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Camden New Journal - FORUM: Opinion in the CNJ
Peter Davies
Peter Davies says learning for learning’s sake is in danger
Adult learning is at risk

The government’s plans to cut funding for adult courses will leave the less well-off excluded, warns Peter Davies

THERE is real concern about the growing threat to adult learning with course closures and fee increases on the horizon across London, as a result of the government prioritising funding for courses that lead to skills and employability and reducing support for the broader programmes of life-long learning.
There are many laudable aims in the government’s agenda. The provision of free numeracy and literacy, for those who missed out the first time, and the commitment to provide vocational qualifications, for those with none, are essential for personal well-being and development, society and meeting the UK’s skills needs to remain competitive.
The commitment to ensuring children and younger adults have the best possible opportunities first time around is also absolutely correct. The government does recognise the value of offering a wide choice of adult life-long learning for personal development, and even learning for pure pleasure.
So then what is the problem? Although this government has increased funding for education, it is still not enough to cover everything.
The government subsidises the majority of adult courses by on average £2 for every £3 of costs, meaning that typically when you enrol at your local college you pay only about a third of the full costs.
The government aims to change the ratio to 50-50 over the next few years. But even this is not enough, and there will also be a cut in the number of courses the government subsidises, which means fees would need to increase very significantly for these areas.
However good the government aims might be, there are very serious and worrying consequences of the implementation of the priorities.
People come back into education by many different routes; what the government might consider a course for pleasure, and therefore not a priority for funding, might actually be the catalyst to get people back into the learning habit, especially those who have had bad experiences at school.
Not every unqualified person will wish to embark on a major course of education immediately.
If our course fees are forced too high, then the very people who might benefit most risk being excluded.
There are unending, often emotive, stories of people who have had their lives totally turned around by attending adult classes at places such as City Lit.
City Lit also caters for a large number of retired students. Most are on private or state pensions, which are barely inflation proof.
The government does not offer subsidies for the retired and, even though City Lit offers concessionary prices, it is likely that double figure increases in fees will have a disproportionate impact on the number of retired people taking courses, with all the secondary benefits, for example on mental and physical health.
I suspect the increased costs for social care and the NHS will be greater than any marginal savings to the education budget – pity we do not have a more joined-up government approach.
Of equal concern is the potential divisiveness of the policy; the well-off will make a lifestyle choice, as City Lit will still be very good value for money, but it is the less well-off, including those in work but not receiving benefits, who will most likely not be able to afford courses in the future, unless they are purely skills based.
The implications of the current government policy has some real downsides, in terms of the commitment to providing a rich fabric of adult learning opportunities, including those just for learning’s sake, but even more worrying potentially runs directly counter to the fairness and diversity agendas, health, social responsibility, mobility and cohesion.
On the positive side, as our new course guide out on the July 3 will show, City Lit will still provide a very wide range of courses and offer excellent value for money.

• Peter Davies is the principal of the City Lit adult learning institution.


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