Neglected and patronised

May 12, 1995

The celebration of adult learners' week next week, and VE Day this week, are well-timed. The generation that fought the Second World War and then voted in a Labour government and a welfare state are the same generation that find themselves watching the dismantling of the welfare state from the insecure vantage point of their dwindling pensions.

It has long been acknowledged that adult liberal education, those much-maligned courses in birdwatching, flower arranging, painting and other non-vocational subjects, some of them considerably more academic, are a lifeline for the elderly.

The problem is that they are seen not so much as an educational lifeline as a social service. They get people out of their homes, they enable them to socialise, they provide a focus in their lives and in the narrow economic sense they can help keep down health costs.

The Department for Education, with its focus on vocational education and competitiveness, does not see them as a priority. Since the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act when adult education was divided into liberal and vocational, and the former left to fight for itself against other demands on dwindling local authority budgets, there has been a fall in the number of adult liberal education classes. In May last year, a MORI poll showed that older people were a disappearing species in education - only 3 per cent of over 65s were found to study. In universities, the mainstreaming of the budgets for adult and continuing education, which enables these classes to be funded the same way as other part-time provision as long as they are recognised as part of a university degree or diploma, has led to a greater accreditation of courses.

This has moved all courses leading to qualifications over to the side of the balance sheet where business is booming with growing numbers of short courses paid for predominantly by employers, designed to upskill and update working people. On this side too are the growing numbers of "mature" students signing on for degree courses, often for postgraduate degrees. Some are no spring chickens and are not taking courses for their career potential. They do it for pleasure. They pay their own way and take the exams for the discipline assessment imposes. Somehow all these people have been moved out of the "adult" category, leaving behind those who do not want to take a long course or do any more exams as a patronised and neglected rump.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England last month, Tim Boswell, minister of state for further and higher education, said that he had received letters from people forced to drop out of university because of the move to accreditation. Initiatives by the funding councils, for example HEFCE's bidding for Pounds 1.6 million over the next four years for non-accredited courses, help. But more is needed and not necessarily as welfare-type subsidy.

Treating older learners-for-pleasure as the poor of the parish is patronising. Such students bring benefits, helping redress what many now see as the excessive swing to credentialism. What universities and colleges might consider is how they can provide better for them. They will need to look at pricing and funding: to see what might be done under their charitable remit to offset the fees at least for some: to see what they might provide that people would pay for. The heavily subscribed Times/Demos lectures at Pounds 10 a head might give them ideas. Not all would-be learners need subsidies and many of the subjects that interest them are among the cheapest to teach.

At both a national and at a university level these learners should be taken seriously. Universities boast about being of service to their local community. How about working a bit harder on this bit?

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