by the bigger players.
In higher education, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) this month reported that the number of part-time students, the vast majority of whom are adults combining work and study, has fallen by 60 per cent over the past decade. This represents a dreadful act of vandalism about which even the specialist education press has been remarkably quiet. The overall number of mature students in HE has also fallen substantially, by 50 per cent over the same period, according to the report, with universities struggling to tackle the collapse in mature and part-time student numbers. And while progress has been made in attracting students from less advantaged backgrounds, the report found that universities in the elite Russell Group were failing to make adequate progress on access and progression. At the universities with the highest entrance requirements, said OFFA director Les Ebdon, ‘the participation gap between the most and least advantaged remains large and wholly unacceptable’.
The growing lack of diversity, in terms of student age and background, as well as mode of study, in elite institutions is a major concern, at least for those who cling to the old-fashioned belief that higher education should promote social mobility and challenge disadvantage rather than preserve patterns of privilege. We won’t achieve this with a one-size-fits-all system. Ensuring a more diverse, flexible and widely accessible sector is critical to efforts to widen participation. More than a third of the students entering HE last year who count towards widening participation targets were mature students. As Professor Ebdon noted in his report, ‘In order to strengthen the economy and ensure HE truly is open to everyone with the talent to benefit, urgent action must be taken to reverse the long-term decline in part-time and mature students.’ Thus far, we have seen little.
The growing prominence of adult education in policy debate over the past two decades is perhaps unsurprising, given its potential role – and proven benefits – in promoting economic productivity and reducing unemployment, improving health and wellbeing, and fostering social cohesion and active citizenship. Yet the curiosity of politicians has not resulted in increased investment, a more coherent approach to the education of adults or a more stable sector with a clearer sense of its wider role. Just the opposite, in fact, seems to be the case. I fear that in its willingness to adapt, to support and implement government plans and take them at face value, and to talk the language of ministers (albeit, often, through gritted teeth), the sector may, inadvertently, have contributed to its own decline.
As budgets have shrunk, so too has the focus of education policy, to the point where only provision related to employment skills and economic improvement is seen to matter and the education of older adults, in the past the driver of progressive reform across the system, has been neglected in favour of those at or near the start of their career journey. The focus of the sector has, in some ways understandably, followed the funding, resulting in the further marginalization of the wider benefits of learning in public discourse. While the case for genuinely lifelong and lifewide learning continues to be made in some quarters, the calls often seem a little hollow, an afterthought thrown out to placate supporters rather than to influence ministers. This is perhaps because, in the current climate, such calls are unlikely to get much of a hearing and no-one, in a competitive market for contracts, wants to be on the wrong side of the argument when policy is made. For the first time in my two decades working in the sector, adult education lacks a clear, distinct and dedicated voice in its corner.
It seems to me that adult education now has two choices. It can shuffle off quietly into history, acknowledging that its time has passed, or it can look back to its own history as a social movement to rediscover a sense of purpose and redefine a role for itself. I hope it chooses the latter route. If it is to survive in any meaningful form as a movement, adult education must reinvent itself as something more than a vehicle by which adults can become more employable or move on at work. Important though these things are, they are not everything. Increasing equality of opportunity, promoting active, critical citizenship, making people happier, healthier and more fulfilled, making society more socially just, cohesive and democratic; all these things matter too. Adult education should be about the development of the full range of capabilities necessary for human beings both to flourish in modern society and to help shape it. There are still many excellent examples of this sort of practice, in the WEA, the third sector, local authorities, unions and employers, though all face challenges. There remains huge potential across the sector that should be better utilized and better invested in. It should be part of a coherent system of post-16 education, working collaboratively with the rest of the sector rather than scrambling about, competing with potential partners for a diminishing pot of cash. But I don’t think that will happen if we continue to adapt our language and thinking to the latest political wheeze.
Instead, we should be thinking about how we can rebuild adult education as a social movement aimed at giving people and communities the most radical thing any teacher can give their student: the ability to think for themselves, to be critical and to play a full part in society, as a citizen, a parent, a partner, a member of a community, and not just as an employee. Adult education can either continue to dwindle as part of a system in which it has, at best, a restricted place, or it can play a part in creating something better, that can truly address the needs of the present and future. Adult education needs its own distinct, uncompromising mission, grounded in its social purpose, community education roots. It must continue to be about working with those who are most disadvantaged and disenfranchised, not just to give them a leg up into the labour market but, in Freire’s words, to help them ‘deal critically and creatively with reality’ and to ‘participate in the transformation of their world’. Changing calcified patterns of privilege and opportunities skewed in favour of the youngest and richest in society demands nothing less. There are major challenges ahead and adult education will have a huge role to play, if we are to address them adequately. When that truth is, finally, widely acknowledged, we will owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who have kept the flame of this work alive, in spite of it all.