So, how do you finance and build an an adult education college?

I’m trying to find the Twitter post that told me the law is not clear on who has what powers to establish lifelong learning colleges – in particular making capital grants from the state to establish such premises.

Actions from elected politicians:

  1. To write to the Education Secretary to ask him which minister has policy responsibility for lifelong learning
  2. To ask the Education Secretary who has what legal powers to establish new lifelong learning colleges in England
  3. To ask the Education Secretary what powers he has, and what his policy is, on providing capital funding for the establishment of new lifelong learning centres in England
  4. To ask the Education Secretary when he plans to respond to the report on Lifelong Learning from the House of Commons Education Select Committee – you can read the report here, ordered published 19 December 2020 (so less than two months ago).

You can write to your MP to ask them to put the above questions to the Education Secretary on your behalf – see https://www.writetothem.com/

Other organisations researching and campaigning on this include:

The problem at the moment is that it’s not clear which minister is responsible for the lifelong learning policy area.

…and this page doesn’t fill me with confidence either – adult and lifelong education don’t stand out on the dropdown menu in the topic menu for the Department for Education.

nor this one…

…which indicates that there is no minister assigned to lead on lifelong learning.

This does not mean the sector has been quiet on this – even in the face of Brexit and the CoronaVirus pandemic. If anything, the success or otherwise of Adult Education and Lifelong Learning as policy areas are essential for the British economy, and even more importantly, for the health and wellbeing of people and society generally. The lack of this second consideration has been a huge oversight from successive governments that have used cuts to adult education budgets as cover for increasing funding to basic skills education. The populist argument that Central Government should not be funding leisure sessions for the middle classes while so many people in working class communities lack the basic skills to enable them to apply for jobs. Such a mindset is based on a series of assumptions that, if tested, are found to be very strong indeed. These include:

  1. That middle class people can access such leisure classes and price is no barrier
  2. That the major factor stopping working class people with no qualifications from getting into work (or getting on the training courses in order to get those qualifications) is something that can be resolved by redirecting money to providers of basic training programmes.

Just taking these two as examples, the first case assumes that there are providers within reasonable distance from where middle class people live, and that such classes are still going to be put on even if subsidies are removed.

The second case assumes that there are suitable providers of such courses that people from working class backgrounds can get to, and that they have no health or mobility-related issues that might otherwise stop them getting to/from where such training programmes might be – and finally that there are suitable jobs for them to go into once they have completed their training.

Both groups have been clobbered by local government austerity from 2010 when Coalition ministers (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) chose to cut local council budgets significantly through their policies of austerity – one continued by the Conservative governments post-2015. With the removal of the old ‘ringfences’ on central government funding to local councils, it was left to local councils to decide where the cuts should fall – and thus take the blame for said cuts that were not necessarily the fault of local councils. This is not to say there was not room for savings and greater prioritisation of existing funds. This was on a scale where the traditional ‘salami slicing’ of budgets was simply not possible, and where many local councils had to go back to first principles and start from focusing on their statutory responsibilities: What did the law say that local councils *must* provide for?

Anything that was not a statutory responsibility thus became extremely vulnerable to cuts

The Corona Virus Pandemic changes everything

As has Brexit – where ministers have been talking about and compensating private firms who have, through no fault of their own, been hit significantly by the failures of ministers to secure smooth transitions to new working arrangements with the EU as a Third Country, that didn’t involve businesses taking on significant extra costs and burdens as a result of leaving the EU.

Above – the then Brexit Secretary Mr David Davis on “no downside to Brexit“.

The point being that austerity as a policy is effectively over, whatever politicians might say about responsible spending and value for money. The reports from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee – especially on procurement, make for damning reading. Furthermore, Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex wrote this commentary titled Britain’s PPE procurement: Chumocracy, cronyism, corruption.

This, on top of the huge costs of the Furlough scheme, plus the further rounds of quantitative easing has led to the questioning of why this policy has not been used to benefit the public directly – in particular economist Frances Coppola in her book on the case for People’s Quantitative Easing. Her posts on Universal Basic Income during the first lockdown also make for interesting reading in the context of keeping people’s income going so they can pay rent and buy food, at a time when (as with the current second lockdown at the time of writing) when public health needs/demands were for people to stay at home and not go to work unless their functions were essential.

Finally there’s the mental health and loneliness epidemics that were already serious public health issues long before the outbreak of the current pandemic. The impact of the lockdowns have exacerbated this. Last night I heard the devastating news from my music collective that one of our former members had died at the tragically young age of just 35. The family of the late Eva Maguire have set up a fundraiser for Shelter in her memory here.

Having set out that the public policy context has changed dramatically – and in a manner that few could have predicted prior to the EU referendum of 2016, we find ourselves in a situation where there is a strong and growing public policy case for establishing – or in some cases *re-establishing* colleges for adults. And it’s a case that goes far beyond vocational training for jobs and careers – even though from my perspective there is just a strong case for such institutions at a technical level to support people switching careers now that we really are in a world where most people no longer have a job for life, or perhaps where the university graduate with a degree in business studies (very popular subject) found out that office work was satisfying and wanted to switch to something that got them out and about.

“So, let’s set up a new college for adults on one of the new large developments in Cambridge then!”

Quite – let’s take Cambridge as a case study given the significant growth in housing that will result in the city doubling in population by 2035 despite staying within its municipal boundaries that were last expanded in… 1935.

Above – proposed developments from the mid-2010s, now archived, by Cambridgeshire County Council via Cambridge Cycling Campaign

The developments at the Cambridge Water Works, Cambridge’s Southern Fringe south of Addenbrooke’s, and Cambridge East on the old Airport site are all possible candidates for an Adult Education College for me. My preference for the old Water Works site in North Cambridge is for that large development to have a large community arts centre as its centre point. With Cambridge Regional College (where I did my basic teaching for adults qualification) they already have a programme for lifelong learners. We don’t have one in South Cambridge, but we do have The Cambridge Junction that effectively serves the south of the city. The Junction was built in response to a long campaign by young people in Cambridge which ultimately led to the East Road Riot in 1985 after councillors had ignored their pleas for a new music venue for years. It should not need a riot in order to build another arts venue!

For me there is a stronger case for South Cambridge and East Cambridge to host such a venue. The marginally stronger case I think is in East Cambridge for something brand new. In South Cambridge, the Cambridge Academy for Science & Technology – established as a University Technical College a few years ago, has the potential to fulfil that role.

Above – CAST on the map with Addenbrooke’s to the South East, and Long Road Sixth Form College (that in the 1990s had a *wonderful* programme of evening classes – I did A-level history there as an evening class during my year out before university) to its west. Note the open parkland created and protected further west as a result of the housing growth at Trumpington/Great Kneighton. The playing fields are owned by a private school in Cambridge. A number of those fields currently in private ownership should, in my opinion be turned into open parkland/urban parks with big enough open spaces for team games.

In East Cambridge, there are already plans to build on the Cambridge Airport following the news that the Marshall Group is planning to move out of the city. The Wing and Marleigh developments are already under construction.

Above – from 2016 a CGI of Marleigh, north of Cambridge Airport.

So…who pays for it? Who establishes it?

That’s the problem.

It’s not clear who pays for the capital costs – which are inevitably prohibitive.

If it were a single project for the city of Cambridge, competency might rest with either Cambridgeshire County Council or with the Combined Authority. That lack of clarity is reflective of the mess that the political and administrative governance of Cambridgeshire currently is. Furthermore the institutions that set this up – ministers with approval from Parliament, is not interested in resolving the problems of their own creation. Even if they were, they don’t have the civil service policy capacity due to Brexit, the pandemic, and civil service job cuts (of which my career went with it a decade ago!)

Party-politically, there are county council elections coming up in May 2021. It’s far too early to tell what the results might be simply because of the uncertainty caused by Brexit and the pandemic. No one has been able to do face-to-face campaigning for over a year. Last year’s elections were postponed. Also, who knows who the public are going to praise/blame for their experiences, and how this might reflect at the ballot box.

With the current administration, the problem Cambridge faces is the long term polarisation of ‘pro-EU liberal’ Cambridge with pro-Brexit ‘Tory’ North Cambridgeshire. Having watched one too many council meetings at Shire hall, the contempt the two sides have for each other politically is strong. And this is reflected in the policies made by the majority Conservative Group, which has included:

  • Moving Cambridgeshire County Council out of Cambridge to Alconbury, northwest of Huntingdon with no direct public transport from Cambridge City (thus making it the first time. in the institution’s history it will not be in Cambridge – i.e. since 1889)
  • The removal of the county archives (including the historical records of Cambridge City) out to Ely. So to see the original historical documents of Cambridge town, you have to leave the city.
  • Repeatedly holding down council tax rises despite pleas from their opposition opponents, thus imposing cuts on public services in Cambridge that their political representatives say the people of the city never voted for.

Having the county council headquarters in Alconbury means the only people who can get there are those with motor transport – which conveniently means few protesters will be able to protest directly compared with at Shire Hall, a traditional and historical site of public protests. And public hangings too! (The concept of capital punishment horrifies me!)

Should Central Government fund it?

I think it should unless it is prepared to undertake a massive overhaul of local government – boundaries, structures, revenue raising powers, legal powers, competencies, the lot. But I can’t see that happening in the near future. The response to the pandemic must take priority. So until then, Central Government must fund it. But that will need a well-researched policy and possibly a new Act of Parliament to enable the Secretary of State to make payments to fund such institutions. i.e Ministers can’t just give money away – they have to have the approval of Parliament first. Given the wide range of functions and outcomes that such institutions could have responsibility for, it’s best for all that these are properly enshrined in legislation – because that means MPs and Peers will have given the proposals the much-needed scrutiny that such a major policy (which would influence every town and city they are established in) requires.

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