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The Centenary Commission on Adult Education

  • 18 November 2019
  • By Jonathan Michie

We are delighted to host this guest blog by Jonathan Michie, the President of Kellogg College, Oxford.

A new report published today calls on all universities to provide adult education and lifelong learning. Indeed, it recommends that this should become a requirement for using the protected term ‘university’. No adult education and lifelong learning, no university.

This is not the first time a report has called on universities to provide adult education.  During World War One, Prime Minister Lloyd George established the Ministry of Reconstruction to advise on how a society might rebuild from the rubble of the slaughter.  Their committee on adult education published their Final Report on Adult Education in November 1919. This argued that a greatly enhanced provision of adult education was vital for the future of the country. Hence every university should provide it.

The post World War One government is infamous for reneging on the ‘Homes Fit For Heroes’ pledge. Similarly, they failed to do much about the recommendations of the 1919 Report. Despite this lack of support, that Report fostered a huge growth of adult education over the subsequent decades, culminating in the founding of the Open University.

By the 1970s there was excellent provision. Every university had taken up the suggestion of founding departments for continuing education.  These collaborated with the local authority and the Workers’ Educational Association to create and deliver adult education courses, funded by central Government, but with a suitably hands-off approach to content.

From the 1980s, a series of unhelpful moves from government led to a weakening of much of this provision. Increasingly education was considered worthwhile only if it could prove it was ‘delivering’ something.  Which meant something measurable. This led to a requirement to provide credit, just so it could be measured, even if unhelpful to the process of education.  Alongside this was a push to provide education for employment rather than for learning.

Such moves made it more difficult for universities to provide the previous range of courses, not necessarily for credit, and spanning the humanities as well as sciences. Gradually such provision was rundown, and departments for continuing education closed. As Helena Kennedy’s report on further education concluded, the system had once more returned to the great British principle of ‘If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed’.

On top of these unhelpful moves, the Gordon Brown Government introduced the absurd ‘Equivalent and Lower Qualification’ rule to cut £100m from adult education. The Coalition Government tripled fees, with devastating effects on adult education and lifelong learning. And ten years of austerity was the final nail in the coffin in terms of reversing years of progress. Provision of adult and community education, and lifelong learning, has been sabotaged just when it is needed most.

This is what led the Co-operative College, the Workers’ Educational Association, the Raymond Williams Foundation, the University of Nottingham, and Kellogg College and the Department for Continuing Education at the University of Oxford to create the ‘Adult Education 100’ campaign, to use the centenary of the November 1919 Report on Adult Education to push for a renewal of adult and community education and lifelong learning.

One part of this campaign was the creation of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, tasked with the same remit as the committee that wrote the 1919 Report, namely ‘To consider the provision for, and possibilities of, Adult Education in Great Britain, and to make recommendations’.  

The 1919 committee was chaired by the then Master of Balliol, A.L. Smith, as Oxford was at that time at the forefront of the university extension movement. The Centenary Commission was also chaired by the Master of Balliol, Dame Helen Ghosh. The 1919 Committee included the founder of the Workers’ Educational Association, and the Centenary Commission included the current General Secretary.

The Centenary Report, published today, calls on Government to launch a national Adult Education & Lifelong Learning Strategy, and to appoint a Minister to champion its implementation, which needs to be delivered at local and regional level through ‘Adult Learning Partnerships’. These would be alliances between the local universities and colleges, local authorities, major employers, and the WEA and other voluntary and educational bodies. Local authorities would have their statutory duty to deliver adult education restored, with funding. And universities would be obliged to participate, to deliver adult education and lifelong learning ‘of types appropriate to their role in the local community, compensating for past disadvantages, and utilising radical and engaged forms of education’.

The Report, published today, has already been welcomed by the Scottish and Welsh governments. Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, said:

I welcome this week’s publication of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education’s report. Whatever their reason for returning to education, adults must be fully supported to access and progress through their learning that best meets their needs, be they personal or professional.

The Welsh Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams, said:

This is an important report, which places a welcome emphasis on the social and civic benefits of adult education, alongside the economic advantages. In the main it is a report that recommends action in England, but I am pleased that in Wales we already have in place a number of the policies that the Commission recommends. As we take forward our commitment to explore a right to lifelong learning, the findings of the Centenary Commission will be a positive guide.

The Labour Party and Liberal Democrats have announced plans for serious increases in funding for adult education and lifelong learning.

Will things be different this time?

The University Association of Lifelong Learning brings together those universities still delivering on this vital mission, including Birkbeck, Cambridge, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, the Open University, Oxford, Sheffield, Warwick and many others. But no area should be left behind – all universities need to deliver.  And the provision needs to be broadened, ‘compensating for past disadvantages, and utilising radical and engaged forms of education’.  

The Centenary Commission included the Vice-Principal of the Co-operative College, which is seeking to become part of a new federated Co-operative University, committed to utilising radical and engaged forms of education. With the Centenary Commission’s recommendation that all universities follow suit, they would become powerful local allies for employers, voluntary bodies and local authorities to gauge local demand, co-produce what was required, and deliver on a sustained and sustainable basis.  It can be done. It is vitally and urgently required for the good of communities, society, and the economy.  It is a demonstrably good investment on all these levels.

There is nothing to be gained from further delay.

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