By Dan Davison
It is a time of extraordinary potential for change in UK Higher Education. Labour’s promise to end tuition fees has defied the critics and united many behind Corbyn’s political project. But what will the implications for universities be if this comes to pass? And what can we do to leverage this progress? In this series, the Norwich Radical and Bright Green are bringing together perspectives from across the sector to explore these questions.
Being a PhD student is an oft-frustrating experience. As well as bearing the brunt of rife casualisation in the education sector, at times I find myself longing for release into the ‘real world’, having been a student for so long. Despite these frustrations, I have recently come to appreciate how much I have learned in my years as a postgraduate. Not just what I was taught on my Master’s and PhD courses, but also what I’ve gained from my access to university resources, including library collections and online databases, and the opportunity associate with other educated people from different walks of life. In terms of both scholarship and life experience, I have learned far more in my postgraduate mid-twenties than I ever did from my undergraduate years.
This has led me to consider broader issues of access to education for those over the age of 21. I’m not the only one – the stated central aim of the National Education Service (NES) outlined in last year’s Labour Party manifesto is to give ‘everyone the opportunity to access education throughout their lives’. In the Party’s words, the NES will be built on the principle that ‘Every Child – and Adult Matters’. While it is easy to see how the Labour policies of abolishing tuition fees and introducing meaningful living grants would greatly benefit teenagers who have recently completed their A Levels, very little of the Party’s material explicitly discusses adult learning, despite this lofty aim.
Adult education takes multiple forms, from evening art and language classes at local institutions, to Access to Higher Education courses, which help mature students enter undergraduate study at university. One of the major achievements of the Wilson government was the establishment of the Open University in 1969, which allowed those from less affluent backgrounds traditionally shut out of higher education, including many women, to gain degrees via distance learning. In almost 50 years of existence, the Open University has taught over 2 million students.
Although Labour is correct to focus on pertinent issues such as funding schools and colleges, and to support alternative forms of further education, such as apprenticeships and other vocational training, there is a danger of losing sight of a grander vision of what access to education at any point of life could mean. While most people’s immediate practical need for such training is in relation to finding or maintaining gainful employment, there is more to education than being able to pay the bills. It represents an opportunity for people to find themselves. It provides a space in which the individual can grow personally and intellectually despite the alienating grind of the working week.
any meaningful attempt to improve adult access to education should aim to provide free childcare at academic institutions
All this underscores why our debates about access to education need to address adult learners more directly. The NES gives us the chance to enlarge and repurpose access not only to that which is currently classed as ‘further education’, but also to higher education. Why should, for example, a mother in her 30s or a retiree in their 60s feel prevented from experiencing the kinds of enriching environments I have been able to experience in my many years as a university student? Why should they not have access to the same wealth of academic resources? It is not simply that the skills and qualifications of a degree course would be useful for their day-to-day lives: such an environment would give them the means to explore new horizons and transform themselves for the better.
This also highlights why any meaningful attempt to improve adult access to education should aim to provide free childcare at academic institutions. Those with children, especially women, face steep and distinct barriers to learning. Indeed, having children is a common reason why people interrupt their university studies or don’t go to university in the first place.
In short, if a future Labour Government is to make free education a reality, then the Party should be thinking seriously about how it can open the gates of higher education to those who wish to study later in life. Properly realised, a National Education Service with this principle at its heart could fundamentally transform the public’s relationship to education in a truly exciting way.
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