Academic journal article Education

What Kinds of More Mean Better? Continuous Scholarisation or Lifelong Learning

Academic journal article Education

What Kinds of More Mean Better? Continuous Scholarisation or Lifelong Learning

Article excerpt

I write from an institution which has been concerned for 175 years with the education of adults. The Mechanics Institutes, of which Birkbeck was an early member, were set up in the early part of the nineteenth century to provide educational opportunities for working people. They flourished greatly, with tens of thousands attending hundreds of these institutions by the mid 1850s. Arguably -- indeed, Roderick Floud has argued precisely this in one of Birkbeck's recent Millennium lectures -- the education system then, small as it was in its post-primary sector, had more claims than today's to be one that fostered lifelong learning, in the sense of one that enabled significant numbers of adults to participate. `Significant' here is a crucially relative term, comparing the respective populations in initial and continuing education. Today, with ever-increasing numbers staying on at school and university, a coherent conception of lifelong learning remains one which distributes learning opportunities sensibly over the lifecourse, benefiting different groups at different moments.

Such historical perspectives undermine notions of inevitability. Things do not have to go on happening the way they do. Earlier, the challenge may have been primarily to the more static areas of our life, so that such a perspective lent positive power to the forces of change. The closed circle did not have to continue to turn. Today, change is always with us, and needs no propulsion; the challenge is to its direction. The purpose of this brief paper is to question the assumed inevitable prolongation of the initial phase of education, and especially the commitment to including more and more young people in higher education. With only mild exaggeration one could say that the Mechanics have largely given way to mass institutionalisation of our youth; must this continue?

Expansion of what?

I had better be clear. I am in favour of expansion of educational opportunity, and of a larger and more diverse system of tertiary education. I do not wish to see a return to the socially and fiscally regressive arrangements which characterised mid-twentieth century higher education. But the drive for linear expansion and social inclusion has generated incoherences. These are disguised on the one hand by a widespread, well-meaning but underscrutinised assumption that all expansion promotes equity, because more people are brought into the system, and on the other by the incentives, even compulsions, for institutions to expand if they are to survive -- a kind of educational version of the inherent tendencies which Marx espied in capitalism.

If we had the courage to believe that a system can be lifelong, and that therefore if young people do not progress directly to higher education from school their life chances are not ruined, imagine what would follow. Basta to the absurd pictures of school-leavers weeping on each others' shoulders, for joy or sorrow, at their A-level results as if they were now irrevocably defined as sheep or goats. Cut the clearing-house advertising budgets, which enrich the newspaper owners and, possibly but doubtfully, help the universities concerned to balance the books, but do little for those scooped up (or for the others in the pool into which they are scooped). Instead, let more young people go to learn outside the system, and let them return when they want to learn. Dramatically improve student commitment, and therefore learning achievement. And recognise -- for the whole population, not just youth -- the value of forms of learning other than those embodied in universities, good or not so good.

This government has done much to help those who wish to return to learning. The list of specific initiatives and broader policies here has flaws and wrinkles, but there has been serious commitment to enabling adults to take part in formal and informal education. Moreover, one minor but symbolically hugely important step has been the conversion of the `relevant age group' from 18-21 to up to 30, so that age participation rates are now calculated very differently. …

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