University funding should be contingent on adult learning plans

As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, government should require universities to provide community learning strategies, says Jonathan Michie

April 27, 2020
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As British universities seek much-needed financial support from government, it is crucial that they also re-embrace their commitment to adult and continuing education.

Universities UK (UUK) has already appealed for additional funds as part of a package of measures not just to enable the sector to survive and carry on doing a great job, but to “enable universities to play a critical role in rebuilding the nation”. They need investment from government, among other reasons, to “ensure that [they] are able to play a central role in the UK’s economic and social recovery following the [coronavirus] crisis”.

One of the six points the UUK paper uses to summarise universities’ collective role and contribution is “civic leadership and impact through supporting local communities and businesses, providing services and facilities and driving regeneration of places”.

Although I am certainly keen for the government to help universities at this difficult time, here I want to draw on history to argue that it also needs to ensure that they pay more than lip service to this essential “civic” mission.

This isn’t the first time the UK has faced the existential question of how to rebuild socially and economically after national trauma. During the First World War, Prime Minister Lloyd George established the Ministry of Reconstruction for precisely this purpose. While the catchphrase most commonly cited is “homes fit for heroes”, arguably the greatest contribution made by this ministry was through the final report published in 1919 by its Committee on Adult Education.

This stressed three things. The first was a need for an educated population able to take part in national discussions around the great issues and challenges facing society. The second was a need for continuing education to create the capabilities within the workforce to engage with as yet unknown technologies (which, then as now, made current forms of “training” inadequate). The third and final point, given the extension of the electorate in the 1918 Representation of the People Act, was the importance of education in enabling electors to think critically and weigh evidence so as to distinguish genuine political arguments from what the report called “demagoguery”.

The committee’s final report thus urged all universities to establish departments for continuing education, in order to provide – in collaboration with local authorities and the Workers’ Educational Authority – community and adult education. Over time, every university responded positively, and we eventually saw the creation of the world-leading Open University in 1969.

There is no doubt, then, that the university sector played its part to good effect. Over the past 20 years, however, many universities have backslid, cutting back on community education and closing departments for continuing education. So how can government make sure that they start once again delivering on this historic agenda?

That precise question was posed by the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, which issued its follow-up recommendations in November 2019. It made two central points. First, the provision of adult, community and lifelong learning should be a requirement of every single university, something that they all must again commit to. This should not just be in return for funding, but as a condition for using the title of “university”, which is a protected term in law.

Second, and more important, the government should establish a national strategy for adult education and lifelong learning, delivered regionally and locally by adult education partnerships between universities and colleges, local authorities, employers and others.

This would enable the government to ensure the commitments being offered in return for funding would be delivered. It would also enable the government to fulfil its manifesto pledges to level up communities, establish a “right to retrain” and “strengthen universities and colleges’ civic role”.

In the words of the Conservative manifesto itself, the government would “invest in local adult education and require the Office for Students to look at universities’ success in increasing access across all ages, not just young people entering full-time undergraduate degrees”.

The University Association of Lifelong Learning has urged its members to respond, and we have already seen some positive signs. The University of Nottingham, for example,  has re-established its adult education provision, initially online; the University of Oxford is making available regularly updated educational resources free of charge.

But we need to go further. At a time when the sector undoubtedly needs financial support, the government should make this conditional on universities taking the action that will enable crucial manifesto pledges to be implemented.

Jonathan Michie is president of Kellogg College, Oxford.

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