Cardiff's gateway to gaining new skills

17th March 2000 at 00:00
David Mosford looks at how Cardiff University's new department, LEARN, is tackling lifelong learning

LEARN may sound like an obvious name for any university department to give itself but at Cardiff University there is a long tradition of curious quasi-acronyms, begun by former vice chancellor, Sir Aubrey Trotman Dickinson.

The School of English Studies, Communication and Philosophy has always been known as ENCAP while ContinuingEducation and Professional Development went under the unpronouncable cognomen of COEPD.

Fortunately, the in-house acronymn for the new Cardiff University Centre for Lifelong Learning has turned out to be something a little more obvious. LEARN came into existence on August 1 1999, although it is not an entirely new entity.

All the activities that used to be undertaken by the Department for Continuing Education and Professional Development have now been subsumed into LEARN, as have many of the extramural activities of other departments.

"Part of our new role will be as a gateway into the university for all enquiries about lifelong learning activites - from professional skills and knowledge updating to adult part-time evening and day classes," says Dr Madeleine Havard, formerly head of COEPD, who is now LEARN's academic programme director. "But we will not get in the way of established links, where departments - such as engineering, architecture, law and planning - already have direct contacts with their professional bodies and practitioners."

The impetus behind what is going on in Cardiff started three years ago with the publication of Government Green Papers The Learning Age (in England) and Learning is for Everyone (in Wales).

David Blunkett's major initiative sought to reflect the changing requirements that we are placing on education. "There are major shifts in society," says Havard. "The economy now requires people to be able to change and adapt, gaining new skills and knowledge throughout life.

Learning is for Everyone reflected this but it also held out the idea of education for citizenship, learning for self development, education for the third age and ICT (information and communication technology)."

Cardiff's Centre for Lifelong Learning has given itself the brief of catering for everything from one-off dayschools to PhDs in all areas from archaeology to zoology. Many of its courses are part-time but some will lead on to fulltime degrees plus a range of high level skills training.

"We will be able to act as both a waymaker and deliverer for those people who might not know what the university does and how it can help them with their educational or training needs," says Havard.

The man behind the centre's inception was Professor John King, senior pro vice-chancellor of the univesity. "I think the appointment of Professor King to oversee our first year indicated how important the university considers LEARN to be," Havard explains.

"His presence was enormously beneficial both as a strong proponent of lifelong learning and someone who knows everyone - and indeed is known by everyone - in Cardiff University. As such he is an ideal person to underpin and underline the overarching nature of LEARN."

Professor King, now dean of lifelong learning, glories in the somewhat regal e-mail address of king @cardiff.

"We have a long tradition of continuing education here in Cardiff," he says with some pride. "Last year, there are more than 85,000 COEPD students, which made us the biggest provider of continuing education in Wales. Many of our students are taught in the university but we also have more than 100 learning centres within a 60-mile radius of Cardiff."

Has the creation of LEARN been the result of Cardiff jumping on a government bandwagon? Professor King refutes the idea. "This is a natural development of our existing provision, which follows from an internal review. We routinely reassess how we function here. Over the years, because of its special nature, continuing education in Cardiff became separated from the mainstream of this university's work.

"What we have done is take the opportunity, presented by national and Welsh Office policy, to give it greater prominence. Two years ago, I chaired a major review of our lifelong learning provision, which took a very broad view of what might fall under that heading. We were keen to develop our own definition.

"What we found, interestingly, was that not only did we do a great deal of continuing education and professional development but that mainstream departments, such as engineering and pharmacy, contributed a great deal to it. Our school of pharmacy, for instance, does all the professional updating for Wales. In fact, we discovered that every one of our departments is involved in some form of activity which can be described as lifelong learning."

Professor King also points out that because the university itself is a major employer - 3,000 members of the local community work for Cardiff University - many of them participate in the university's extensive staff development programmes.

"These include courses at all levels and for all grades of staff. We feel, therefore, that training within the university should also be seen within the ambit of lifelong learning.

"Until now this hadn't been recognised as lifelong learning. The new centre should, therefore, help us raise the profile of these various activities, to co-ordinate them across the whole university and deliver those elements of life-long learning that fit our mission more effectively."

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