The right to learn

Issue section: 

The recession is raising major concerns in all areas of government policy. The adult education sector is no exception. Over the past two years 1.5 million publicly funded adult learner places have been cut. This has particularly affected those who are disabled, the elderly, second language speakers (Esol) and working class students in general.

Government ministers may be running around asserting that it's only the odd Pilates or French evening classes that are being cut, but a closer look at the figures shows that this is a myth, alongside the idea that it's only the well off who will be affected anyway.

Research from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) shows that between 2004 and 2005 and 2006 and 2007 the biggest drops in student numbers were 477,000 in Health, Public Services and Care courses, 394,000 in Computer classes and 248,000 in Preparation for Work and Life courses - not the kind of skills a coherent policy should be closing down in the midst of an economic downturn.

Research also shows that skilled manual workers' uptake of education dropped from 40 percent to 33 percent between 2006 to 2007 and 2007 to 2008 - reversing the gains of widening participation over the last ten years.

Former trade union leader Paul Mackney in a recent article cites the example of Leeds with a 25 percent drop in adult provision between 2002 to 2003 and 2006 to 2007, with 15,000 fewer adult places. These figures are shocking to me and many others who have worked for increasing participation only to see its decline.

Many students and teachers now see as very shallow any government cry that "teaching and learning must be at the heart of all we do". They are faced instead with an onslaught of impossible targets, fierce competition and a quietly burning disaffection.

The emphasis on a narrow skills and an employer-led agenda, as recommended by the 2006 Leitch Report, means funding has been targeted to those courses that improve skills for work. The adult budget has primarily gone to the employers who provide training for their staff under the flagship training programme Train to Gain.

I can't help thinking that what business wants at the moment is to continue making profits rather than invest in training staff. In fact, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) underspent on employer take-up, but instead of returning the money to the rest of the adult education budget they used it to cover up the shortfall in the higher education student grants budget of some £128 million.

For a government to turn the adult further education system upside-down and give way to the demands of the market as it did in the early 1990s is a net loss for wider education and society as a whole. Of course, learning skills is important, but it should not be the sole purpose of education. I am reminded of meeting a train driver some time ago who wanted to study history. On asking how he became interested he replied that he was part of a rail drivers' history group at work.

Many colleges and adult community centres in the country are grappling with these changes that will see further and higher education being turned into training camps for business.

A conference took place in September to launch a campaign to resist and reverse the decline in adult education. Supporters of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning (CALL) include Paul Mackney, the University and Colleges Union, the National Union of Students and the public sector Unison union, as well as many other trade unions, colleges and community organisations across the country.

Some of CALL's demands are that the Train to Gain underspend should be returned to adult education alongside the rest of the budget; also that students and local communities should have greater democratic inputs and that the refusal to offer English to new asylum seekers for the first six months should be reversed.

CALL has called for a mass lobby of parliament on Wednesday 25 February in order to get its message across to MPs. Join us in defending our hard won right to learn.

UCU London Region Chair of CALL (personal capacity) and previously key organiser of UCU
North East London Save Esol Campaign