University Continuing Education 1981-2006: 25 Turbulent Years

July 15, 2010

This new volume consists of eight chapters written by nine contributors who between them have experience of continuing education in more than a dozen universities. They illustrate the issues that have beset the sector since 1981, and their contributions are followed by eight case studies, each covering a different university. The whole could be summarised as "how to survive the whims of governments over a quarter of a century".

However, the book's title doesn't do justice to the content, since it takes us back to the 19th century; to Benjamin Jowett at the University of Oxford, and to the University of Cambridge's valiant James Stuart giving lectures in 1867 on the history of astronomy to ladies in Liverpool and railway workers in Crewe. It also covers the increasingly important role in continuing education that has been assumed in recent years by organisations outside the university sector, notably by colleges of further education.

The story, as told here, is perhaps gloomier than it needs to be. In the quarter-century that is the book's focus, the number of departments of continuing education in universities almost halved, falling from 37 to 20, with a further decline since 2006. The survivors have spent much of their time seeking a welcoming home within their institutions, and they have not always found it easy. Oxford has done rather well, with Kellogg College becoming a full college of the university in 1994. James Stuart's heirs at Cambridge have maintained their independence as a separate department within the university, albeit with stronger links to its faculties. But in many cases the departments of continuing education at other universities have found themselves planted within education departments, which are presumably mostly concerned with training teachers. Why is this? Were their heads of department the last ones out of the room when a home was sought for a neglected child?

These organisations began life as a means by which universities could reach out to members of their local communities, whether they were Victorian women denied access to higher education or miners sponsored by their union to attend classes at the University of Sheffield in the 1950s. As government policies have changed to reflect the fact that 40 per cent of school-leavers now participate in some form of higher education, there has been an increasing emphasis on vocational continuing education, and particularly on retraining the workforce.

The frequency with which policies have changed is reflected in the endless proliferation of initials and acronyms to represent the whims of governments, many requiring a new quango. This book's glossary of such terms extends to a list of 69, and even that does not suffice, since towards the end one or two creep in that have escaped the attention of the (doubtless exhausted) indexer. Who now remembers the MSC (Manpower Services Commission) or PICKUP (Professional, Industrial and Commercial Updating - and where did the K come from)?

The case studies, which should interest those active in the sector, contain encouraging notes, with the University of Warwick among those institutions that have prospered in difficult times. And no first-degree ceremony is now complete without a speech from the vice-chancellor urging the newly graduated to come back and update their qualifications in the years ahead. Moreover, some institutions continue to offer programmes on subjects such as epistemology, classical Greek and mathematics, often to active retired people who want to keep their brains alive.

So it's not all bad. And if we wait, there is sure to be another lurch in government policy that may favour continuing education. It cannot be long in coming.

University Continuing Education 1981-2006: 25 Turbulent Years

Edited by Bill Jones, Russell Moseley and Geoffrey Thomas. NIACE, 208pp, £24.95. ISBN 9781862014466. Published 1 March 2010

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