Reviving Adult Education post-pandemic in the context of Lifelong Learning

Idea in brief: Given recent pandemic experience, a huge need has been revealed for home based activities which can occupy and enhance the mind. I see Britain’s once vigorous but now etiolated Liberal Adult Education provision in dire need of revival for many social and cultural reasons. My belief is that a new body, loosely based on the successful existing educational charity, the u3a, would repay a hugely disproportionate dividend from even a small funding investment by government.

Personal Interest: From 1972 to 1993 I worked for the Extra-Mural Department of Manchester University, serving as Director 1986-93. This meant I had close involvement with the UK’s Adult Education system and developed a strong commitment to improving its reach and function.

Britain’s Adult Education System: After the 1870 Education Act and those which followed it, the notion of education as a fundamental right was permanently established but for millions of still uneducated adults there was a huge education deficit. In 1903 the Workers Education Association looked beyond literacy to more systematic study, sometimes with Higher Education in view. After the trauma of war, the 1919 Ministry of Reconstruction’s Final Report on Adult Education turbo-charged adult education, based on the following principle: “Adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong”; it “should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community”. The spread of university extra-mural departments all over the country fulfilled some of the above ambitions, complemented by the development of adult education via local education authority (LEA) provision: adult education centres and further education colleges. The Army Bureau of Current Affairs helped educate soldiers returning home from the war and the scene was set for further expansion of provision post-war. Millions annually attended adult courses on a huge range of vocational and liberal adult topics in EMD, WEA and LEA classes. Later in the 1960s the Open University provided high quality degree courses for adults prepared to study using distance learning technology. Within this system, liberal adult education was a major element, along with more vocational studies and, via LEA provision, skills-based handicrafts.

Liberal Adult Education Under Attack: Initially the idea of educating the minds of adults was essentially liberal: this was the way they could discover the magic of literature, art history, languages, foreign cultures and the sciences. Course fees were accessible by pensioners and the low paid and, despite a predominantly middle class audience, many found this provision not only fulfilling but frequently, for mature students, a gateway into higher education. However, as the debate over public expenditure evolved during the latter part of the century, the utility of liberal adult education was questioned: such courses rarely led to qualifications; did not contribute directly to improving the national economy (though in less visible ways, they did); and the majority of attendees could afford to pay more for them.

Decline: During the 1990s funding for Extra-Mural Departments disappeared. Some provision survived but fees were usually beyond the pockets of the low paid. LEA funding was reallocated gradually to vocationally directed provision and the plentiful LEA classes in most areas of the country faded away apart, again, from courses accessible only to those who could afford them. As one-time leader of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, Sir Alan Tuckett, explains Liberal Adult Education has been thrown out with the overall adult learning bathwater: ‘We are, alas, overwhelmingly obsessed with initial education – the clockwork model that starts with early years and ends with labour market entry – at the expense of learning throughout life. As a result, over the past 15 years we have lost two million places in publicly funded adult education…. If we had set out consciously to destroy adult learning opportunities we could not have done a better job.’

My Proposal: Revive Liberal Adult Education

a) That foundation principle of the 1919 Report is still more relevant then ever: “Adult education is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong.’

) With appalling statistics of functional illiteracy in the UK – an average of 1 in 8 – every possible opportunity for easy access, low cost study should be provided.

c) With an ageing population and the problem of loneliness for so many elderly people becoming acute, there is a real demand for the return of cheap well-constructed and taught adult education classes.

d) To attract late 50 / early 60 year olds, made redundant by COVID.

The University of the Third Age (u3a): Founded in 1982 as a national charity to provide learning as an absorbing and entertaining activity, the u3a is a UK-wide movement which brings together people who are no longer in full-time employment, to develop their interests and continue their learning in a friendly and informal environment. It now has over a thousand branches, with close to half a million members who on average pay £20 annually. u3a members draw on their knowledge and experience to teach and learn from each other but there are no qualifications to pass – it is just for pleasure. Learning is its own reward. At present there is an age limit of 55 for attendees but if this were adjusted downward there is no reason why a fully national adult education service should not be revived primarily to fill leisure time richly, both socially and productively, for the individual. Alan Tuckett correctly describes it as ‘a candle in the gloom.’

Change Name? My suggestion is to base a new body to replace or run in harmony with the u3a with a government funded body called something like ‘The Lifelong Learning Community’: lower age limit of 21 or 25 utilising the enthusiasm of people to organise their own learning. Even a small investment of funding in such an expanded national organisation would pay a huge dividend in terms of well being and personal satisfaction not to mention raising the overall cultural level of society.




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