The Strange Death of Liberal Adult Education

17/01/2014 10:46 | Updated 18 March 2014

There has been much discussion recently about the expansion of higher education. David Willetts has claimed that he is close to honouring the aspirations of the 1963 Robbins report that 'courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified to pursue them'. Meanwhile, massive open online courses (MOOCs) seem to hold out the possibility of universities reaching ever greater audiences.

Yet one of the risks of university expansion is that increasing participation may be confused with widening it. In fact, as higher education becomes a mass system, it can also become more uniform. Recent research has shown that MOOCs, for example, are more likely to reach those who are already well educated.

Earlier efforts at university expansion had a clearer sense of who they were trying to reach. 90 years ago, in the wake of the First World War, a wave of universities opened departments of Extra-Mural Adult Education; it was a key priority of the 1919 Reconstruction Committee. Many of the universities had been founded on similar principles. For example, Bristol University (where I work) was established in 1876, as University College Bristol, out of efforts at what was called University Extension. The duties of the first Professor of Modern History and Literature in the 1880s including conducting separate classes for ladies, giving an evening lecture a week, and 'the possibility of Lectures being given in neighbouring towns'.

In Bristol and elsewhere, there was a huge expansion of such activity after 1924. There had been a total of 279 external meetings held by the University in 1923-24. By 1929-30, this had increased to 1,368. An archive of materials from the department shows that the classes offered ranged across familiar subjects (literature, history, economics, and politics) while also responding to a changing world. The 1925-26 prospectus included courses on 'Industrial Organisation' and 'Principles of Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony'. In 1936-37, one could enrol for topics such as 'The Demand for Colonies' and 'Modern Dictatorships'.

Between 1939 and 1945, nearly 50,000 meetings of various kinds were organised for those in the Services, including talks on current affairs and classes in language studies. By 1973-4, there were 7,570 meetings per year across a vast range of subjects.

Yet this tradition went into a serious decline in the 1980s. Many extra-mural departments closed in the 1990s, including Bristol's in 1998. Some provision limped on, but was slowly killed off by a series of funding changes. At Bristol, the 20 or so courses we offer in English (representing 100 or so meetings per year) are all that remains, since further closures in 2011.

The decline of extra-mural work can in part be traced to the massive expansion of mainstream undergraduate numbers in the same period. The counter-cultural nature of the old departments, which tended to sit outside a university's main administrative frameworks, also made them vulnerable once their funding was no longer protected. There are some arguments too that the extra-mural departments were never as radical as they might have been in who they engaged.

Yet while these factors may explain the decline of this form of work, they do not do justice to the consequences. The 1919 report, which initiated the great age of extra-mural studies, noted that:

'One of the greatest evils which can befall education is a rigid uniformity. It inevitably devitalises education of every kind; but it would cause adult non-vocational education either to perish or to seek new channels outside the influence of the uniform system.'

The expansion of mainstream undergraduate education has, in fact, made the student population more uniform, since the vast majority of applicants have A-Levels. Extra-mural study was always able to engage those without qualifications or who would never be able to study full-time. It also gave rise to new areas of thought, including in the work of adult educators such as Stuart Hall, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. It was thus a more accessible space for the socially vulnerable or those with unconventional prior experiences in education.

I was recently e-mailed by the library at Bristol, informing me that they no longer had space for around 4,000 books in the English literature collection. These books are the rump of the old extra-mural library and, with so many other pressures on it, the library cannot retain them. We plan (reluctantly) to give them away to local community organisations, so that they can be used for their original purpose. This fate is symbolic of much larger changes in the sector. If, as a consequence of the new uniformity, ideas perish, or survive only outside the system, the cost will be borne by universities themselves.