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.


A short fanfare for Adults Learning

I was saddened to hear that Adults Learning – a magazine I edited for 12 years, between 2002 and 2014, and the only UK periodical dedicated to adult education and learning in the round – is to close. Before it disappears into adult education history – unremarked alongside the loss of so much else that is valuable – I thought I would spend a little time remembering it and its place in what we still, in 2002, thought of fondly as ‘this great movement of ours’.

The British Institute of Adult Education (BIAE) was founded in 1921 as a branch of the World Association for Adult Education, an organisation set up by Albert Mansbridge, who also, of course, founded the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). The institute’s aim, in the words of its first president, Lord Haldane, was to be ‘a centre for common thought by persons of varied experience in the adult education movement’, and both a representative body and a ‘thinking department’, focused not on teaching but on discussion and advocacy. Publication was seen an as important dimension of the work.

The institute became an autonomous organisation, independent of the World Association, in 1925. The following year it set up its own journal, the Journal of Adult Education, a twice yearly publication which became the quarterly Adult Education in 1934. The BIAE’s new Secretary William Emrys Williams (best known perhaps for his work as editor in chief at Penguin books, which included the launch of the Pelican imprint), who had edited the WEA’s The Highway since 1930 (and would continue, at times controversially, as editor until 1939), wanted to turn the institute into a more influential, dynamic voice in the debate about adult education, and to engage a wider audience in that debate.

When Williams assumed editorship of The Highway he told readers he intended to run the journal ‘in the interests of the adult education movement as a whole, and not just those of the Association’. His aim was to make the journal more democratic and participative, very much in the spirit of the WEA itself, which Williams described as ‘not just a federation of students, but a fellowship of all who believe in education and who wish to make it more and more accessible. It stands above all for the abolition of privilege and of competition in educational systems.’ He was true to his promise ‘to provoke opinion and to foster controversy’ in the pursuit of a better national education policy.

Williams’ leadership of the BIAE was energetic and creative, typified by a willingness to push back the boundaries of what was considered relevant to the movement. Up until 1934, the institute saw itself more as ‘a research laboratory’, setting up inquiries and producing a series of reports intended to support ‘the revision and development of educational policy’ (one of its reports, The Film in National Life [1932], resulted in the creation of the British Film Institute). Williams’ far-sighted innovations included the Art for the People programme, which gave working people around the country an opportunity to see important works of art (leading, eventually, to the creation of the Arts Council), and the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which produced a series of topical short papers to stimulate discussion among troops during the Second World War. Somehow, Williams managed to sell the idea that the troops defending democracy should also be active participants in it.

Williams was very open to the possibilities of different, often new, forms of educational activity, and was concerned always to encourage ‘spectators’ to become participants – the most immediate requirement of adult education, as he saw it. Students’ voices mattered, he believed, and the need to create a better understanding between participants and providers became a theme of his early editorials in Adult Education. The publication became a vital forum for discussing the work of adult educators and adult education’s future as a movement. Williams’ first contribution to the journal – ‘The Institute: Terminus or Junction?’ – invited members to bring their understanding of ‘what is going on in adult education and what ought to be going on’ to discussions of the future of the institute. In another article – ‘The Storm Troops and the Militia’ – he launched a debate among adult educators on how best to reconcile the different needs of the ‘storm troops’ of the three-year tutorial classes with those of the ‘militia army’ of less able or less ambitious adult students. Williams saw the journal not just as a way of communicating institute business to members but as a forum for wider, democratic debate, going well beyond the day-to-day concerns of the institute and attempting to put the work of adult educators in a much broader context.

The British Institute of Adult Education merged with the National Foundation for Adult Education in 1949 to form the National Institute of Adult Education. The NIAE continued to publish Adult Education, under the shrewd leadership of Edward Hutchinson who, adapting to straitened circumstances, took to editing the journal himself (he was also finance officer, conference manager and research and development officer, among other things). Hutchinson grew the organisation into a prominent national source of information and thought about adult education, giving the journal a leading role in developing that thought and supporting others to contribute to it. The Highway had ceased publishing in 1959, leaving Adult Education as the only serious periodical publication in the field.

The journal continued to publish under Arthur Stock’s directorship, which, in 1983, saw the institute again change its name, this time to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). Alan Tuckett, who took over the directorship of NIACE in 1988, was a social entrepreneur in the tradition of Williams (though, like Hutchinson, he also had a talent for encouraging others). He launched the monthly Adults Learning as a successor to the quarterly Adult Education in 1989, making what Judith Summers described as ‘a statement of intent to reach out actively to a widening constituency’. He also organised the first Adult Learners’ Week (in the teeth of a good deal of internal opposition), launching an idea now copied in countries around the world, developed NIACE’s campaigning and publications operations, and transformed NIACE’s research and policy-making capability, supported by outstanding staff such as Naomi Sargant and Alastair Thomson.

I joined NIACE as editor of Adults Learning in September 2002 having spent the previous few years teaching and researching. The panel that interviewed me included Jane Thompson, one of the best and most influential writers on adult education and a big supporter of the journal. I had worked in journalism in the past but not for the best part of a decade. I knew very little about publishing and had no experience whatsoever of magazine production. I came to it with the idea of creating something that was thoughtful and rigorous, yet accessible to the average reader, while making it look ‘as nice as we can afford to’ (to quote Williams’ reply to a critic of his editorship of The Highway). I also, like Williams, wanted to make it about ‘the interests of the adult education movement as a whole’ rather than the narrower concerns of NIACE (something, I should add, Alan Tuckett enthusiastically supported, recognising that an editorially independent journal was, in some respects, better for NIACE, as well as for the wider sector).

The people who agreed to write for me or be interviewed by me included not only some of the luminaries of the adult education world but also adult education teachers and students. All, almost without exception, were happy to contribute their work without a fee. I was lucky to be able to include the work of some outstanding writers, including regular columnists John Field and Tom Schuller, Alison Wolf, Ewart Keep, Mick Fletcher, Anna Coote, Ian Martin, Ann Walker, Mike Campbell, Mary Stuart, Stephen McNair, Frank Coffield, Jane Thompson, Ken Spours, Ann Hodgson, Lorna Unwin, Kathryn Ecclestone, Gert Biesta, Veronica McGivney, Jim Crowther, Mark Ravenhall, Alastair Thomson and, of course, Alan Tuckett. There are many more and I apologise to those I have omitted to mention. Keen to broaden the appeal of the journal and to highlight the wider relevance of adult education I also interviewed a number of people who, while outside the sector, had things to say which adult educators would find relevant, engaging or inspirational. These included Richard Hoggart, Tony Benn, Maggi Hambling, Esther Brunstein, David Puttnam and the incredible Margaret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Family Support Group (the interview that will stay with me the longest). One-off issues on special themes, such as poverty and low pay, were an attempt to do something similar. I also visited and reported on some remarkable projects, such as the North Edinburgh Social History Group, Tent City University, Lincoln’s Social Science Centre and Liverpool’s The Reader Organisation.

One small coup, in May 2010, was publishing one of the first interviews with new Prime Minister David Cameron (though it was actually written shortly before the election – we also persuaded Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg to answer the same questions). Mr Cameron’s warm words and passionately stated commitment to ‘adult learning and the way it inspires people’ are well worth revisiting in the light of the cuts which have since decimated the sector.

Funding cuts and the decline in policy interest in adult education which accompanied the growing obsession of ministers with skills and employability (narrowly conceived) made it difficult to maintain a journal that was about adult education as a whole, rather than, say, skills or training, or further education. Subscriber numbers fell and, without resources to market or source advertising, it was perhaps inevitable that the journal would close. Nevertheless, I think it did something very valuable in offering a very diverse and often disconnected readership a sense of being part of something bigger, whether that was understood to mean a movement or a sector. As John Field said to me once, it gave people a sense of the whole forest, not just the trees surrounding them. It was a place where it was all brought together: what adult education does, the difference it can make and why it matters, in all its different guises and settings. It helped people think and encouraged them to become participants in the leadership of thought in adult education. It also tried to keep alive the link with adult education’s historic roots. It is a real concern that there is now so little defence of adult education that is about anything other than skills for work. We need to do more to resist this and rediscover some of the values of our past, as well as finding find new ways to talk about them.

I fear there is no bringing back Adults Learning but I do believe there is a need for something that does what it used to, though perhaps in a new form. I’d love hear what people think about this and what their thoughts are as to what might replace Adults Learning, what the sector needs and what would be valuable as a way of developing thinking and advocacy within and about adult education. Please feel free to comment on this post. I’d love to hear what you think.

Some of the material for the article draws on Sander Meredeen’s excellent book, The Man Who Made Penguins: The Life of Sir William Emrys Williams (Darien Jones Publishing, 2007)

HE and social mobility: the problem of mature and part-time students

Alan Milburn’s justified criticism of the government’s decision to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance – a ‘very bad mistake’, he argues – may have grabbed the headlines, but there is much else that is good and useful in his thoughtful, intelligent report on the role of higher education in advancing social mobility.

Particularly welcome is the recognition that higher education is an important public and social good – as well as an economic one. As the NIACE-sponsored Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning noted, ‘universities contribute across the full range of desirable forms of capital – human, social, identity, creative and mental’. Higher education is as much about cultural enrichment as it is about skills. It is about helping people grow intellectually and achieve fulfilment as much as it is about equipping them for work. And while nobody would deny that it makes a critical contribution to the economic success of the country, to create a system that, in Lord Dearing’s words, can ‘inspire and enable’ individuals from every background to ‘develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life’, a wider vision is necessary, and Milburn’s acknowledgement of the diverse purposes of higher education is important.

Engaging adults in higher education, and opening up more opportunities for them to study part-time, in ways that fit around their work and family circumstances, is important in achieving both economic growth and greater social mobility. For that reason, it is good to see the consideration given to mature and part-time students in the report, and the concerns Milburn raises about the substantial fall in applications from mature students and the steep drop in part-time numbers expected in admissions for this year. He is also right to highlight the failure of the government to adequately communicate the new fees regime, particularly to part-timers and mature students, whom it appears to have deterred. As he notes:

While there has been considerable effort to target potential applicants from schools and colleges that go through the UCAS system, others, including mature students and part-time students, have been left out. Evidence from outreach teams suggests that part-time students are confused by, or simply unaware of, the loan support that is now available to them. Applications from this group have significantly dropped across the sector at universities which specialise in part-time students, and there is a risk that what should be a good news story regarding the extension of loans to part-time students will turn into a bad news story, as people are put off applying through a lack of effective information.

The report calls for the government to broaden its communications effort ‘to include applicants who are not coming straight from school’ and to develop ‘a new strategy for encouraging non-traditional students – especially mature and part-time students – into higher education’. It is to be hoped that ministers act on this suggestion and think seriously about how to improve their messaging to these groups.

Milburn argues, rightly in my view, that some of the government’s key policy interventions in higher education are likely to have unintended negative consequences for social mobility, in particular the so-called ‘core and margin’ mechanism, which allows ‘unconstrained recruitment of high achieving students (AAB+) and creates a ‘flexible margin’ of 20,000 places available to universities charging £7,500 or less in tuition fees. There is a danger that these reforms could further polarise the HE system, with elite institutions competing for high-achieving students and other, middle-ranking, institutions forced to cut costs (and, in some cases, inevitably, standards) in order to compete for the flexible margin of places. In particular, the unconstrained recruitment of AAB+ students will make it more difficult for mature students who have come to higher education by a non-traditional route to gain a place at highly selective institutions. Milburn says:

Such polarisation would be deeply damaging and could have undesirable consequences for social mobility if able candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds felt constrained to choose lower-cost provision. Indeed, it could create a vicious cycle in which those universities which charge less will have less scope to invest in facilities and to enhance the student experience, with the result that they may find it increasingly difficult to attract high-achieving students or those from wealthier backgrounds, regardless of the quality of teaching on offer.

Milburn’s calls for the sector to make the use of contextual data ‘as universal as possible in admissions processes’, and to standardise it, are also welcome. Many universities already make use of contextual information, for example, family income and the type of school attended by applicants, in admissions, but it should be used more widely. It is of particular importance to ‘second chance’ adult students who are less likely to have conventional qualifications. I support Milburn’s rejection of the distinction between ‘equity and excellence’ and support his argument that ‘over-reliance on A-level results engineers a distorted intake to universities, and fails to meet the criteria of excellence’. There is evidence that students who attended state schools perform better in finals compared to privately-educated pupils with the same A-level scores. It is clear that, in many cases, university admissions systems do favour students from private schools.

There are many other positives in Milburn’s report. There are sensible proposals for shifting resources away from bursaries and fee waivers towards outreach and support for students while studying, and for more and better evidence as to what approaches to outreach work best. And it is good to see recognition in the report of the important role played by HE in further education colleges in enhancing the diversity of the higher education sector, and of the need to increase the proportion of apprentices entering higher education. Milburn’s calls for greater long-term investment in education, with more public and private investment in higher education, and for an expansion in student numbers to allow more part-timers and mature students into the system, also deserve support.

Milburn is also right to say that the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and its replacement with a new system of discretionary support (‘inadequate,’ Milburn says) was a serious mistake, though there are concerns, voiced by new universities group Million+, that making universities responsible for providing financial incentives for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds could create a ‘postcode lottery’ that might lead to the exclusion of many students. Universities will be reluctant to fill the funding gap left by the withdrawal of the EMA and more thought needs to be given as to how an adequate alternative to the scheme can be funded.

In some respects, Milburn’s proposals are too narrow. While he does well to highlight significant concerns about mature and part-time student applications, much of his report is overly focused on younger, full-time students, and there is not enough on how to encourage participation among adults who are not currently learning in institutional settings. Milburn’s proposals for incentivising young people to stay on and succeed at school will do nothing to help mature students and there is little here to address specific support and retention issues facing older and part-time students. More attention too might have been given to the role of families in supporting young people into higher education, and the critical part family learning can play in transforming attitudes and aspiration. There are dangers in the report too, not least that the collective use of ‘statistical targets’ could seriously limit institutions’ capacity to respond flexibly to local circumstance and their own distinct challenges on admissions.

Participation in higher education remains painfully unequal, with the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities that the 40 per cent most disadvantaged. Milburn is right that universities, and in particular highly selective universities, need to do more to help raise aspiration and attainment and to identify excellence wherever it is to be found. He is also right to dismiss objections that the focus ought to be solely on schools and that a university place should be determined solely by attainment at A-level. Every university should seek to do more to widen participation and make access fairer, and the government should work to ensure a policy framework that makes this easier rather than harder. It is to be hoped that Alan Milburn’s report will reopen debate about the future and purpose of higher education and, critically, get us all thinking hard about what to do about the troubling decline in mature and part-time student admissions.