The Government has announced plans to offer grants to citizens who want to start their own adult education groups in an attempt to promote lifelong learning.
The proposals in the White Paper, The Learning Revolution, aim to encourage libraries, cafés, churches and pubs to open their doors around the clock to adult learners who want to set up classes. A £20 million fund will be made available to develop new opportunities.
But the White Paper, which the Government claims will “inspire and increase opportunities for learning for pleasure”, comes as universities across the UK are closing their lifelong education departments because of financial pressures.
In the past month, the universities of Manchester, Bristol and Reading have announced that they will cut their lifelong learning provision, and others look set to follow suit.
The proposals contained in the White Paper echo the recent claim made by John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, that much of what adults do recreationally contributes towards lifelong learning, such as setting up book clubs or visiting exhibitions.
He said: “Learning in all its many forms improves our quality of life, happiness and personal wellbeing… we recognise the importance of learning for pleasure and the enormous contribution it makes to… individuals, neighbours and wider society.”
He added: “The informal learning picture has always been bigger than just publicly-funded learning delivered through traditional education classes.
The world has changed considerably. We need to go beyond this narrow vision and make sure such learning is not left behind in the technology stakes.
“And we need better links between different kinds of learning – public, private, voluntary and self-organised – to create a rich mix of opportunities for people at local level.”
However, David Willetts, the Shadow Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Skills, attacked the White Paper’s “total hypocrisy”.
“It is an attempt to hide the loss of 1.5 million adult learner places under this Government,” he said.
One campaigner for lifelong learning, who asked not to be named, criticised the proposals for failing to take account of concerns about the closure of adult learning courses at university.
“One wonders why [the Government] needed a consultation since [it] appears to have arrived at the very conclusions outlined in the consultation brief,” he said.
The National Union of Students welcomed the White Paper’s commitment to adult education, but said that it did not go far enough.
Beth Walker, vice-president for further education at the NUS, said: “We are concerned that these proposals still fail to address the imbalance in funding between employer-led training and individually motivated learning.
“We also believe that [they] do not go far enough in addressing the complex inequalities in access and opportunity to education that arise from factors such as language, wealth, location, confidence, literacy and access to technology. Far more support and resources are required if the ‘learning revolution’ is to reach all adults who could benefit.”
The White Paper was published as the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning held its annual conference in Brighton. Plans for a conference in northeast England to discuss the regional response to the paper were unveiled. The event will take place on 1 May, and speakers will include John Field, professor of lifelong learning at the University of Stirling.
For more on the cuts to lifelong learning provision in universities, see Times Higher Education, 26 March.