Posted tagged ‘continuing education’

Opening up the university

April 10, 2017

In 1979, when I was working on my PhD in Cambridge, I was invited to address a short course on employment law conducted by the university’s Department of Extra-Mural Studies, located a little outside the town in the amazing Madingley Hall. I don’t remember that much about it now – it was one hour on a Saturday morning – except that I found the participants to be interesting. It was a varied group, including a car mechanic, a factory shop steward and a retired army colonel. The conversation between the latter two was particularly lively.

The term ‘extra-mural’ is interesting. It is the traditional name for a university’s offering to those ‘outside the walls’ – i.e. those who are not members in a formal sense of the university. Today it sounds quaint, and many universities, in fact including Cambridge (and also Oxford), have now opted for names like ‘Institute of Continuing Education’, thereby moving the activity a little more into the territory of formal education for credit. In addition, many of the courses are now offered online.

But leaving the nomenclature aside, extra-mural education is an important university function. Higher education may be mostly about formal accreditation, but some of it should be about engaging with the wider community and offering some access to the expertise the university possesses in its people for those who cannot or will not take the formal degree route. It is also a way of ensuring that universities do not see themselves as keepers of a flame that gives light to a social elite. And so maybe it is also better that the term ‘extra-mural’ has been abandoned, because all of society should be somewhere within the walls; or rather, because there should be no walls.

The rise and fall of adult learning?

May 13, 2011

One of the major principles of education over the past decade or two has been the promotion of ‘lifelong learning’. Although the concept is sometimes presented in a somewhat nebulous way, and though it mixes phenomena which are not necessarily all related to each other (professional continuing education, for example, raises very different issues from those relating to mature student entry to undergraduate courses), it has been widely accepted that today’s society needs to be a learning community that encourages and supports education at all levels and at every age. Universities have gradually adopted new assumptions about pedagogy and demographics for the future based on the concept of lifelong learning.

Given that all this is so, should we draw any conclusions from the survey recently conducted in Britain by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education? This has suggested that, for the first time in a number of years, the percentage of adults engaged in continuing education has dropped. The drop has not been large – from 21 per cent to 20 per cent – but it has changed the trend. More worrying might be the finding that the proportion of adult males engaged in learning has dropped more substantially.

It is hard to be sure what is behind these changes, but it may be worth doing some further analysis to ascertain the causes. They may still be nothing more than a statistical blip, or they may be part of the fall-out from the recession, or they may reflect changes in aspirations and expectations. Certainly any risk to the vitality of a learning society needs to be evaluated carefully, as does any suggestion that the commitment of men to education and learning is being further compromised, with the social issues this may bring in its trail.

This may not be a major issue, but steps should be taken to ensure it does not become one.