Flying kites for adult learners

This is adult learning week. A wide range of events, activities, open days and media programmes have been taking place throughout the country to help to focus attention on adult learning.

What is striking is the sheer diversity and quantity of opportunities available under the banner "adult learning" from basic literacy and numeracy to access to employment and education courses; from kite-flying to business languages; from Egyptology to enterprise skills. The week has illustrated the commitment and determination of many people to provide adult learning opportunities, and of many people to make use of them. In many ways, the week has provided insight into a whole world of educational opportunity and achievement which is rarely in the mainstream debates. This itself is curious. The fact that the majority of full-time students in higher education are adults at the point of entering their courses demonstrates the marginalised status of adult learning provision.

Adult learning remains characterised as the "add-on" in higher education. It does not feature in this week's league tables which purport to evaluate universities.

There are continuing debates about accreditation of adult learning classes. Many people are concerned that the move towards accreditation will put off the very people adult education is targetted at. Accreditation is seen as an inevitable institutional response to new funding regimes in both higher and further education. Not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but potentially corrosive of the historic impulse for adult learning, which, it is claimed, derives less from seeking qualifications, and more from a "love of learning".

But this may be a false dichotomy. It falls too easily into the abyss of "vocational" and "non-vocational" debates, which continue to plague the sector. Attempts to classify courses as vocational and non-vocational have proved divisive and misleading. Different students on the same course often have different motivation for studying, different ideas about what they intend to do next. Moreover, it is a debate which has been used to legitimate cutbacks in adult learning opportunities. By labelling something as "non-vocational", government agencies are able to withdraw funding. "Learning for pleasure" then is something "we" can no longer afford. "Learning for profit" is something to be encouraged.

This is a sterile debate. The fundamental dichotomy is between education as "subsidy" or "investment", just like elsewhere in the public sector. Education as subsidy talks about waste of resources; focuses on "value-for-money"; analyses and arguments (the quality and rigour of which would not be accepted as a first-year essay), and reclassifies cuts as efficiency gains.

Education as investment recognises the importance and value of people seeking to express and realise their potential - not just for their own sakes, but for the benefit of the society. Education as investment recognises the key role it plays in creating and sustaining the "knowledge" society to which we are moving. "Investing in our future" is different to subsidising the present.

The message of adult learning week is clear: education is an investment not a subsidy; a right not a privilege; an economic necessity not a social service. If only some of the adults in Government would learn.

Mike Fitzgerald is vice chancellor of Thames Valley University.

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