Grumpy old man makes a stand

24th November 2006 at 00:00
Tony Benn is giving his support to a lecturers' campaign to oppose more cuts to adult education, Joseph Lee reports.

Ministers may have thought they had settled the debate on cuts to adult education: the money was needed for teenagers' courses and that was that.

But at the weekend, an 81-year-old man clambered up on stage to try to put them right.

"The Government says, 'Why should the taxpayer pay for someone to do cookery or artwork?' But if you never have children, why pay for schools? If you've never been ill, why pay for the NHS?

"The thing about the welfare state is we all benefit from everybody else,"

said Tony Benn.

"It's about what sort of society we want to live in."

He was speaking on Saturday at a conference organised by the University and College Union in Lambeth, south London, to plan a campaign in defence of adult education. Along with colleagues from other London colleges, the lecturers want their union to become more outspoken in opposing cuts.

Lambeth College had cuts of pound;2.3 million last year and lecturers fear more. Colleges lost 300,000 adult education places overall.

The cause is close to Mr Benn's heart, as he explained to the 100 college staff at the meeting.

"I am a passionate supporter of adult education. My wife Caroline, who died six years ago, devoted her life to adult education. She taught at university and an access course at the local college," he said.

"To see the happiness of people when they graduated from the access course was phenomenal.

"That is why I am here today."

Mr Benn said it was hypocritical of politicians to say we face new challenges in a changing globalised economy and not give people the chance to learn about the changes.

"If the world is changing, we want to be able to learn about it.

"You can't know everything. The important thing is to know where you can find it, and that's what colleges provide. That's the real importance of adult education."

To some, Mr Benn is the epitome of socialist throwbacks for whom the answer to every question is state intervention and taxation. But he claimed the opposite, that those in Government who want to bring market economics into public services are undoing 200 years of progress.

"What they want is for private companies to run everything.

"If every job is contestable, I'll do the Prime Minister's job twice as well for half the salary," he said.

"We are really defending the absolute centre of the democratic system. The thing about democracy is it transfers political power from wealth to the ballot box.

"In adult education, you have people who are really committed. In private industry, they are only responsible for making a profit."

Vulnerable people such as asylum seekers have been particularly affected by the cuts. Youcef Beyzekkoub, a student at Lambeth College who fled persecution in Algeria, said the course he needed to progress was under threat from closure. "When I first came here, I didn't speak a word of English. I still need to improve. It's not just for the social side, we need to talk to student welfare officers and so on."

The lecturers voted for the Defend Adult Education campaign to pressure the UCU and Unison, the public services workers union, to organise national industrial actions to oppose and reverse the cuts. They hope to create a unified campaign for colleges which are losing money for adult education, rather than see college-by-college protests, as last year.

Graham Topley, the Lambeth branch chair of the UCU, said: "Our union has not led a clear national campaign and we would like to see them campaigning hard and raising the profile.

"There are a lot of active, committed people who are not simply going to lie down and take this. It's not a lost cause."

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