Sunday, January 13, 2008


The Value of Adult Education

I spent most of my professional life in university adult education and so the topic raised by a small piece in The Observer today caught my eye. It's about the fact that a new approach to adult education is in the mix. The idea here is that groups of adults will be able to 'hire' teachers to provide them with expertise; so they'll have a kind of 'voucher' to access the education they need or want. The courses would aim to be intrinsically interesting without qualifications rather than, as at present, certificated and hence deemed 'economically useful'.

Most of our extra-mural courses were pure liberal adult education- people would attend to study literature, art, history, or, in my case, politics. It's hard to gauge how useful one's career has been in terms of what it has given to people but I like to think those who came- and still come- to my classes, not to mention the many thousands who flocked to such classes, enjoyed the experience of sharing their learning with other adults as well as actually learning quite a bit into the bargain. Evidently, the Conservative government in the eighties did not agree. Courses like ours were seen as a luxury people would have to pay for and subsidies for them was progressively lowered until extra-mural departments became no longer viable in the UK and now all of them have been disbanded, their staff either retired or absorbed into their parent universities.

Labour, much to my disappointment, did nothing to remedy this situation; rather, they argued that resources should be allocated so that young people without qualifications should receive priority. The logic of this was ground out at Manchester in that all subsidy has now been removed from adult courses. Instead of being £50-60 for ten meetings, with concessions for OAPs and those on low incomes, fees have been hiked up to £130 for ten meetings with no concessions. For its first year of operation classes were decimated and I suspect the whole programme will bite the dust come next session.

While I agree youth should receive priority when educational funds are divvied up, I do not think that recreational courses for adults should be priced beyond the reach of ordinary people. Adults deserve the chance to improve their quality of life through study and, as so many medical studies show, to extend their healthy lives through keeping their brains active and their social lives active too. I hope this new initiative will help to achieve such ends though am sceptical that this government can convert any policy intention into beneficial reality.

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