The battle to save Lifelong Learning: if not now – when?

Adult Education Lobby - 18 March 2015
Adult Education Lobby – 18 March 2015

The announcement of a 24% cut in the non-apprenticeship Adult Education budget has sent shockwaves through the sector.

UCU estimates that 400,000 student places will go, on top of the 1 million that have been lost since 2010. This threatens thousands of jobs, leaving many parts of the country without Adult Education. The impact on our communities will be devastating. Those who have been hit hardest by five years of government austerity will have nowhere to go to gain better qualifications to find work or progress to higher education. These cuts, if allowed to go through, will effectively spell the end of second chance education.

The fact that there has been no hue and cry in the national media about these pernicious cuts itself tells a story. Those who control the media are completely remote from the people who rely on Further and Adult Education to better their lives. The vast majority of journalists, political commentators and politicians have never attended FE, their children have never enrolled on a course and they know no-one who has.

This new cut symbolises the class nature of the government’s austerity agenda. Working class education is seen as both unimportant and undesirable. It has often been argued by educational activists that governments fear a working class which is ‘too educated’. And this government is particularly fearful and contemptuous of working people gaining confidence and becoming more questioning through education.

In stark contrast, however, the support within our communities for F&AE continues to be fantastic, as shown by the 20,000 people to date who have signed the petition in defence of Lifelong Learning. Reading through the comments by those who teach in the sector demonstrates the commitment they have to their profession and to making people’s lives better. We need to keep up the campaign to save the sector. But to do so it is important we ask the question: how did Adult Education get to where it is today – on the brink of collapse and disappearance.


The money is there

The Government’s main argument is austerity. The country has a deficit and therefore we have to make cuts because we cannot afford the level of educational provision that we have done in the past. This is a lie. Report after report has shown that since the economic crisis in 2008, brought about by the collapse of the banking system, more billionaires have been created. A recent Oxfam report showed that the 85 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as the poorest 50% (3.5 billion). In Britain the rich are 64% richer than before the recession, while the poor are 57% poorer. The problem is not one of lack of money it is one of government priority. Clamping down on tax evasion and taxing the very rich in our society would automatically release billions into the economy. This would wipe out the financial problems not just of Further Education but the public sector as a whole.


The narrow skills ’employability’ agenda

It was Jim Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister in the mid-1970s, who launched the first attempts to steer education away from the liberal progressive educational ethos of the 1960s towards one that was more closely connected to the direct needs of the economy.

He criticised teachers for supposedly having an ‘anti- industrial bias’. It was his so-called ‘Great Education Debate’ in 1976 that opened the door for successive governments to tailor education to the needs of economy. As the institutionalisation of youth unemployment began, the political elite of the day attempted to make sure that it was teachers who took the blame and not government policy. Thirty-eight major education acts later, competition, the market and a curriculum that is geared to the needs of the world of work are firmly in place. The government want to turn FE back to the 1970s when technical colleges trained their local populations for local industry. But today they aim to do this without the proper funding or the jobs or apprenticeships.

Of course FE has always played an important role in training and retraining people for work. Vocational educational is an important part of what FE does and has always been looked down upon for doing so. However the government’s version of vocational education is a narrow skills-based one that does not prepare people for work. Some within the sector, including leading figures within the AoC and the 157 group of leading colleges, have warned against narrowing FE down to skills-based training centres.

Today the government are continuing with this subterfuge whereby they blame lecturers for falling to produce employable students whilst their policies create institutionalised mass unemployment amongst 16 -24 year olds.

The sad thing is that far too many leaders within the sector have happily gone along with this pretence by restructuring their colleges around fictitious job vacancies which in many cases has had disastrous consequences. Less gullible principals did not put all their eggs in one basket. They did not gear all of their college’s provision around the government’s latest attempt to introduce a narrow skills agenda. Those who did, however, often found themselves millions of pounds in debt. ‘Train2gain’ was just one disastrous attempt to introduce the skills agenda wholesale into our colleges.

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ESOL students lobby Parliament – 18 March 2015

FE has always been more than a pathway to employment, it has also been a route to University for working class people who missed an opportunity to do so the first time around. We must campaign vigorously to defend FE as an academic and creative pathway to a more fulfilled life. Second-chance learning for adults based on their genuine interests has proven to work. Whilst Skills training schemes driven by coercion, welfare sanctions and loans do not inspire and have failed.


Opening the door to attacks

By not campaigning against this narrow skills agenda and offering an alternative based on a genuine vocational education ethos framed around a wider learning experience, the employers have allowed the government to marginalise adult education even more.

When Andrew Wilson, the Principal of Westminster Kingsway College, successfully sought an injunction against UCU to stop us taking industrial action over pay and funding, we warned at the time that this move would only give confidence to the government. We said that it would give a green light to the government to go on the offensive. It gives us no pleasure whatsoever to be proven right.

We also have to say that UCU must take responsibility in allowing the government to be in a position to launch such an attack on the sector. Running away last December from the fight over pay by cancelling a ballot in mid flow was a disaster. It sent a clear message to the government that there would be no resistance to their cuts. They smelt blood.

We need to learn the lessons from the past. Attempting to go along with the government’s utilitarian approach to education and side-stepping a fight has only put the sector in a weak and vulnerable position. If you keep giving in to a bully they will keep coming back for more.


Fight to save every job and every student place

As the budget allocations come into the colleges, SMTs are meeting with UCU representatives to inform them of the scale of the cuts and what it means in terms of redundancies. The sector has united against these cuts. Unions, employers and educational and community organisations have joined together to petition and lobby the government for a reversal of these cuts. UCU believes that this unity has made us stronger. College principals now face a choice: stay united and continue to campaign with us or act as the government’s executioners and implement the cuts.
We sincerely hope they don’t choose to do the latter. Education cuts don’t heal.
There is an alternative: spend the reserves to keep people in work and to keep courses running. Refuse to implement the cuts and most importantly continue to join us in campaigning to defend Lifelong Learning.

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Student banner at lobby – 18 March 2015

The next step must be to build a national demonstration in London to March on Downing St to make our united voice heard.

UCU, if faced with redundancies, will fight to save every job and every student place. We all know that another round of job losses will finish off Adult Education in many areas. No amount of calls from principals to ‘work smarter’ or pleas to ‘learn to live within our means’ will convince us that we should go along with more job losses.
We all realise the stakes have risen very high. We need to rise to this challenge by staying united. This is the fight of our lives – if not now – then when?

Sean Vernell, UCU London Region and National Negotiator

3 Replies to “The battle to save Lifelong Learning: if not now – when?”

  1. Could not agree more heartily with most of the sentiments and analysis presented here. Whilst I am not entirely convinced that there is an actual conspiracy to ‘keep the proles in their place’, I entirely concur with the observation of how government and the media are unaware of FE’s true role in providing a second chance. I firmly believe that if FE’s role were recognised it would remove the unrealistic expectations for schools to ensure all students ‘achieve’. The fact is all individuals are different and progress at different rates. Not all children will achieve the qualifications expected of them at a given age. Moreover, with a robust and well funded FE provision in place, this would not be an issue either. This would be a first and key step in ensuring a fairer society for all.

  2. The agenda seems to be to offer vocational courses that lead to minimum wage, zero hours contract ‘jobs’. These further cuts will only force that agenda through unless we fight.

  3. Your right Shane it is not simply a ‘conspiracy to keep the proles in their place’. Though those that rule do conspire to protect their privilege and Wealth. The point I was trying to make is that FE is a class issue. They expect their children to rule. Just look what they expect of their children’s education; small class sizes, emphasis on critical thinking and education for the sake of education. Whereas for our children education is driven by what the powerful believe is our role; future workers not leaders.

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