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For the beginning of a new year, and especially in the light of all that is happening around COVID, I want us to start a debate within the University on the nature, purpose, and delivery of life-long learning. What is it that we really want to do in this space, what should we do, and is it possible to deliver life-long learning to the people of Swansea, the region, and beyond in an effective and sustainable way? There are many questions that are raised in this space, and many different approaches, each of which has a substantial literature and body of evidence to support it. However, I do think that there are a few fundamental questions that we need to ask. In this blog I will set out the first of these: what would we hope to achieve through life-long learning? In subsequent blogs I will look at what the market for life-long learning might look like, and what kind of platforms or technologies are available for life-long learning. This will lead to my final question, about the content of life-long learning that could/should be delivered by Swansea University.
The answers to the first question, what do we hope to achieve, are in many ways ideological, but this does not mean that the various answers are incompatible. We may want to do any, or all, of the following. However, the answer we give to this question, the primary focus that we want to place on our offering, will determine the market, the delivery, and above all, the content.
There are, I would suggest, three clusters of answers to the question of what we might want to achieve through life-long learning.
Learning for Learning’s Sake
The first cluster comes under the general heading of learning for learning’s sake. This suggests that education is a good in itself and should be made available to as wide a cross section of the community as we can reach. Questions of open access, research engagement programmes, the work of Oriel Science and other outreach programmes, all sit, primarily, under this category. We, as a University, are in the business of producing and disseminating knowledge and that is what life-long learning should be about. Many of the earliest explorations of adult learning and bringing education to those who had no previous access to it, worked from this very simple premise, it is good that people are educated. Adult education, the development of evening classes in philosophy, local history, crafts and languages all grew out of a basic desire to offer education and the possibility of learning to all. The OU was founded on this principle and has perhaps struggled in recent years because it has not been able to develop a means of perpetuating this principle in an increasingly market driven educational world.
Much of the rhetoric around the internet, Wikipedia and search engines, also builds on this basic principle, and it is possible to ask whether the democratisation of knowledge through the web, now available to very large sections of the population, actually means that Universities and other educational establishments no longer have a role in this wider educational project. On the other hand, of course, this democratisation of knowledge opens other opportunities, from the training of people in how to access, use and evaluate the knowledge that is now so widely available, to becoming one of the principal providers of such knowledge, drawing on our century of expertise to provide such knowledge in the most accessible form to the widest possible audience, not just in Swansea and the region, but across the world.
The second cluster grows primarily out of the work of Pablo Freire and the use of education to improve the lives of the poor and marginalised. This approach has a clear radical edge and is often recognised as part of a political agenda. I drew on this tradition as a church-based community worker in Manchester in the nineteen eighties and nineties and rooted my own analysis of this approach in the community organising principles originating in Chicago, and the work of liberation theologians. At much the same time the reaction to the miner’s strike across South Wales and the other coalfields led to an upsurge in adult education, often led by women, and focused on the good of the community as a whole. In both traditions, education has a social goal, the lifting of whole populations out of poverty and the push for social mobility. Many Universities, including Swansea, played an active part in this movement at that time.
The liberation element of this tradition focuses more on race, gender and sexuality and has been transformed in recent years into what is now understood as ‘identity politics’ and the various anti-racism movements such as Black Lives Matters and the call for the decolonisation of the curriculum. It is from this work, the fall out of Brexit and the election of Trump, that have led many to suggest that Universities may have failed in their primary function of providing a liberal education in which freedom, equality and opportunity is made available to all. It is not far from this position to one in which the University, and all good educators, should be challenging and calling out fake news and the manipulation of the media, especially the web, by powerful global companies and those who simply want to make money. Most recently, the same principles have also been co-opted by those fighting for a radical response to climate change and promoting the essential place of education in the fight to save our planet.
Supporting the Economy
Among the most recent arguments for Universities to engage in adult education and life-long learning has been the need for Universities to support, and develop, the local economy. This argument suggests that the pace of change in employment, and the new skills that are needed for a creative digital economy, are such that we all need constant upskilling in new ways of engaging with the digital. Once again there is a focus on social mobility within this tradition, but in this case, there is less focus on the poverty and oppression that are being left behind, and more on the kind of entrepreneurial individual that is required to support, or even to kick start, a local economy. The drive to offer retraining when companies go bust can also be seen as a part of the same cluster of approaches, so that individuals can become productive members of society once again and engage in purposeful employment. Ultimately this approach sees education as a product, or good, that has a value and is understood as an investment, with the goal of greater financial returns in the future.
In a wider perspective this cluster is underpinned by those who are looking forward to new patterns of employment and the impact of AI on the economy. Universities are seen to play a central role in this agenda, given the complexity of contemporary employment, the high-level skills, including imagination and creativity, that are seen as essential when computers and robots can take over many of the low skilled jobs, and the global nature of the contemporary economy. At the heart of many of these approaches is upskilling in digital literacy, but other essential skills such as languages, project management and disruptive creativity can also be developed through engagement in life-long learning. There is no doubt that this is an agenda that has the backing of the current UK government, and one that is supported by Welsh, and local government bodies. It is also driving the contemporary agenda for apprenticeships and motivating those who are currently exploring ways to reinvigorate part time learning through financial incentives. I would also suggest that this is currently the primary driver for much of the work around the Civic University agenda, rather than either of the two other two strands that I have outlined.
Positioning the University
As noted above, these three clusters often derive from different ideological positions, but they are not, in themselves, mutually exclusive. What we need to do as an institution, therefore, is to work through where we wish to place ourselves in relation to each of these clusters, perhaps engaging in some of each, but ultimately, probably, committing ourselves to one as our primary focus. I would welcome any feedback or questions.