Time to Rethink Adult Education?

Adult education is in crisis: decades of cuts in funding has led to a decline in courses offered for adult learners and around 1.8 million adults per year are not able to access courses to improve their skills (David Hughes, TES, September 2018).

But, unfortunately, the common discourse around adult education is linked to skills for employability and boosting the economy: what about education for the sake of education? Until 2017, I was the head of the Department for International Labour and Trade Union Studies (ILTUS) at Ruskin College, Oxford, an institution founded on the values of education as emancipation for the working class. We actively encouraged adults to study on a wide range of programmes that could, of course, help them to progress in their careers, but, more importantly, to develop critical thinking that can bring about social change.  My oldest student was a man in his 80’s, who had been a success in business but never had the opportunity to study a higher education course. He wasn’t there to improve his chances of getting a better job or promotion in the workplace: he was there to read, listen, think, discuss and debate with the other students (and staff, which was encouraged!)

With the obsession with education and employability, educators find themselves in a situation where everything has to be linked to the chance of the student getting a job at the end: from lesson plans to OFSTED (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, which inspects institutions with students up to the age of 18), and organisations such as Advance HE, teaching has become more about ‘social mobility’ through employment than challenging the status quo. Are we there to produce yet another generation of automatons, who accept low paid, low valued work, zero- hour contracts, when they should be challenging the whole concept of the way work is constructed?

There is a light at the end of the tunnel (well, I think so!): The Cooperative University Project. As a founder member of a new educational worker cooperative, the RED Learning Coop: Research, Education and Development for Social Change, I was thrilled for us to be invited to be part of the development of this exciting initiative. In 2012, the Cooperative College in Manchester, started to explore ideas about ‘doing education differently’ and the 2017 Higher Education Act gave the space for alternative providers. So, what is different about a Cooperative University? Well, the vision for a start:

‘Our vision is to develop a new type of university based on social justice and co-operative values and principles which works for the mutual benefit of all.

A Co-operative University will empower students, enhancing their skills to develop new ways of thinking, working, researching and learning for life’ (Cooperative College website, April 2019).

The University is founded on Cooperative Values and Principles:

  • Challenge injustice, inequality and exploitation in all its forms.
  • Recognise that teachers and students have much to learn from each other and should work together to design and develop content and delivery.
  • Be based on a social purpose and political and economic democracy
  • Enhance wellbeing and enable everyone to explore their full range of abilities.
  • Strengthen and grow a different kind of society with co-operative values at its heart

(Cooperative College Website, April 2019).

The first course starts in September 2019, so watch this space!

Tracy Walsh

Founder Member of The RED Learning Cooperative: Research, Education and Development.

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