This article is more than 1 year old

Why universities should care about government proposals to cut community education

The government is consulting on cuts to community education. Jonathan Michie argues that universities need to speak up
This article is more than 1 year old

Jonathan Michie is professor of innovation and knowledge exchange at the University of Oxford.

In a series on “Britain’s Growth Crisis”, the Economist points out that in Britain “adult education has gone to seed”. Yet the government plans to make matters worse.

Buried in paragraph 60 of the Department for Education’s FE Funding and Accountability consultation are proposals to cut community education – removing funding from the most vulnerable in society.

This would hit those in deprived areas the most, increasing regional inequalities. The opposite of “levelling up”. The document has no Equalities Impact Assessment – but those who’d lose most are those most in need. Over 300,000 adult learners would be hit. The opposite of “building back better”.

Shred of evidence

The evidence shows that investment in adult education and lifelong learning not only benefits people, communities, and business, but also reduces the demands upon – and costs of – welfare, health, and policing. The Centenary Commission on Adult Education reported on a “citizens’ curriculum” initiative in Rochdale, which had been begun in response to complaints against the increased emphasis on skills and employment, with a target driven, qualification led service that wasn’t serving people’s needs.

Instead, people were allowed to set their own priorities – just as the 1919 Final Report from the Ministry for Reconstruction’s Adult Education Committee had proposed. It was found that for every £1 spent on the project, £4.50 was saved from reduced demands on the health, care, and policing services.

So, aside from the individual, social and community damage these Government proposals would cause, this vandalism would also be bad value for money.

Whole pathway approach

Why should universities care? For several reasons. First, as the report from the Civic University Commission chaired by Lord Kerslake argued persuasively, universities must have a civic mission, addressing the needs of their various communities.

The history, culture, and mission of each university will differ. These differences should be reflected in each university’s strategy for adult education and lifelong learning. But the important point is that each university should have such a strategy. And in most cases, this should and would include civic engagement and community education.

It is also important that adult education and lifelong learning should include pathways into work, and onto university-level study. It is important to stress that these routes should not be compulsory – community education can and does play an important role for individuals and society even when neither of these potential routes are taken. But the pathways should be there, including onto university education. Hence these universities need to take an interest in the whole pathway, starting from community education.

Bringing the pressure

Thus, instead of its regressive threat to bring more darkness, the government should launch an adult education and lifelong learning strategy, delivered through local partnerships of employers, universities and colleges, local authorities, and educational and other charities such as the WEA.

These points have been made in submissions opposing the Government’s proposals, from the Association of Adult Education and Training Organisations – better known as HOLEX – the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning, and from Dame Helen Ghosh as Chair of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education. At the time of writing, none of these submissions had been responded to, or even acknowledged. It is impossible to imagine the Department for Education having acted in this manner when their previous permanent secretary Jonathan Slater was in post. Which is why, perhaps, the hapless Gavin Williamson sacked him.

The Department for Education’s document was released over the summer, without any prior consultation or warning, with a 12 October deadline for responses. So please do submit your views today – the deadline is tomorrow! Although keeping the pressure on after that may well still pay dividends.

9 responses to “Why universities should care about government proposals to cut community education

  1. Community education should be a key pillar of every university’s Civic Mission and talk of “levelling up” is worthless without it.

  2. Diolch / thank you, Jonathan.

    Bangor University has a long history of working with the community to raise aspirations and improve quality of life, and our recently launched Civic Engagement Strategy can be found here:

    We are currently looking at our institutional approach to short courses (including CPD, CE etc.) to ensure that we continue to create opportunities and pathways for learners through listening and responding to their needs.

  3. Very well put and argued, full of great analysis. This a a ‘mission critical’ area all progressive groups should fully support and back, not least to help the UK’s low productivity plague.

    1. Yes, while community education is vital and should be supported for all sorts or reasons unrelated to the economy or productivity – personal wellbeing, community cohesion, a healthy democracy, a vibrant society, an embedded civilisation – failing to invest in it will also in the long run damage productivity and the economy.

  4. I am so pleased that mention has been made of the Centennial Commission Report on Adult Education as it seems to have been overlooked in the drive for a Skills agenda in government thinking. The recommendation of the establishment of Adult Learning Partnerships at regional levels , bringing together local government, universities and colleges, adult education groups and local employers to deliver an adult education and lifelong learning strategy through collaborative learning is one that should be actively pursued. Prior to the pandemic, the Joseph Cowen Centre for Lifelong Learning , Newcastle, began to discuss an initiative along these lines with the new Mayoral Authority North of Tyne , Newcastle University and the North East Regional Committee of the WEA. Unfortunately, such were the pressures on time and space, progress was halted. We are hopeful that such a network of contacts can be re-established to develop the concept of Adult Learning Partnerships despite the lack of insight from the present government agenda.
    It would be helpful to know of any other such regional initiatives as an information exchange would be helpful.

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