Adult education in an Age of Austerity

24 Jul

By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research Services

At this time of year, we always congratulate students who have achieved qualifications, usually at the end of Key Stage 4 or 5.  Many adults, of course, also undertake similar qualifications, often by attending evening classes or through distance learning.  However, opportunities for adults wishing to improve themselves in this way have declined over recent years, mainly because of stringent budget cuts to adult education provision.  Urgent action is now required to protect adult education; otherwise, there is a risk that it could disappear completely.

Compared with all other education sectors (including schools, early years and university provision), adult education receives the lowest amount of funding, even though its market is the largest among all sectors.  Funding has been frozen for the past ten years, even though costs have increased, and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (which is the main funding body for adult education, as well as for schools) now typically meets only 50% of the cost of adult education programmes, which has led to increases in student fees. 

Whilst adults in receipt of specific welfare benefits may qualify for fee remission for certain kinds of programmes, adult students often have to make up the shortfall themselves – and there are many adult education programmes which are forced to operate on a full-cost recovery basis.

Such austerity has led to sharp decreases in provision.  Most providers –  whether local authorities, university extra-mural departments, colleges of further education or voluntary organisations – have had to make drastic cuts to their adult education programmes, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum that is on offer, often with a disproportionate emphasis on vocational qualifications. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that the number of adult learners participating in government-funded adult education has declined significantly from approximately 3.2 million in 2010/11 to 2.4 million in 2015/16.  On top of this, the steep increase in university tuition fees over recent years has led to a sharp decline in the number of mature entrants.

Changing lives

Adult education helps to change lives, especially for disadvantaged adults, those who left school with few formal qualifications, or those who wish to improve themselves, develop their potential or, out of economic necessity, make themselves more employable.  It also enriches the lives of many adults by enabling them to develop new interests, acquire new skills, engage with a wider community, broaden their horizons or maintain themselves as active and productive citizens.

Adult education should be a national priority.  There is an urgent need for a national strategy and policy development if adult education is to survive as an effective entity.  This needs to be supported by adequate resources, including increased funding for provision and more ready access to loans and grants for adult learners.  There also needs to be a return to a broader curriculum. 

All this would fuel a new vision for adult learning, preserving its long and rich history whilst, at the same time, ensuring that it remains relevant to today’s society.

Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘Everyone has the right to education’.  Whilst it is important that money is not diverted from other sectors of education in an attempt to rebalance resources fairly for adults, any further decline in adult education can only be damaging to society, the economy and individual adults who wish, or need, to continue to learn.

[Article written for August 2017 Your Voice.]

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