Conference: ‘Useful Knowledge: Historical & Contemporary Perspectives on Part-Time & Mature Higher Education’

Birkbeck, the University of London’s college for adult, part-time students, will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2023. In the lead-up to this, it will be hosting a Conference (22-24 February 2022) on “Useful Knowledge: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Part-Time and Mature Higher Education”.

The organisers have circulated a Call for Papers. They encourage speakers to reflect on part-time and mature higher education “broadly and even globally”, as well as on topics directly relating to the London Mechanics’ Institution and Birkbeck College. They welcome proposals “from diverse groups of researchers, scholars, and other interested publics”.

The deadline for proposals (300 words) is Friday 5 November 2021.

For further details, please contact Jonny Matfin ( and Ciarán O’Donohue (

New Report on Adult Lifelong Education & COVID-19

Adult Lifelong Education: Reimagining National & Regional Policies for the Covid Era reports research highlighting the innovative ways in which adult education has responded to the Covid-19 emergency. It makes important recommendations on how to build a stronger adult education system, and to give better support locally to individuals and communities in the challenging years ahead.

You can read or download the report here. It was written by Dr Iain Jones, Professor John Holford, Dr Sharon Clancy, and the late Nigel Todd, in association with the Centenary Commission on Adult Education.

The research was funded by the University of Nottingham, and conducted in early 2021.

England’s New Mayors: adult education is ‘mission-critical’: for jobs, for happy, healthy & fulfilling lives

Some of England’s most high-profile elected Mayors pledged their support for lifelong learning at an event organised by the Centenary Commission on Adult Education this week.

Chaired by the former House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, the webinar’s panel included Andy Burnham, Mayor of the Greater Manchester Region, Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire Region, Jules Pipe, Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration and Skills for London and Julie Nugent, West Midlands Combined Authority’s Director of Skills and Productivity.

Andy Burnham told the meeting that on taking office his officials had found the adult education budget being spent in a ‘haphazard’ way and had argued successfully with other authorities that it should take control of its £90 million spending on the area.

“It’s an issue much neglected by Westminster, and barely ever gets a mention in the House,” he said. “But when you come out of that world and sit where I do now, you immediately see how mission-critical it is for everything we want to achieve for our city regions.”

Jules Pipe said London’s £330 million adult education budget was being focused on rebuilding the economy: the pandemic had led to the loss of 300,000 jobs, leaving London with the highest unemployment rate of any region.

“As part of our approach, we are working very hard to ensure all Londoners are able to acquire the skills they need, leaving no-one behind, getting people back into work or enabling them to secure better paying jobs. It means supporting Londoners to retrain, to upskill and to enhance their employability.”

But he added there were two parts to this initiative:

“Gaining new skills is also a huge contributor to peoples’ wellbeing and social development. It’s going to provide people with the opportunity and confidence to lead happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.”

Tracy Brabin said that in addition to supporting skills training she was committed to ensuring towns and villages had access to a cultural life.

“Whether that is poetry in libraries, film clubs in ex mining towns, whatever that is, that will be supported.

“Lifelong learning has to be the norm. We’re going to use our budget to reshape and to rethink how we deliver adult education as a region.”

Julie Nugent said the West Midlands was unashamedly focused on using its adult education budget to create jobs:

“We are very much guided by learners as to what they want and they need. One of the things we have done is to actually talk to learners and to ask what they want. It surprises me how much is designed by people in Westminster who have never been near a job centre, who have never been out of work, who have got degrees. It’s really important to put learners at the heart of the system that we are trying to change for them.”

Summing up, the Centenary Commission’s vice-chair, Sir Alan Tuckett, said that despite the focus of local authorities on skills and jobs, the evening’s discussion had also moved around to a recognition of the wider benefits of lifelong learning. He argued for the concept of an 80-20 or 90-10 split between vital core spending and a more creative approach:

“Some space for the bottom-up seems to me important: to trust people to waste money in the name of being massively innovative and creative. I think you would find the 20 or 10 per cent you invest in that produces glories galore,” he said. “Adult learning is like ground elder – even if you set out to destroy it, it will pop up between the cracks somewhere else.”

You can watch a recording of the discussion here.

“‘Learn as if you are going to live for ever.’ Lifelong learning for our nation is crucial.”

Centenary Commissioner Lord Bilimoria referred to the Commission’s report when he spoke in the House of Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech. He also quoted Mahatma Gandhi: “live as if you are going to die tomorrow and learn as if you are going to live for ever.”

“Enabling lifelong learning for our nation is crucial,” said Lord Bilimoria – who is now President of the CBI. The government’s proposed lifelong learning entitlement, “is very close to the recommendation of the CBI … for more people to develop higher-level skills throughout their working lives”, he said, adding: “It is also in line with the recommendations of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education.”

You can read Lord Bilimoria’s speech here, or watch it here.

Adult learning is a top priority, say Mayoral candidates

The Centenary Commission’s campaign to put lifelong education at the heart of the Covid-19 recovery has been boosted by mayoral candidates.

Candidates from across the country have voiced their support for the Centenary Commission on Adult Education’s call for regional leaders to focus on rebuilding economy, democracy and civil society.

The Commission has called for a programme to Build Back Bolder, with wide-ranging reforms such as:

  • A community learning centre in every town;
  • Funds for community groups so they can shape their own learning;
  • a regional Adult Learning Partnership including local authorities, universities, colleges, voluntary groups, employers and trade unions.

Commission chair Dame Helen Ghosh has written to all mayoral candidates from the main political parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green) asking them to promise support for adult education. She says:

“Lifelong learning is vital, yet it has been allowed to collapse in the past 15 years. The Government needs to spend more, but adult education is now organised locally so we are delighted to have had so many positive responses to this initiative.”

The Commission says education for adults means so much more than ‘skills for jobs.’ For some, it means learning how to read and write, or use a computer. For others, adult education means learning a new language, mastering personal finance, understanding mental health better. It means engaging with others, exploring difficult topics together, and shaping communities through understanding and tolerance.  A long-term learning strategy for all adults is needed, properly funded and implemented.

The commission wrote to candidates in nine mayoral elections and so far has received positive responses from 19 out of the 36.

In London, positive responses have come from major figures in the election. Labour’s Sadiq Khan says:

I commend the work being done by the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, which is more important than ever given the devastating effect this pandemic has had on jobs in our city. A second chance at education or retraining opportunities can change the lives of Londoners. I have consistently fought for the devolution of the Adult Education budget to our city and communities and I am committed to ensuring that running targets those excluded groups who need it most and that Londoners have the skills they need to help our city recover from this pandemic.

Sian Berry, Green Party co-leader and candidate for London Mayor, pledged her support for the work of the Centenary Commission.  She said:

“The Green Party recognises that life-long learning will help to create a healthy society; through strengthening mental health and helping people lead fulfilling lives. As adult education is constantly evolving it demands a flexible approach to new courses whilst ensuring core aspects of education are preserved even where enrolment is low. As you outline, there were challenges before the pandemic and we need to be proactive and responsive as the job market changes.”

Other positive responses included West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayor James Palmer.

In March the Commission launched its Build Back Bolder campaign, backed by more than a hundred senior figures nationally, including seven former ministers from all political parties, 11 current and  former vice chancellors, the heads of nine Oxbridge colleges, a former head of the home civil service a former House of Commons speaker and almost every professor researching lifelong learning. The Commission believes the Government’s promise of £2.5 billion over five years to fund a ‘skills revolution’ will do little to reverse a decade of deep cuts.

A New Passion for Lifelong Learning?

Calls for a new movement to persuade Government to put adult education at the heart of its plans to rebuild were heard last night at the second of the Centenary Commission’s ‘Build Back Bolder’ campaign launch gatherings.

The gathering was chaired by the former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow and the panellists were Lord (Karan) Bilimoria, President of the Confederation of British Industry, Robert Halfon, MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, Sir Alan Tuckett, Vice Chair of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education and former Chief Executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and Baroness (Alison) Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management, Kings College, London and advisor to the Prime Minister on Further Education policy.

Baroness Wolf said there had been a ‘disappearance’ of broad adult education under successive Governments:

“I have to say it’s not just this Government,” she said. But all governments needed to address the need for lifelong learning as opposed to training: “It’s all very well to get rich, what are you getting rich for? So you  train in order to get rich, in order to pay more taxes, to train to get richer. At what point do you actually use any of this to do stuff that makes you into a better and more rounded human being?

“Obviously people have to have good jobs. We have to make the economy prosperous. But what about education? Should we be thinking about it more specifically?” she asked.

Long-term decline

Robert Halfon said participation in adult education had fallen to its lowest level in 23 years, with 38 per cent of adults not participating in any learning since leaving full-time education. That rose to almost half of the poorest in society, he said.

“The fourth Industrial Revolution may represent opportunities, but only if people are trained and reskilled now,” he said. “Of course the Government is doing some good things -the Skills for Jobs White Paper, the Lifetime Skills guarantee. But what we do need is an ambitious long-term funding settlement for adult education, and what I’d like to see and am passionate about is a Community Learning Centre in every town.”

Lord Bilimoria said the CBI had welcomed the Prime Minister’s initiatives to solve urgent skills challenges which had arisen in the pandemic, but more needed to be done.  

“Nine out of ten employees will need to reskill by 2030 at an additional cost of £13 billion, and Covid of course is accelerating the change in the way we work. We must use this momentum to drive a national rescaling effort,” he said.

Sir Alan Tuckett said a major issue was the top-down approach of Governments to adult education:

“Why does the Government want to limit it to those courses if approves?” he asked.  “People need to do that for themselves. Time after time we are told employers should be at the heart of the new strategy – my feeling is we’ve done that year after year. So what I want to see is a national strategy, locally determined,” he said.

John Bercow said all the speakers had displayed a passion for the topic, and that should be harnessed.

“I have felt that these webinars this week have been infused with a passion for an adult education and lifelong learning renaissance in this country. Transforming the immediate sense of excitement into something that is durable, tangible and effective requires statecraft, allocation of resources and considerable persistence, so there is a long way to go. But I hope that people who have taken part have felt genuinely energized by the experience.

“In the name both of upskilling and more importantly of human enrichment it is something that should endure and be a resonant feature of our lives, from cradle to grave,” he said.

You can watch the webinar here.

Build Back Bolder campaign launch: senior figures call for a new approach

Adult education must be pushed up the political agenda so it cannot be ignored, the former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said last night at the launch event of the Centenary Commission’s Build Back Bolder campaign.

Chairing a webinar with the Commission’s chair Dame Helen Ghosh, former Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett, Oxford historian Professor Selina Todd and Helen Chicot, who spearheaded innovative approaches to lifelong learning in Rochdale, Mr Bercow said the panel had displayed a shared sense of passion on the issue.

“Whatever your politics I get a sense that there is a very proper impatience to better; a  mission to ensure a kind of crystallization of ideas about where we go next,” he said.

“I think we all feel very strongly about it.  I always think that you have to catapult a thing from the back of a decision-makers mind to the front of her or his mind and keep it there, “ he said.

Dame Helen Ghosh said there was great resonance between today’s issues and those facing the original Commission on Adult Education in 1919.

“ The 1919 report was a wonderful thing: It had in it the words we used for our title:  that adult education was a ‘permanent national necessity and an essential aspect of citizenship -universal and lifelong. Both the Brexit debate and now the pandemic have shown we live in a society sadly full of inequalities, and people who have been left behind. So every citizen needs to be engaged,” she said.

Taking control of lives

Lord Blunkett said that for many people lifelong learning was not a second chance, but a first chance: “Being able to take control of their own lives when technological change has overcome them, the ability to cope with rapid social and cultural change, makes adult learning absolutely crucial.

“ I’m afraid adult learning has taken a hell of a hit – between 2001 and 2011, 14 million people took up life skills or basic skills, often just learning to read and to write and to add up: the literacy part of that was the most successful. It dropped by a half from 2016 to last year with the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve never needed as we need it today the ability of people to be able to adapt to new circumstances to find that they have talent; the ability of people to be able to see that they have new opportunities as old ones disappear,” he said.

Professor Todd said that on International Women’s Day the need to make women’s education a priority should be a focus.

“In the early 1960s the Robbins report pointed out that in an advanced society we should want everyone to have an advanced education,” she said. “That’s never been truer than today: to get through this crisis, to get through the climate emergency, to work out how we negotiate with automation, we need new solutions and new people at the top,” she said.

Learning to trust

Helen Chicot said Rochdale’s experience in the last year had been instructive:

“We’ve had more time in lockdown than anywhere else, and the relationship between communities and institutions has changed for the better,” she said.  “Complete clarity of purpose in our communities has meant that we’ve learned to trust each other. Learning is such an important part of cohesion and reducing inequality, and clearly that’s a complex issue.

“Trust – being able to go to a class, to a safe space where we can become confident in what we know and share that with others – that’s why learning is important now for adults. if we’re lucky we can be confident  that we can start to take those steps, and we know who we can ask for help. if we’re really lucky someone helps us to take action to find out how to do those things – because as things currently stand it’s only if we’re lucky that we can learn,” she said.

You can watch the webinar here. The webinar was supported by the University of Nottingham Policy Engagement Fund. A second webinar will take place on Wednesday March 10 – for more details click here: