Children of Men
Earlier this year I was teaching an evening class for part-time degree students in Bristol. A woman in her late twenties approached me, to check that I knew she would be breastfeeding. She introduced her classmates to her son, a few weeks old. The university does not have a policy for student parents, although it has one for staff. One of the slides I had prepared for our discussion showed a page from a 1972 essay by Adrienne Rich, 'Towards a Woman-Centred University'. Rich argued that childcare should be central in a higher education system remade for the demands of women's lives.
In 2016 I’d been led around Senate House by a sympathetic administrator. We were in search of a senior academic who could sign off on an unusual request. One of my students, who was in her early fifties, had been diagnosed with cancer in the first year of her studies. She had continued her degree through several rounds of chemotherapy. In her sixth year, a few months from graduation, she had been told that she had a few days to live. Nobody knew of a precedent. Could the award be made? Did somebody need to touch the university mace to confirm it? In the end the exam board agreed that she had completed enough credits to be given her degree.
If the introduction of £9000 p.a. student fees in 2012 had led to a 58 per cent reduction in the number of full-time students in higher education, it might just have made the news. The latest figures from the Office for Fair Access, showing a drop of 58 per cent in part-time numbers since 2010, have passed almost without comment. There has also been a sharp decline in older mature students studying full-time. They are more likely to be women, often from an ethnic minority background; to have a disability, or caring duties for relatives or friends, or long-term health issues; to be financially vulnerable; to have grown up in care; and to be first in their family to go to university. They are also more alert to the implications of debt.
The drop in part-time numbers has had a profound effect on Birkbeck and the Open University (creating the OU was one of Labour's great achievements in government). The cuts in related sectors have been more devastating. The adult skills budget was cut by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2016, and skills in the young adult population are declining at an alarming rate. The OECD found in a survey of 34 countries last year that the UK has one of the highest rates of literacy and numeracy in the 55-64 age group, but is in the bottom ten for 16 to 24-year-olds. Much like the OU, further education colleges and institutions such as the Workers' Educational Association survive, but frequent changes in funding have distorted their original purpose. The UK is unprepared for a reduced number of skilled adults entering the UK from the EU after Brexit. The 2017 election was the first in a generation in which adult education featured in the three main English party manifestos (it wasn't mentioned in Ukip’s).
In P.D. James's dystopian novel The Children of Men, no child has been born for more than twenty years. Oxford has become an adult education college. In times of crisis, Raymond Williams wrote, adults need education to grasp and shape what is going on around them. It was the task of the adult educator, he said, to ‘critique the prevailing common sense’. It works both ways: education – what is taught and how – also needs to be tested against the reality of people’s lives. ‘Democracy will realise itself – if it does,’ E.P. Thompson wrote, ‘in our whole society and our whole culture: and, for this to happen, the universities need the abrasion of different worlds of experience.’ Like the EU referendum, the general election divided young and old, but also those who did and didn’t have a degree. The gulf is widening between universities and ‘the prevailing common sense’.