Learning, thinking and resistance

Describing news that you don’t like as ‘fake’, as UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd did at the weekend in an attempt to avoid answering a question, is a dangerous step for a politician to take. For one thing, it shows a reckless attitude to the truth; for another, a preference for closing down unwelcome or difficult debate rather than engaging with it. It also undermines people’s faith in probably the main and most reliable source of information about their world for entirely frivolous reasons. Clearly, there is a lot of ‘news’ out there that doesn’t deserve the name, much of it emanating from Rupert Murdoch’s tawdry empire (ironically, now courted by the opponents of ‘fake news’ on both sides of the Atlantic). But there are also many sources of news which consciously attempt to be fair, balanced and accurate. The news Rudd was troubled by – a report that the government would take only 350 unaccompanied child refugees from Syria under the so-called Dubs scheme – was not only from a reputable source; it was also accurate.

Of course, the UK government is very familiar with fake news and is an unapologetic source of it. Since 2010 it has very cleverly and effectively established a kind of alternative political reality in which it governs: an exaggerated and distorted narrative of political and economic events devised to justify or obscure extreme political decisions, including savage cuts to public services, the devastation of major cultural institutions such as the public library service and the deliberate abandonment of parts of the education system, which the public might otherwise find unpalatable. The problem with governing through this sort of systematic distortion of the truth is, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in an interview in the New York Review of Books, that ‘lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history … you get not only one lie [but] a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows’. A people ‘that can no longer believe anything’, Arendt continues, ‘cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and judge. And with such a people you can then do as you please.’ If the media has failed its public, it has been not in making up the news – though undoubtedly it has sometimes done that – but in failing to offer more than mere balance between opposing views. In a world of competing versions of the truth, where views are privileged over facts and the media offers no compass with which to navigate these confusing waters, it is little wonder people prefer, increasingly, to invest in narratives that are emotionally rather than intellectually persuasive.

I was thinking about Hannah Arendt having re-read Jon Nixon’s 2015 Times Higher piece on Arendt on the train this morning. It’s a really interesting short essay which seems to me now, as it did when I first read it, hugely relevant to those who see the traditions of adult education and continuing education as worth reviving. Arendt’s work, Nixon writes ‘is a reminder of the urgent need for us to learn to think together’; something without which ‘there can be no informed judgement, no moral agency and no possibility of collective action – no “care of the world”.’ Education, in Arendt’s words, is the point at which ‘we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it’. It offers us, Nixon says, ‘a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion: a space to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to “assume responsibility”’. Arendt’s work, he concludes, reminds us ‘that education is a public good: that the more we participate in it, the greater its potential contribution to the wellbeing of society as a whole and the vibrancy of the body politic’.

Nixon’s argument is addressed to universities, which, he contends, have a responsibility to create spaces in which members of the academic community can ‘question and challenge’, without predetermined outcomes or artificial barriers to thought. I couldn’t agree more with this. But I think a university’s responsibility is wider. It is not only students and academics who have a need to think critically but the wider community too and that, to my mind, is a crucial part of the mission of higher education, one that has been neglected to the point that many institutions have forgotten that it exists or, indeed, that, in many cases, it is part of their founding missions. The past few decades have seen a collapse in university lifelong learning, with many universities closing their departments (most recently, the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, which was closed by the University of Leicester in a manner that did the university little credit). But it is these departments which have, for much of the twentieth century and some of the present one, offered people precisely the kinds of spaces Arendt was talking about – safe places where people could question and critique, challenge and be challenged; sites which, in the first decades of the last century, acted almost as a training ground for early generations of socialist MPs. They broke down boundaries, between institutions and their communities, lecturers and students, while stimulating local and national democratic life. Often these departments were also drivers of wider innovations within higher education, prompting both new curriculum developments and new thinking about how learning could be delivered. They built intellectual and cultural capital within working communities while also fostering empathy and civic concern.

Universities have an obligation to mean something in the lives of the communities in which they operate – and that has to be more than as a source of employment. They should not simply be finishing schools for the children of the wealthy, populated by academics whose lives and interests rarely intersect with those of their near neighbours. They should be actively reaching out to the communities that have disappeared from our political and cultural life, except, largely, as objects of ridicule. They should be in permanent listening mode, listening hardest to those who have the least voice. They should be challenging political narratives that exclude their concerns, or which blow up certain concerns (immigration, for example) at the expense of others which have far greater impact on their lives (supply of affordable housing or cuts to funding for health care). And, of course, they do all of these things, to an extent. Too often, though, it is down to the initiative of individual academics, often those willing to put in a shift at the margins of their work to make universities’ historic ‘third mission’ meaningful. The institutions themselves could, in many cases, do much, much more to challenge and be different, to create spaces here people can learn and think together, where the ideas of academics can be deepened with the experience of their community neighbours, and where people can have serious, unconstrained discussions about how best to live. As Arendt suggests, one of the casualties of a dishonest politics is a sense of hope. Not knowing what to believe saps agency, disempowers those at the bottom of the pile and, worst of all, removes hope. We are a society badly in need of a lot more hope.

Arendt believed that the ability to think, question and be reflective must be an essential component of any meaningful democratic change. If we, as a society, are serious about the democratic project, we need to create more spaces in which this is possible, starting small and local, where most meaningful social change begins. Key to facilitating such spaces, Arendt felt, was to ensure dialogue was genuinely open and not at all constrained. That means trusting people and being prepared to put up with answers you disagree with. The point is, once you open up a conversation, you don’t know where it will lead. If we want to involve people in politics, we have to give people the space in which to do politics, and that means giving them the opportunity to think substantive thoughts about substantive questions, including those considered off the mainstream agenda. People are more wary of experts than they are weary of them. They want to be able to engage and challenge them, not feel bullied by them. People want reasons to hope, a way out of the trap they find themselves in. Thinking and learning are inescapable parts of this and universities have a big role to play, as part of a wider, more democratic and cohesive tertiary sector. It’s time they revived their civic mission. I hope this role is not neglected as new thinking begins to reshape the lifelong learning landscape. If we are not ambitious about our futures now, I do genuinely fear for the kinds of futures we might have.

Where are we now? The coalition’s midterm review

The coalition’s midterm ‘renewal of vows’ was an opportunity for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to reaffirm their commitment to the government’s ongoing programme of reform. The 52-page review document dedicated a page and a half to ‘further education and universities’ and, while there was little new in policy terms, there was a firm undertaking to continue the direction of travel and focus on implementing reforms already in train.

The big society was dutifully name-checked but it is clear that the concept, a usefully obscure peg on which far too much hope has been pinned and too much creative thought expended, will no longer provide a guiding narrative for policy. Despite this, much of the rhetoric of the coalition continues to be framed in terms of decentralising power away from Westminster to ‘counties, cities, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and citizens’. The emphasis is firmly on finding local, as opposed to centrally driven, solutions to local economic and social problems, and to getting the right blend of planning and funding arrangements to achieve this. As the report notes:

It is not the grand plans of politicians and bureaucrats that will ultimately deliver social progress and build social capital, but the ingenuity, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the British people – the Big Society.

The report talks up the coalition’s ‘sweeping reforms to increase local authority freedom’ and its abolition of regional government, pledging to ‘continue to devolve responsibility to local government’ and to take forward Lord Heseltine’s recommendation that local areas should have single funding pots. It also affirms its commitment to giving neighbourhoods ‘greater powers to do things for themselves’ – citing its Social Action Fund to provide opportunities for people to get involved in volunteering and its plan to train community organisers in the most deprived communities – though many in the voluntary sector, faced with ‘crippling cuts’ to charity funding, may find the suggestion that the coalition has ‘offered support to all those who want to improve their communities and their local services’ a little difficult to take.

The section on universities and further education asserts the coalition’s commitment to rectify what it describes as Britain’s historic tendency to undervalue ‘both the academic and technical skills a modern economy needs’. It promises to ‘take the tough decisions needed to ensure that our universities thrive’, adding:

We value them for their intrinsic, as well as their economic, worth: as seats of learning and research dedicated to increasing the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and as centres of innovation and invention, the driving force behind our increasingly high-tech, knowledge-based economy.

It is disappointing that the role of higher education institutions in engaging their communities and contributing to local economic growth is overlooked here. The government’s utilitarian vision, as expressed here and elsewhere, falls some way short of that set out in the Dearing report, which recognised that higher education has a critical role to play in building and sustaining a learning society, as well as in securing economic growth. As the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning argued, ‘universities contribute across the full range of desirable forms of capital – human, social, identity, creative and mental’. It is worth reasserting that higher education is an important public good, as much about cultural enrichment as it is about skills, as much about helping people grow intellectually and achieve fulfillment as it is about equipping them for work.

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 both in achieving economic growth and in addressing the needs of adults who do not currently participate in any learning at all. The government has taken important steps ‘to provide more financial support to students from low-income families’ and to extend income-contingent loans to part-time students. However, its good intentions are being undermined by the unintended consequences of some of its other reforms, as can be seen in the sharp drop in the numbers of mature students applying to study full-time in higher education. There are indications that there has also been a sharp drop in part-time admissions and concerns about the impact this will have on institutions which traditionally attract large numbers of part-time students. It is perhaps too soon to claim, as the report does in recapping the coalition’s changes to higher education funding, that it has ‘put universities on a secure and sustainable financial footing’. The government and the sector will need to think carefully about how to ensure part-time higher education study makes its full contribution both to the country’s future economic wellbeing and to widening access and improving social mobility.

The ‘different but equally important’ role ascribed to further education colleges is similarly narrow: ‘equipping our people with the basic, applied and specialist skills they need in the world of work, either at the beginning of their careers, or when they need re-skilling.’ Ahead of the government’s response to the Richard review, there is the laudable, and long overdue, ambition to see a ‘system of apprenticeships to rival those out countries such as Germany’ and a commitment to raising standards in line with Richard’s recommendations. The report undertakes to simplify and increase the rigour of FE qualifications, to make skill provision more responsive to employer demand and to introduce traineeships to support young people at work. It also reiterates the coalition’s commitment to introduce, from August, Advanced Learning Loans for people aged 24 and over. The impact of the latter reform on adult participation remains very much an unknown quantity, despite welcome moves to mitigate some of the potential negative impact of the policy. One of the lessons of the decline in participation among mature students in HE is that the government needs to do more to ensure funding changes do not deter mature applications. A good place to start would be to think about how it communicates with them.

Nobody, of course, will be surprised that, in a short summary document such as this, there is no mention of adult education more broadly conceived or acknowledgement of its wider benefits to a range of other policy agendas, but some recognition would have suggested a better grasp of the interconnectedness of these agendas and of the wider post-16 education landscape, in particular. The pace of reform during the first two years of coalition government has been rapid, and there is much to be said for slowing down the pace a little, while current changes bed down and their impacts become clearer. Ministers tend still to think of the different parts of the post-16 system as discrete and isolated rather than as part of a wider framework of lifelong learning. Achieving a better articulation of the way in which the different parts of the system relate to each other will be a critical test of the government’s reforms during the remainder of this parliament.

This article originally appeared here.