A labour party to look forward to Assisted places

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Two shillings and sixpence, borrowed from his wife's housekeeping money, was the first member's fee when Albert Mansbridge started the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men.

Almost a century later, the organisation, which soon became known as the Workers' Educational Association, is a national institution, with 700 branches providing 10,000 courses each year to some 156,000 students. It has an annual income of Pounds 10 million, just over a quarter of which comes from the Government.

Founded in 1903, the association has its roots in the traditional Labour movement, dedicated to providing a liberal education for working men and women.

Despite the growth of alternative forms of self-improvement, notably the advent of the Open University and growth of the further and higher education sectors, it has continued to thrive. It has survived cuts in its Government grant and bucked the trend towards vocational studies, re-emphasising its commitment to learning-for-pleasure. Even in the practical 1990s, when there is heavy emphasis on the need to find work, 89 per cent of WEA students follow "liberal studies", preferring knowledge for its own sake.

Evidence that the association remains in rude health comes this week in a new report from Government inspectors. The report, published by the Further Education Funding Council, praises the WEA for its effective teaching, high levels of student satisfaction and the quality and range of its courses.

The WEA was congratulated for its success in providing education in isolated rural areas where other bodies such as the local education authorities have trouble providing a service.

There is some criticism, in particular over the lack of a formal system to monitor what students learn. The WEA is now considering introducing a system, called "learning outcomes", whereby students assess their own progress. This will enable it to monitor course quality.

Despite the criticism, the report is generally favourable, making it unlikely that there will be further cuts in the WEA's grant.

"The future looks very good," said general secretary Robert Lochrie as the WEA looks set to celebrate its 100th birthday and many more.

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