Anniversary sees liberal arts for the workers under threat

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Ninety years ago in a schoolroom in Barry, south Wales, the Workers' Educational Association held its first classes in the principality.

The subject of that lesson was Japan, and the association went on to offer further enlightening topics such as Cromwell, the Holy Land, the Life of the Poor, and America from a Labour Standpoint.

Last weekend a plaque was unveiled at Gladstone Road school, Barry - where those first lessons were held - to mark their anniversary.

Today the WEA is a very different organisation. The south Wales branch has an annual budget of Pounds 1.4 million and it now offers a huge range of vocational and accredited courses.

That success has come at a price. The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act set out clearly which courses - known as Schedule 2 - can be subsidised by public funds. Since then, the WEAs in Wales have been funded through the Further Education Funding Council. This has resulted in a dramatic expansion in "return-to-learn" and vocational courses.

But the WEA in Wales is finding it difficult to maintain the more traditional liberal arts subjects upon which it was founded .

South Wales WEA spokesman Jeremy Gass said: "We've grown enormously. In five years we have increased threefold in terms of the scale of the organisation. But there has been quite a change in culture."

He said local government reorganisation had halved funding from education authorities, leaving the association dependent on Schedule 2 funding and more vocational courses.

"We have tried to maintain as much of the earlier traditional stuff as possible by accrediting a lot of work through the open college network.

"But we're always being challenged by the funding council with the suggestion that some of the courses we're doing aren't really Schedule 2 and the funding may not be available for them in the future."

He cites WEA courses at British Steel, Port Talbot where workers on day-release do subjects such as economics, politics and history. But Mr Gass says despite the fact that these courses fall into the category of lifelong learning, their funding hangs in the balance.

Hywel Thomas, honorary treasurer of South Wales WEA, and of the historic Barry branch, says they are doing their best to keep traditional courses going.

There are currently talks on European economic union, and on the background to the troubles in Ulster. "Last year we were looking at environmental issues and before that we had local history - the origins of Barry as a port. It was very popular."

He says that the courses attract a range of people, but admits that it could be even wider. "We tend to be a little bit long in the tooth, people approaching retirement. We have had some young people come, but we don't seem to be able to hold them."

"The areas that suffer are the liberal arts, like local history archaeology, politics and economics. It's things like that older people are interested in learning about."

He said courses were particularly hard hit in rural areas, where it was difficult to keep class numbers up.

The threat to liberal arts seems to be a Welsh problem. WEA deputy general secretary Mel Doyle says: "We certainly don't see it in the same way. Our argument consistently has been that we have a programme which has to be seen in its totality. And we've never deviated from that since 1992."

Dr Richard Lewis, principal lecturer in history at Teesside University and author on workers' education in South Wales, says the success of the association over the years has rested on its ability to reinvent itself. And he sees a parallel between the association having to face the harsh realities of the 1990s, and recent changes within the Labour party.

"The great irony is that a large slice of the Labour leadership in Wales in a sense comes from the association. The current Secretary of State Ron Davies is a former WEA official.

"Allan Rogers, MP for the Rhondda, was a district secretary for the WEA. Neil Kinnock, of course, was a WEA official. And Rhodri Morgan, the MP for Cardiff West, is a former organiser.

"It's slightly ironic that at a time when people who have been so closely associated with the WEA have got into such places of influence, the organisation itself is having this crisis."

So will the WEA's liberal arts teaching eventually be consigned to the dustbin of history?

"I can see it happening," says Dr Lewis. "I'm just hoping that it doesn't. I retain a moderate optimism that if we can get the right formula, it can survive.

"I think it would be a genuine loss if it was lost completely. I can see what the pressures are, but I think there is still merit in maintaining those traditions."

Martin Whittaker

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