The WEA in the Twenty-First Century: what is it for?

Below is the text of the Eastern Region WEA Centenary Lecture, delivered by former WEA Chair of Trustees, Richard Taylor, Emeritus Professorial Fellow, Wolfson College, Cambridge University.

I am honoured to have been invited to deliver this centenary lecture: thank you , to  Peter,  as Regional Chair,  and to  colleagues in the Eastern Region. (And a special thanks to Gordon Vowles, a wise and valued colleague on the WEA Trustees Committee during my time as Chair-as indeed were all my colleagues on the Trustees!)

Secondly, it is a pleasure to come back to Cambridge, and especially to Madingley. As some of you may know, I was Director here from 2004 to 2009-busy years, difficult  years in some respects-but greatly enjoyable years.  Madingley is a beautiful place to work: and the gardens at this time of year are especially lovely.

Finally, a word or two about my association  with the WEA. I have been involved with the WEA in various ways since the late 1960s. When I moved to what was then the Leeds University Extramural Department in 1970-as the lowest form of administrative life-I was strongly influenced by Fred Sedgwick, Secretary of the then Yorkshire North District. Fred took me ‘under his wing’, as he had many other young men (and some women) coming into the field. He was one of that great generation of WEA leaders of whom Frank Jacques of the Eastern District was another. It was from men like these that we were inducted into the trade and from whom we learnt about liberal adult education in all its complexity and importance-socially as well as educationally.

My most recent book, written with colleagues, is about E.P.Thompson, the radical historian and political activist and a prime exponent of adult education in the WEA tradition. Thompson is associated mainly with Yorkshire and its working class-most notably demonstrated in his great book The Making of the English Working Class, published 50 years ago in 1963. But it may be of interest to learn that Thompson’s very first adult education teaching was not in Yorkshire but in Cambridge for the WEA (he taught two courses on English social history). Frank Jacques was, in fact, one of Thompson’s referees for his first lecturing job in Leeds. When we were researching for our book on Thompson, we delved into the Leeds University archives and found  correspondence between Jacques and Leeds University about Thompson. Jacques’s  formal reference was positive about Thompson and his abilities and commitment. However, Jacques also wrote confidential letters to the Leeds Registrar and to the head of the Extramural Department, Sidney Raybould, drawing attention to Thompson’s membership of the Communist Party and thus, as  it was seen,  to the danger of political bias in his approach to teaching. There is much that could be said about this episode, its wider ramifications, and indeed the multi-faceted Thompson and his achievements. But that, as they say, is another lecture! I should now turn to my subject today ‘The WEA in the 21C: what is it for?’

The WEA, as you all know, came formally into existence in 1903; and by the time your own region was inaugurated the WEA had become a strong national presence (and its formidable originator, Albert Mansbridge, was beginning his work of spreading the ‘the WEA idea’ throughout what was then the British Empire).The WEA grew from a variety of traditions and built upon the earlier University Extension movement from the 1870s onwards. (This is not the place to discuss the Extension Movement: but it is worth noting that Cambridge was the first into the field, in 1873, under the leadership of James Stuart, whose portrait you will see on the staircase to the Saloon of this building. For the authoritative history of the Extension Movement , by my old head of department at Leeds, see Norman Jepson , ‘The Beginnings of University Adult Education’, 1973.)

I want to talk mainly about the contemporary context of the WEA. But to understand the present it is, as always,  important to  look albeit briefly at some aspects of the WEA’s early history or rather at some of the ideas current in the WEA in its initial phase. ( As an  aside, I should add that, as  someone who believes that history is the foundation discipline for the political and social sciences , I found recently a salutary quotation from an American commentator, Ambrose Bierce, about the fallibility of history: it is, he says, ‘ an account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.’) Suitably chastened, I would nevertheless point to the contrasting strands of thinking in the early WEA which have persisted in amended form throughout the WEA’s history and characterise still in essence the ‘coalition’ that is the modern WEA:

(a)  There was a strong ,altruistic and primarily Christian inspired belief that it was the duty of established society (including the universities, the church and individual members of the upper and upper middle class) to bring ‘high culture’ and more generally the ‘joy of learning’ to the great mass of the uneducated general adult public. Ancillary to this, and following on from the Extension Movement, there was a commitment to enfranchising educationally women, in practice largely middle class women.

All this took place of course in a society where most people left school, with rudimentary education, at 13 or 14 or even earlier; and where manual work was the destiny for the large majority. Only a tiny percentage of the relevant age group attended university (indeed, even when I went to university in 1964 the APR was under 8%; cf. almost 50% today).

(b) This same group of people (the establishment, in short hand) believed too that with the increasing power of the organised working class, and with universal suffrage on the horizon, it was imperative to engage the working class with the rich culture , and the parliamentary democratic traditions of the established order in Britain. This can be seen as either evidence of commitment to the educational enfranchisement of the working class, or its incorporation into the ruling order and its ideology. I leave this here as an open question….! ( For arguments on both sides ,see the contrasting perspectives of Lawrence Goldman and Roger Fieldhouse.)

(c)  There was a strong and growing identification of many in the WEA with the mainstream labour movement. The key task of the WEA from this perspective was to ensure that the working class was educationally equipped (especially in economics, politics and the social sciences) to take power in a modern democracy and usher in, through the parliamentary system, a more egalitarian, social democratic order.

(d) Further to the left there were those- a small but vociferous group- who saw ‘bourgeois education’, as they termed it, as a cul de sac; and wanted the WEA to teach explicitly Marxist approaches to the working class in order to equip the embryonic revolutionary movement for the overthrow of capitalism.

This resulted, in due course, in the formation of the NCLC (National Council of Labour Colleges) and later the various political education bodies of the Communist Party and kindred bodies in the 1930s.

The WEA was thus, from the outset, an organisation and movement with  very disparate strands of belief about its core purposes.

(e)  Overarching all these ideological strands was the unique voluntarism of the WEA. The WEA  was, and remains, a democratic body controlled in the end by its voluntary adult members. Whilst this has resulted on occasion in tensions between the voluntary members and the full-time professional staff; and whilst it has led perhaps to somewhat burdensome structures of representation-voluntarism is a uniquely important aspect of the WEA, which has made it from the outset a prominent example of democracy in action.

I now turn to the contemporary context for the WEA, where these strands are, as noted, still present though of course expressed in rather different terms. The educational world has changed dramatically since the WEA was founded-and indeed since the time when I first became involved in the 1960s. In addition to the obvious changes-amongst them, the massive increase in education and training opportunities for all sections of the population; the increasing sophistication of learning technology (computers and all that);the feminisation of the work force (and of the trade unions) and the prominence of women in almost all areas of public life, at least in relative terms-there are other, perhaps less obvious, changes that should be noted:

(a)  Whilst there is persisting inequality in our society, the old class structures have been largely dissolved. Inequalities are now more complex, diffused and malleable (though social mobility has improved very little). In place of clearly defined, and ‘self aware’ classes, we now have an elusive mosaic of inequality. And this , inter alia,  makes the task of educational providers much more difficult.

(b) Education and training are now perceived to be central to the economic wellbeing of society. The increasing sophistication of modern economies and their technologies and the rapid pace of change necessitate a high level of education for an increasingly large proportion of the population.

(c)  We live in a scientific and technological age and this dominates our culture at all  levels: STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and vocational training are given unquestioned priority.

(d) The twin bureaucratic processes of credentialism and audit and inspection now pervade not only education but all public sector structures.

(e)  Whereas in the 20C. the public sector was seen generally as legitimate and as providing a valuable social good, privatisation and the market culture are now seen as superior and the public sector is denigrated –at least implicitly . The ‘private good/public bad’ mentality pervades our culture. This is an insidious process, seen for example in consistent changes in language in the public sphere. For example, on the privatised railway system, we no longer have ‘passengers’, we have ‘customers’; in universities, ’vice-chancellors’ are increasingly referred to and see themselves as, ‘chief executives’; the language of ‘mission statements’, ‘VFM’, et al, are now common place.

We therefore have an educational context in which the culture, the funding and the perceived priorities are dominated by science/technology and by a series of neo-liberal business assumptions and the consequent emphases upon scientific materialism and vocationalism.

In this world, maybe the old WEA with its early 20C. preoccupations is hopelessly out of date. Maybe we have, to use the cliche,’ to modernise or die’. Maybe we should jettison the cultural studies programmes of mainly arts and social studies subjects (or at the very least provide fewer of them and only at near full cost). Maybe we need to give priority to vocational training, updating and job related programmes. Surely, it is argued, if adult education is to play its part in making Britain-or UKplc-a modern, competitive and efficient society, organisations like the WEA should radically reorientate themselves and their provision to come to terms with contemporary realities?

This is a seductive picture-for some; and it sounds purposeful, trendy, modern, relevant. It is though, in my view, dangerously mistaken, not just in emphasis but fundamentally. There are both principled and pragmatic reasons for this assertion. At the level of principle, it needs to be argued forcefully that a democratic society requires an educated and involved citizenry. This is not an add-on; a luxury which those who wish to indulge should pay for at full cost. It is a fundamental of a democratic, civilised society. The levels of alienation, of trivialisation, of crass cultural products (not least the tabloid press), and political ignorance and cynicism –all of these speak to the depths of the problems we face.

The steady diminution of public support funding for educational provision in arts and social studies has now culminated in the HE sector, and largely in the FE sector too, in such provision, if  it is made at all,  being  at more or less full cost. It is not too fanciful to suggest that in the foreseeable future, only a handful of elite universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge, will be high quality providers of arts and (non-applied) social studies degree programmes. This is, it hardly needs saying, a catastrophic prospect.

Secondly, we should remember that Raymond Williams, a great adult educator amongst many other attributes, argued that the primary purpose of the adult educator is ‘to critique the prevailing common sense’. And never was there a ‘prevailing common sense‘ that was more in need of critique!

At its best, the WEA is a counter cultural force; in an increasingly homogeneous culture, we should be always asking the awkward questions; confronting established, assumed ideological truths with other views, other explanatory frameworks; and enabling adult learners to find their own way to their own conclusions, by ensuring that they have full exposure to and understanding of competing frameworks of analysis.

Thirdly, because school education (and increasingly post-school education) is so dominated by both utilitarian criteria, and by the emphasis upon examinations and other credentialled outcomes, the WEA must play its part in ensuring that education is seen as a good in itself, that it widens and deepens our understanding and appreciation of the world and the cultures that inhere within it.

Fourthly, as our society becomes more unequal so it is apparent that the WEA’s ‘social purpose’ ethos is more relevant and important than ever. The WEA currently provides a valuable and very varied programme of targeted work with particular communities. (The recipients of awards at the Parliamentary Event in 2012 were truly inspiring. We need to do more to publicise and extend such work. I should like here to pay tribute to the vision of Ruth Spellman, at that time newly in office as General Secretary and CEO, whose idea this was and who carried it through to such success.) There are now increasing numbers of people trapped in cycles of deprivation. Government cuts to local authorities, to the voluntary sector and to social services are severely exacerbating these problems.

Analyses of adult education provision, conducted by NIACE over many years, have demonstrated that for such ‘hard to reach’ groups it is the initial process , the group involvement and confidence building, that is more important than the content. ( Two years ago, I was  asked to make the Olive Cordell Awards to outstanding disadvantaged learners. They all testified that, in varied but dire life circumstances, the WEA had been, quite literally, a life saver. These were truly memorable stories of triumph over adversity; and against the odds seeing education as the only means of self-realisation and redemption.)

Lastly, in terms of principled arguments, it is increasingly important for the WEA to preserve and advocate the voluntarist ethic. Education, as other institutions, is being increasingly bureaucratised and structured (and in recent years imbued with neo-liberal ideology and practice). The WEA’s voluntarism bucks the trend and sets an example for others to follow. And the Eastern Region, with its strong branch structure and large cultural studies programme, provides a particularly vibrant example of voluntarism in action.

Turning finally to the pragmatic arguments for the WEA to adopt the position I advocate, these can be put very simply.  Firstly, there are already some very large-and predatory- fish in the vocational training funding pool. The WEA does not have the expertise, track record or network contacts, to play in this particular league. Secondly, in the HE sector, in England, the old Extramural and Continuing Education Departments have very largely disappeared. The post 1992 universities, the former polytechnics, though they provided vocational part-time programmes attracting adult learners, and some Access programmes, never offered liberal adult education. Scotland and Wales are partial exceptions to this trend although the position here too is worsening by the year; and Oxford and Cambridge are also honourable exceptions (though again, even here, liberal adult education provision is much less than in the past; and the work we pioneered in my time here with disadvantaged communities in the Cambridge area has disappeared altogether. Perhaps the WEA might approach my successor as Director here at Madingley, Dr. Rebecca Lingford, to discuss possible partnership provision of ‘social purpose’ community education in the region?)

A similar situation obtains in the FE sector. LEA community adult education has all but disappeared in the light of the local government cuts; and FE colleges, for similar reasons, have largely ceased to provide any adult education, save for ‘A’ level and, to an extent, Access programmes.

There is, therefore, for the worst of reasons, as I say, a vacuum which only the WEA can fill. There are opportunities here for imaginative, cross sectoral partnership arrangements which could provide much needed programmes to local communities.

There are as ever challenges to be met in the short to medium term: and they are, arguably, more severe than at any time in the WEA’s recent history. They can be summarised as follows: however, I should note that, as I know full well from bitter experience, it is much easier to delineate the problems than it is to provide and operationalise solutions!

Such challenges fall under three broad heads: practical, ideological and organisational.

On the practical side, the first requirement is ‘to keep the show on the road’. This applies with especial force to securing a viable funding base. There is a whole host of problems in this context, not least the perennial issue of ‘supping with the devil with a long spoon’. In other words, maintaining that delicate balance with government whereby the role of ‘critical friend’ is recognised and appreciated, and translates into full funding and full independence: as I noted earlier, easier said than done!

Secondly, on the practical side, now more than ever it is important to grasp the key role of modern and effective marketing , especially through the web and all the associated sites now so dominant a part of younger people’s cultural reality.

Ideologically, the WEA needs to withstand, as I have been arguing in this Lecture, the pressures to conform to the assumptions and priorities of neo-liberal capitalist culture. Secondly, and related to this, the WEA has to keep the ‘coalition’ in balance and responsive to the deeply held perspectives of the membership.

Organisationally, the WEA needs, as ever, to recruit  new and more representative cohorts , and particularly an increasing number of  younger, more ethnically diverse activists. Secondly, committee structures need further simplifying, whilst ensuring that the democratic ethos is maintained and that communication, both’ up and down’ so to speak, are developed.

These challenges can, and ,I believe, will be met. As much as at any time in its history, the WEA therefore has a central, vital role to play. Its educational provision and ethos are unique; and it has potentially an important role to play in buttressing and developing a truly democratic society.

I end with three quotations pertaining to my theme. The first is from Edward Thompson; the second from my friend and former colleague, Peter Scott; and the third, from an American liberal educator, Brand Blanshard.

Thompson ( who here is speaking of politics rather than education, but the same principle applies) consistently believed in the human agency of the common people to achieve radical change; he placed the  emphasis upon action: ‘…The end of politics is to act, and to act with effect.’ And, he added, ‘…to survive …in this infinitely assimilative culture….one must put oneself into a school of awkwardness. One must make one’s sensibility all knobbly-all knees and elbows of susceptibility and refusal’.

Peter Scott, writing in his column in the education section of the Guardian on 2 July 2013, ended a scathing attack upon this government’s education policy in general, and its higher education policy in particular, with the following:

‘The public funding of science (and scholarship), the idea of the public good, the independence of research, the critical values of the Enlightenment-all are bound together  in a delicate web. So much more is at stake than pounds, dollars or euros. It’s our soul.’

And , finally, Brand Blanshard:

‘The thought of Plato remains, the art of Sophocles, the logic and ethics of Aristotle…No doubt there were hard-headed practical men in Athens who stopped before the door of Plato’s Academy and asked what was the use of it all. They and their names have vanished: the little Academy has become a thousand academies among nations then unborn. There is a moral, I think, in this history. It is the usefulness, the transcendent usefulness, of useless things.’

Richard Taylor.


2 thoughts on “The WEA in the Twenty-First Century: what is it for?

  1. Mike Cooper

    A good, succinct summary article in the Guardian, Richard, led me to the full piece, now. Here are my comments on the Guardian web-page.

    The general thrust here — despite some of the comments from readers, which match the worst you can find on Yahoo! and other sites for cogency, relevance and clarity — is a good one. The issue of how we mix education and training has long been sorted for those attending some schools, colleges and universities, and for whom professions like medicine beckon. There, we see the interrelation of the broad, humanistic perspective with the purely vocational, mechanistic, narrowly skills-based pretty positively. But elsewhere, it almost seems to come down to a choice. A job? Or a fuller, richer life?

    This chimes well with this piece I’ve just written (itself prompted in turn by a report from the OECD):

    Mike Cooper


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