Education in an age of anxiety

We live in worrying times, don’t we? We test our children remorselessly and from an inappropriately early age because we are worried their performance is falling behind international standards. We send them to school earlier and press them harder than do most comparable countries; we also invest significantly less than most of them, citing our worries about money and the escalating debt. We continually reform our national skills strategy because we worry our skills system is less than ‘world class’ and our economy is becoming uncompetitive, putting huge pressure on further education to adapt and deliver on reduced budgets and under constant threat of a clobbering from our oppressive accountability system. And young people accept the reality of huge post-graduation debts because they fear the even greater costs of failing and slipping down the ladder. Wealthy parents spend a fortune gaming the system because they too are beset by the fear of downward social mobility – a grave risk indeed in our appallingly unequal society.

For very many of us, anxiety is the governing principle of our lives. Young people are wracked with anxiety about how they will ever be in a position to buy a house while those who do own their own homes are often weighed down by huge debts, unable to save or to think about retirement and forced, in many cases, to take on multiple jobs just to stay afloat. In some ways, I think Theresa May, in the brief honeymoon period of her dismal premiership, was right to highlight the plight of those ‘just struggling’ to get by. There are very many people out there who are stretching themselves to breaking point to do no more than simply exist. Where Mrs May was wrong, of course, was in thinking that she and her party were the solution to the problem rather than one of its foremost drivers.

It was, after all, her predecessor in power (another child of privilege so unacquainted with failure he couldn’t imagine it happening to him) who so successfully closed down debate about how much we should spend on public services by promoting the idea that overspending on things like health and education caused the financial crisis (and that another was looming – you know, like Greece – should we even think about spending as much on our children’s education as the Germans or the French spend on theirs). And it is her party that has ratcheted up the testing regime in schools, introduced more selection into schools (bad news and another cause of anxiety unless you can afford to rig the system and of course it is a system designed to be rigged), and made education dizzyingly expensive in a way that we are encouraged to think is financially necessary but which, in fact, is out of kilter with the cost of education in all comparable countries.

And somehow, in the midst all of this, we have voted repeatedly to be governed by those with least comprehension of the day-to-day toll of our anxiety-laden lives; a party of privilege and inherited wealth many senior members of which actively despise those at the bottom of the pile and have never experienced the worry of not knowing where the next meal is coming from or how they will afford a new pair of shoes or school uniform for their kids. Theirs is a different world of trust funds, debt-free liberal education, expensive internships, closed networks, risk-free investment and endless opportunities.

Doubtless they believe these opportunities should be available for them and their children – who wouldn’t – but it is equally clear that they do not want them to be available to us or our children. This is clearer nowhere else than in education. Building on the work of the last Labour government, which introduced and increased tuition fees, narrowed the further education curriculum and limited funding for part-time higher education, the governments of Cameron and May have overseen an enhanced vocationalism in FE and skills, cultivated a greater focus on selection (‘choice’) while reducing the overall budget for state-maintained schools, and created a hugely expensive two-tier system of higher education with elite universities, which offer a traditional liberal arts curriculum, dominated by young people who attended expensive private schools, while the rest, driven in part by anxiety about the career risks of non-vocational study, largely go to less prestigious institutions which offer more practical courses related to a job or vocation.

At the same time as countries such as China and Singapore began investing heavily in lifelong learning, recognizing the critical importance of skills renewal among the adult population and the need for education to prepare people not just for a job but for a life, the UK government, set on reducing the size of the state by any means and at any cost, took a wrecking ball to its own once enviably advanced lifelong learning system. The number of part-time students in higher education has fallen for seven consecutive years; last year alone by eight per cent – an overall decline of 61 per cent since 2010, when the coalition government introduced its funding reforms. The vast majority of part-time students, of course, are mature, adults who are already in the workforce who are combining higher study with a job, a family and other financial commitments.

Unsurprisingly, in this era of escalating anxiety, it is those with the most commitments, financial and otherwise, who have found themselves most excluded by the fees hike and the introduction of loans (this seems to have come as a surprise to the architects of the scheme though it was highlighted as a likely consequence, by NIACE and others, as early as 2010). As most part-time mature students tend also to come from less well-off, non-traditional backgrounds, this decline has also had a – largely unreported – impact on the social mix of our universities and on efforts to widen participation. As Claire Callender writes, the fall ‘has been greatest among older students, those wanting to do “bite size” courses, and those with low-level entry qualifications – all typically “widening participation” candidates.’

This shocking decline has caused barely a wrinkle in the brows of successive universities ministers. The present one, Jo Johnson (another politician who has had to claw his way to the top) has done little to suggest he considers the collapse of part-time higher education to be anything more than a minor inconvenience; regrettable, for sure, but a price worth paying to maintain the integrity of our costly and evidently failing higher education funding system. The line seems to be to stress the system’s relative success in increasing the numbers of young people from less-advantaged backgrounds (though the ‘top’ universities remain stubbornly resistant to change, continuing to act as finishing schools for the children of the very wealthy). Of course, this would look like less like success if part-time students were included in the same calculation – and it starts to look like serious failure if we also consider the institutions to which ‘widening participation’ candidates tend to gravitate.

The picture is no rosier in further education, where the government has savagely reduced the adult education budget to the point where usually conservative commentators were warning of its complete disappearance by 2020. Since then the government has attempted to restore some stability to the budget, but the cuts have been eye-watering, limiting the breadth and quantity of opportunity for older learners. In 2016-16 alone 24 per cent of the budget was cut, on top of year-on-year cuts amounting to 35 per cent of the total adult skills budget between 2009 and 2015. The range of provision on offer has narrowed too, reflecting largely discredited government choices about the skills that are economically useful, but also, I suspect, the tendency of people, driven by anxiety, to opt for courses they think will have a direct economic pay-off. Of course, this approach neglected – and continues to neglect – the importance of a range of other crucial skills, which are important in the workplace and in life more generally, such as resilience, creativity, problem-solving and, perhaps most importantly of all, a love of learning. As this year’s OECD Skills Outlook report suggested, the neglect of such skills makes little economic sense and is almost certainly harmful to productivity, where the UK traditionally performs extremely poorly.

Of course, the anxiety which drives people away from education and into compromised choices which do little justice to their real talents and aspirations, is part of a wider anxiety, fed by cuts to public services, rising household debt, growing inequality, pay restraint, insecure work and rising costs of living. For too long, the question of how much we should spend and on what has been off the agenda, as though we were too impoverished a nation to make serious choices about the kind of society we want to belong to. This year’s general election appears to have opened debate a little wider, though it takes place in the face of bitter resistance from the mainstream media and those who control it (who, by and large, whatever their populist pretentions, are rather happy with a status quo that privileges them and stifles the vast majority). My hope is that we can have a serious national conversation about tax and public spending in spite of this.

An Oxfam inequality index ranked the UK 109th in the world for the proportion of its budget it spends on education – behind the likes of Kazakhstan and Cambodia (no disrespect intended to those nations but the UK is evidently a significantly wealthier country with very well-established education institutions and a well-documented need to increase both its productivity and the basic skills of its population). Oxfam’s report also noted that tuition fees in the UK are the highest in the industrialised world, with the burden of student debt disproportionally borne by poorer students. It noted too that UK corporation tax has been cut further and faster than in most other rich countries, ranking the UK’s tax system 96th in terms of commitment to reduce inequality.

The government has approached Brexit without a plan – even for the Brexit negotiations themselves. Sabre-rattling and political posturing are, it turns out, no preparation for lengthy, complex and highly detailed negotiations across a huge array of topics. Little wonder EU counterparts are privately talking with thinly veiled contempt about David Davis and his team. But the government has let us down in a more profound way. It has purposefully stifled debate about the sort of society we can be, while effecting to have no choice about deliberate and ideologically driven decisions about funding which have had a calamitous impact on people’s lives. In doing so, it has denied hope of change or a better life to many thousands of people.

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Adult education must rediscover its radical roots

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.

Who will stand up for adult education?

The Skills Funding Agency announced this week that public funding is to be withdrawn from a further 1,600 adult qualifications for which, they say, there is little or no demand. Two thirds of publicly funded qualifications (6,900 in total) have been removed from government funding since 2013. Skills minister Nick Boles welcomed the move, saying the qualifications were ‘cluttering up the system’.

On the face of it, this looks like a smart move. Employers want a qualifications system that is streamlined and easy to comprehend. And students want to know that the qualifications they are seeking are worthwhile and, if the purpose of study is vocational (and the expectation is that it will be), valued by employers. But even if we accept that qualifications that support progression to and in employment are what we should be focusing on, it’s not clear that student take-up is, in itself, a reliable indicator of what is valuable or worth funding – or, indeed, of what local businesses need if they are to prosper.

In fact, the qualifications from which funding is to be withdrawn include a larger number in sectors important to the economy, such as engineering, manufacturing, ICT, and building and construction, and where there are growing skills shortages, particularly in higher-level technical jobs. Nor is it particularly useful to directly equate student take-up with student demand or interest. Prohibitive fees and an unwillingness to take on large amounts of debt are other factors which should be part of a much more nuanced, intelligently thought-out approach to streamlining qualifications.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the ongoing cull of qualifications is indicative of a really remarkable narrowing of the educational offer to adults – one which began in earnest under the previous government as it became increasingly fixated on a funding model based on boosting employability and vocational skills. It’s not that employment and vocational training aren’t important – obviously they are – it’s just that they aren’t everything. Among the qualifications considered of no or low value will be many that adults have found hugely valuable, in giving them a foothold in learning again, building their confidence, broadening their horizons or simply offering them a second chance. Education isn’t only about getting people into work or on at work. It’s also about confidence and aspiration, family and community, citizenship and social cohesion. It makes people better citizens, better parents. It can make them more flexible, more resilient, more rounded and civilised, helping them become better people as well as better employees. The wider public value of adult education is far too infrequently asserted.

As Helena Kennedy wrote in her 1997 policy paper Learning Works, while ‘prosperity depends upon there being a vibrant economy … an economy which regards its own success as the highest good is a dangerous one’. There are other claims upon public support for education, Kennedy went on, namely justice and equity. Ignoring those claims is likely to be disastrous for us as a society, as a democracy and, ultimately, as an economy. This seems to me common sense. Yet parts of Kennedy’s paper – those in which she asserts the wider value of adult and further education – now read like something from another era. Part of the problem with adopting the circumscribed language and outlook of funders and policy makers is that it becomes more and more difficult to assert the value of those things that lie outside it. The less we talk about them the less relevant they seem until those things become almost unsayable (at least without inviting ridicule or marginalizing oneself – either as too wishy-washy or too radical). You either talk within the circumscribed limits or you talk to yourself. And the harder it becomes to talk about what we value, the harder it is to defend it against cuts. Increasingly, I find myself asking, who will stand up for adult education?

Under the coalition, we have seen the realm of publicly funded adult education continue to shrink. Indeed, the pace has quickened under the all-consuming (and all-justifying) blanket of austerity politics. UCAS’s latest figures on full-time applications to higher education show that while applications from younger students continue to hold up, applications from those over the age of 25 continues to decline – this on top of an 18 per cent decline between 2010 and 2013. And while applications from young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are up, people from advantaged backgrounds are still more than twice as likely to apply to university as their less-advantaged counterparts – even more so in the case of the most selective universities.

The numbers are even worse for part-time students, the vast majority of whom are older students (with a large proportion from disadvantaged backgrounds). Over the past four years, part-time student numbers in the UK have fallen by more than a third – with the figure even higher for part-time students aged above 25. In England, according to HEFCE, part-time undergraduate student numbers fell by 46 per cent between 2010–11 and 2013–14. The reasons for the decline are complex, but include Labour’s introduction of the ELQ rule – which denied funding to students studying at a level lower or equivalent to a level at which they were already qualified – the increase in part-time fees and the introduction of loans for part-timers (unsurprisingly adults with a range of other financial commitments have not been keen to take them up and incur more debt in their 30s, 40s or 50s), and a growing reluctance among employers to support employees to study part-time alongside their work. Despite protestations to the contrary, it is increasingly obvious that the government considers the damage caused to part-time HE a price worth paying (as long as applications from younger students holds up).

Adult education in FE is also under huge pressure. The government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16, meaning an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 million in 2010–2011 to £2 billion in 2015–16. Unsurprisingly, the cuts have resulted in an 11 per cent overall drop in adult participation in state funded learning between 2012–13 and 2013–14, with the numbers even worse for older adults –27 per cent fewer adults aged 25 and over in Level 3 provision and 34.2 per cent fewer in Level 4. At the same time, the Department for Education has reduced spending on 16 to 18 year olds from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a swingeing 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 years olds from last September, placing still more pressure on college principals. And while funding for 16–18 year olds is expected to be stable in 2015, further substantial cuts are expected in adult skills.

All of this has coincided with a substantial reduction in the public library service, making it even more difficult for adults to learn in their own time, on their own terms. Some 324 libraries have closed, with many more under threat, as a result of a 40 per cent cut in local government funding since 2010.

Even on the government’s own narrow terms this is self-defeating. In an ageing society in which social mobility has stalled – seemingly irreversibly – and compulsory education is so unhelpful to so many (the educational achievement gap between rich and poor at GCSE is widening), we simply cannot afford to put adults off returning to education. We cannot afford to be a society in which second chances are out of reach to so many people. It’s bad enough that our education system seems designed to write people off at as early a stage as possible, and to qualify the success of almost all but a small, mostly already privileged, minority. But to close down so much opportunity later in life makes no sense, not if we are serious about moving towards becoming a high-skill, high-productivity economy. If the system we have cannot offer good, affordable and varied opportunities for people to learn as adults, wherever they live and whatever their social background, then the system simply isn’t working.

Helena Kennedy wrote that education ‘has always been a source of social vitality and the more people we can include in the community of learning, the greater the benefits to us all’. It ‘strengthens the ties which bind people, takes the fear out of difference and encourages tolerance. It helps people to see what makes the world tick and the ways in which they, individually and together, can make a difference. It is the likeliest means of creating a modern, well-skilled workforce, reducing levels of crime, and creating participating citizens’. Wonderful words – as true now as they were in 1997. We haven’t changed and the social and economic needs Kennedy talks about are, if anything, more acute. Education has to offer more than a rounded liberal education for the few and patchy vocational training for the rest – or at least those that can afford it. As Kennedy argued, we can no longer afford to weight education spending on the already privileged in the expectation that this will produce ‘an excellence which permeates the system’. The trickle-down theory of economics doesn’t work – nor does the trickle-down theory of education. Apart from anything else, it is incredibly damaging to social cohesion or any sense that we are ‘in this together’. I’m sure nobody working at the Treasury would think mere training good enough for their children. Well, it isn’t good enough for other people’s children either.

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.

A critical moment for part-time and mature higher education

Few will be surprised at the continuing decline in part-time higher education, highlighted in The power of part-time, the Universities UK review of part-time and mature higher education, which was commissioned by the government in response to falling student numbers and was published this week.

The report had been eagerly anticipated by those in the sector who appreciate the value of part-time higher study – and many have embraced its fairly broad statement of the critical importance of part-time. Its publication is undoubtedly an important moment in the campaign to revive the fortunes of part-time and higher education. But if is not followed by concerted, long-term action, underscored by the commitment of institutions and government, there is a danger that it will change little.

This is one of the problems with what is, in many ways, an excellent and valuable report – and one of the reasons it has disappointed some. Its recommendations are long on commitment but are rather short on specific policy interventions. Many, while agreeing that government, institutions and funding councils should ‘consider the needs of part-time and mature student as an intrinsic part of their thinking, not as an add-on’, will feel that the time for such injunctions has passed and that action is what is now needed. Others will be disappointed that the review did not feel able to make a bolder statement on the equivalent or lower-level (ELQ) rule, which denies funding to students looking to take a second degree and which has played a significant part in the late devastation of university continuing education. More, I fear, is needed if we are to galvanise the sort of immediate action we will need if part-time and mature learning is to have a future.

It is difficult to overstate the urgency of the situation. The review reports that the numbers of students recruited to undergraduate part-time courses in England fell by 40 per cent between 2010-11 and 2012-13 – equivalent to 105,000 fewer students – a dramatic drop which follows a decade of steady decline in part-time student numbers. The vast majority of part-time students are mature, most of them combining work with study and taking vocational courses. Full-time mature student numbers have also declined sharply since the increase in tuition fees in 2010. At a time when the need for a flexible, resilient workforce, capable of re-skilling throughout their adult lives, has never been clearer, this is depressing news indeed.

The report identifies a number of potential causes for the decline, including the current economic climate, pressures on employer support for further study, the changing pathways into higher education and shifts in demographics, and the effects of the 2012–13 changes to the funding system in England and associated increase in fees – a ‘perfect storm’ of factors, the report says. It also points out that information on courses and finances can be patchy and that employers and potential students are often not fully aware of the value of part-time higher study.

In response, the review recommends that part-time and mature higher education should form an intrinsic part of the plans of higher education providers, government and funding councils and calls for an ‘urgent push at all levels to help potential students and employers to understand the value of part-time higher education’. It also recommends that universities ‘take bold steps’ to meet the needs of potential part-time students and to improve the part-time experience, and calls for a boost to employer-focused part-time higher education.

This is all laudable stuff, and well worth saying. But the report stops short of saying what the government and institutions need to do to make this happen. This is a missed opportunity, I think, particularly in an area in which there is a lack of clarity about where responsibility lies. The government is looking to institutions to set out their stall more clearly in attracting part-time and mature students, while institutions would like the government to do more to incentivise and support them to engage with part-time and adult students. Despite government rhetoric about a diverse system characterised by a variety of modes of learning and types of learners, most institutions see little reason to change their focus on full-time residential degrees for school leavers. In a sense this is understandable: part-time students are harder to recruit and support, and more likely to drop out. To make a difference here will require a thoughtful, holistic approach taking in issues such as cost (both to students and institutions) and affordability, course design, credit transfer, employer engagement and attitudes to debt. And all of this must be supported and nourished by a genuine vision for a true learning society, which offers accessible, affordable opportunities for adults to learn at every stage of their lives.

I think it is important to note also that the decline in part-time and mature higher education is not only extremely bad news for the economy and for prospects of growth and the development of a knowledge economy worthy of the name, but also for democracy, social mobility, culture and active citizenship. The focus of provision should not just be on employment and economic benefit but should reflect the wider motives, interests and ambitions of adults (while giving them affordable opportunities to pursue them). The UUK report, while recognising the wider benefits to society, overwhelmingly (and, perhaps, understandably) focuses on the contribution of part-time higher education to economic growth. This is important, of course, but if we are serious about the role of universities in creating an engaged, knowledgeable and aspirational citizenry we need to ensure these are not the only kinds of opportunity available. Self-realisation should not be the sole preserve of the already privileged. The revival of university lifelong learning should be at the heart of an enhanced community engagement mission for institutions.

Reading the report sent me back to Jonathan Rose’s landmark study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, and his account of the motivations for study of continuing education students in the 1930s. A survey of WEA/Ruskin College students found them concerned both with the ‘fullest expression of the faculties of the individual’ and with ensuring ‘the maximum co-operation of the individual towards the happiness of the group of which he is a part’. One student described the object of study as:

First, to equip the student with adequate knowledge in order that he or she may make a more adequate and effective response to his or her social obligations. Secondly, to enable one to appreciate and cultivate a desire for the best in art, literature, music, etc., to more readily understand the significance of science and generally to raise the level of intelligence in order that the student may enjoy a fuller and more harmonious existence, freer from the trammels of prejudice, superstition and dogmatism.

Engaging potential part-time students needs to be about more than information and guidance, important though those things are. It needs to recognise the diverse motives and ambitions of adults, as well as taking seriously the issue of cost and the clear negative impact of the new loans system on this group of learners. The removal of the ELQ rule would be a constructive start.

As I said at the outset, the UUK report represents an important moment in the campaign for part-time higher education. It should help give this critical issue the attention it deserves. But it remains to be seen whether it will mark a sea change in attitude and approach or become yet another landmark on the long road of decline. My fear is that we are still some way from genuinely integrating part-time and mature higher education into the mission of institutions, and that the kind of commitment needed to make up the ground already lost will be very difficult to secure.

Spaces to think, question and create – we need them more than ever

We are witnessing an assault on the humanities, nationally and globally, to the extent that many academics now feel it necessary to ‘defend’ the humanities – something that would have astonished any previous generation of scholars – and to warn of a growing crisis which could threaten their very existence.

In Australia it seems likely that A$100 million funding for the humanities and the social sciences will be ‘reprioritised’ to where it is ‘really needed’, principally in medical research. The language of the debate there may be tonally different, but it plainly echoes the UK government’s emphasis on science and research and in particular on so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and its treatment of other disciplines as nice-to-have but not essential.

In the UK we have seen the beginnings of a debate about the value of the humanities, but it is, in the main, a depressingly narrow debate, focused on their contribution to employability and the economy. The culture secretary, Maria Miller, has argued – ‘claimed’ might be a better word as (as is so often the case with the austerity rhetoric of the coalition) there is no real argument, only an unsupported assertion of necessity – that ‘in an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.’

Of course, it is much easier to defend investment in medical research, for example, than it is to defend investment in the humanities. The benefits of medical research are clear, measurable and comparatively well-understood. The case for the humanities is more difficult to set out, particularly against the backdrop of a policy and media environment which is stubbornly resistant to abstract or difficult thought or to any opinion which overtly challenges conventional thinking. No doubt the decision of the UK government to withdraw the university teaching grant for the humanities was made, in part, because it was a cut that would be hard to argue against, given the way debate is constrained.

We need to remind ourselves that not everything that is valuable is valuable in terms that can be expressed on an abacus. Much of what is most valuable in our lives is valuable for reasons which are not particularly easy to understand, that involve reflection, thoughtful articulation and learning. But that is no reason to dismiss or overlook them.

It is not only economic considerations that guide our choices, even in times when money is tight. In fact, when times are tough it becomes even more important to look beyond the economic concerns which regulate much of our everyday behavior, to reach towards some vision of how things might be different and better. A broad, general education and an understanding of the humanities and social sciences become all the more important.

I was in Edinburgh recently to meet a group of adult education students and activists interested in broadening and deepening the debate about Scottish independence in the run-up to next year’s referendum. The debate, as reflected in the mainstream media and the rhetoric of the two campaigns, was characterised as dull, sterile and negative, with the focus on the economy and projections, often negative, about what economic life in Scotland will be like in five or 10 years time.

No-one, of course, would deny that these things are important. But, beyond the mainstream, the debate is much wider, as was reflected in the discussion the students had. This touched on questions of value and social justice, history and literature, politics and political education, but was, above all, about culture and identity. As one student, Andrew Morrison put it, ‘Economics is important, but the issue is identity’. It is questions of culture and identity that are truly enlivening the debate, and which, I suspect, will be foremost in people’s minds when they walk into the polling places.

I was reminded of this conversation when I read James Kelman’s short column on Descartes in Saturday’s Guardian. Painting with a broad brush, Kelman traced ‘almost every literary tradition’ back to Descartes’ profound philosophical scepticism and, in particular, his emphasis on ‘the primacy of the individual perception’: ‘A sceptical voice, the child questioning the adult, the artist challenging convention, the individual challenging authority; casting doubt on infallibility and the imposition of authoritarian control.’

Five centuries later, philosophical scepticism and our insistence on the primacy of individual experience remain strongly linked with our reasons for valuing the humanities. Crucially, the humanities teach us to think – for ourselves – in creative and critical ways, to argue and to respect the arguments of others, and, most of all, to question. It also helps us to develop new visions of what the future might be, to challenge conventions and to think about how things might be different.

These are critical resources, particularly in times when the outlook is bleak and people are unsure of how to move forward or to change things they see as plainly wrong. While no-one (again) would question the huge value of medical research, we, as a society, also need to be able to reflect on the legitimate limits and use of medical research, to consider the conventions and how we might change or improve them, to maximise the benefits for humanity, with in a set of agreed boundaries. The humanities help us to do this.

As Richard Taylor argued recently, we need a broad, cultural education, and not just for children and young people. Adult education for active and informed citizenship is an absolute condition of democracy. Adult education is closely linked to the democratic process. It gives people a safe, neutral space in which to gather and discuss issues of concern, to think critically about the world as received through the news media and to engage in an imaginative and open conversation about how things might be. Given the pressing challenges we face as a society – from wealth inequality to climate change to the democratic deficit – this is more necessary than ever. It is much more than a nice-to-have. We need more spaces to think and more awkward customers. Adult education produces both.

Of course, education itself is not exempt from this kind of critical questioning. The cuts to higher education funding have resulted in heightened questioning of the value of higher education, what it is for and what its wider civic and community obligations are – and I think this is welcome. For too long, parts of the academy have been far too remote from communities, from ordinary people – and have been far too happy to remain so. This has begun to change. There is no room for complacency. Academics in the humanities and social sciences must do more to demonstrate the wider value of their work – not through soundbites and with abacuses, but by slow and careful engagement with people and communities. You can’t really be told about the value of the humanities. You have to experience it.

Reinventing the extra-mural tradition

A number of trends have, of late, put community engagement – the so-called ‘third’ mission of higher education institutions (HEIs) – closer to the heart of what universities do. Of course, many institutions have strong civic traditions, rooted in the commitments of their founders and encompassing, in many cases, recognition of the value of university extension and extra-mural activity – so much a part of the stories of some institutions (including a number which have lately closed down their old extra-mural departments). There can be no doubt, however, that in recent decades, this ‘third-stream’ work has taken place at the margins of institutional activity – usually some distance from the ‘core’ business of teaching and research. Ironically, as universities came to receive a greater proportion of their funding from national government, they became more detached from their communities and seemingly less conscious of their civic responsibilities.

There are signs that this has begun to change, with a number of universities, recognising the value of a range of potential partnerships with wider society, beginning to embed public and community engagement throughout their teaching and research activity, to reflect it in their mission statements and strategies, and to create space for it through their formal structures and in their systems of reward and recognition. Several factors are driving the change, among them: the introduction by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of social and economic ‘impact’ as part of its criteria for funding research (giving research-intensive universities a reason to think differently about community engagement); the widening participation agenda, and, in particular, the requirement on HEIs charging higher fees to submit Access Agreements, setting out what they are doing to attract under-represented groups into higher education; and the localism agenda, which has brought with it an expectation that university leaders will contribute to ‘leadership of place’ and local economic and civic renewal by helping join up a range of national policies and programmes at a local level.

The context of economic recession is another significant factor. On the one hand, it has prompted universities to think harder about their potential role in wider society and the value of collaborative working with local, national and global partners; while, on the other, it has prompted government and other stakeholders to actively question the purpose of universities. This is reflected in the government’s ambition, set out in its 2010 HE White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, to ‘deliver a better student experience; improving teaching, assessment, feedback and preparation for the world of work’ and in the government’s encouragement to universities to develop mutually beneficial links with their local and regional economies.

Behind these developments is a growing appreciation – in government, in wider society and within some institutions – that HEIs in receipt of large amounts of public funding have, consequently, a civic duty to engage with wider society, and that, by and large, they have been failing in that duty. The decline in university adult education has been a significant contributor to this failure. Historically, continuing education has been one of the main ways in which ‘civic universities’ have engaged with their wider communities, connecting the global with the local, giving people from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds an opportunity to benefit from higher study, and stimulating innovative approaches to teaching and research.

The university extension movement began in the nineteenth century and was developed through the involvement of the Workers’ Educational Association, which, for much of the twentieth century, offered university adult education to working-class people in their own communities. The gradual decline of the extra-mural tradition was accelerated, almost fatally, by the introduction, under Labour, of the ‘ELQ’ policy, which denied state funding to students studying at a level equivalent to or lower than a qualification they already possessed. Many HEIs have since closed down – or dramatically scaled back – their centres of continuing education, a process which coincided with the growing marginalisation of the so-called ‘third mission’ of universities to engage with their communities.

The revival of interest in community engagement is an opportunity to think again, and think radically, about the extra-mural tradition. The past few years have seen a number of serious, if not always intentional, attempts to reinvigorate this tradition. I wrote about some of these last year in Adults Learning . Occupy London’s Tent City University, while not self-consciously attempting to offer an alternative to mainstream higher education (at least not to begin with), nevertheless represented a recognition that there is a pressing need to create new spaces in which people who might be reluctant to incur substantial debts in return for their education can come together to exchange ideas, learn new things and challenge political and educational conventions. It is one example of a wider movement which is attempting both to resist the marketisation of higher education and to reinvigorate the spirit of the public university as a place, first and foremost, in which people are free to think, to debate issues that matter in their lives and to shape the future. ‘Alternative universities’ have sprung up in London, Liverpool, Leeds and Lincoln, creating new spaces in which to learn, usually for free, in an atmosphere characterised by mutual support, shared learning and a commitment to education as a democratic project, a collaboration between student and teacher.

One of the most striking examples is the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, a ‘cooperative education centre’ with no fees and no formal distinction between students and staff. When I interviewed Mike Neary, one of the organisers of the centre, last year, he made a direct connection between the alternative university movement and some of the milestone interventions of the adult education movement – university settlements, extension classes, free libraries, Ruskin College and the Workers’ Educational Association – in short, ‘the history of how those excluded from higher education have organised their own intellectual lives and learning in collaboration with university academics’. Free or alternative universities are ‘absolutely embedded in the history of adult education,’ Mike told me. They are also usually based in real, public spaces in local communities, while, at the same time, engaging with the world and attempting to change it. In the same way, the university extension movement attempted to create spaces in people’s communities in which it was possible to look beyond them.

There is evidently an appetite for less formal, less expensive and more inclusive higher education spaces, offering what the university extension movement sought to provide: affordable opportunities for people unable or unwilling to access mainstream higher education to benefit from higher study and, just as significantly, to shape it to their own concerns and interests. The growing interest in social impact and university community engagement represents an opportunity to think about how universities might begin to reclaim this space, and re-imagine it for a different time. There are significant benefits – for universities and their communities – to be had from doing so, and these go beyond the extra income to be drawn down in fees. Too often, in recent times, universities have thought about lifelong learning purely in financial terms, and neglected both their duties to their wider communities and the considerable rewards – academic, economic and cultural – which university lifelong learning offered. Continuing education not only supported adults in finding ways to re-skill and re-imagine themselves, it gave critical support to the local economy, strengthened links to the wider community and supported the development of innovative approaches to teaching and research. When this began to whither, so too did the sense of institutions rooted in a community. Among other things, universities lost a remarkable resource of pedagogical expertise in working with adult learners; something that will take many years to rebuild.

Faced with the challenge of an ageing and increasinly diverse population population – a reality with which politicians remain reluctant to engage or even talk about in frank terms – it is absolutely critical that universities provide more and better opportunities for adults to study part-time, in ways that fit around their other commitments. This isn’t just about skills for work. In times like these, universities have a responsibility to support people in thinking differently about the world, and in connecting their learning to action (it is to be hoped than proposed exemptions to the ELQ policy reflect this).

The university extension movement may have passed quietly into history, but there is still much to be learned from it and there remains much innovative practice in the sector, though it is, in the main, marginal to institutional priorities and often not recognised as either community engagement or lifelong learning. Universities must do more to connect teaching and research with the lives of their communities and government should support and encourage them. Yet mature and part-time student numbers continue to decline steeply. Reversing that trend will take a serious commitment to making part-time study and continuing education a core part of what higher education institutions do – something which, for many, will entail a major rethink of priorities. The government can help by reversing the previous government’s ELQ policy and by giving institutions more of an incentive to offer part-time education to adults, for example, by reinstating the part-time premium. But nothing short of a fundamental shift in the way higher education thinks about its community and civic role is required if institutions are to fully realise their duties to wider society and make community engagement a guiding principle of university activity. Revisiting the notion of the civic university and the extra-mural tradition would not be a bad place to start.