Never mind the age, feel the similarities

5th April 1996 at 01:00
It may not have been a good idea to schedule a conference on education, nationalism and democracy on the day of the Calcutta Cup, but the morning provided much interesting debate. Five features of comprehensive schooling in Scotland were identified by Lindsay Paterson of Moray House: mixed ability, breadth of the curriculum, assessment extended to all, the school as a community and the community as a supporter of the school.

These were presented as features of a school system. But what about the education of adults? I fell to wondering (during the tedium of the afternoon's rugby match) about how apt these features are when applied to our university adult education departments' offerings.

Certainly our classes are mixed ability - or at least mixed qualification, which is not the same. One of the characteristic features of liberal adult education is the way students with PhDs sit next to people with no strong record of formal education and learn from them as well with them. This is an immensely positive aspect. Adult education recognises multiple abilities, without false assumptions of uniformity.

The breadth of our curriculum is considerable. First, the range of courses is large. Not everyone can take full advantage of this breadth - though our champion enroller has signed up for 24 courses this year - but the choice is there. Conventionally this range is described in alphabetic terms - from archaeology to zoology - but this goes against the second sense of breadth, namely interdisciplinarity. Many of the courses stray across disciplinary boundaries, in a way which might cause problems in the regular academic mainstream but which certainly appeal to adults.

Are we a community? Whereas the previous two features characterise the adult education programme of almost every university, here I suspect the experience is more varied.

Sometimes there is a strong sense of community and social contact, but this is not always achieved, or even aimed at. Bonds are most likely to be established in a class, as learning together blends into socialising together. Some of this variation reflects the physical facilities available, especially in the evenings. There are architectural lessons to be learnt here.

Support from the community exists, and its strength is yet to be tested in the days to come. One test may be directly political, though of a complex kind. As higher education budgets are squeezed - and my university estimates that it will have to lose between 40 and 70 posts in the coming year - all activities will be scrutinised.

Adult education departments may need to draw on community support to counter the power of the academic barons inside the university, who will be quite legitimately pressing to maintain their shares. It is all part of the politics of resource allocation in times of shrinkage.

This leads directly to the issue of assessment, which I have left until the end. Universities are busily converting their courses into credit-bearing programmes, enabling students to gain academic credit in return for some form of assessed work. How does this fit with the other features listed above? The answer is that we don't yet know.

The pessimistic argument is that the move to credit will narrow the curriculum, threaten student diversity, and reduce the sense of community. The more positive line suggests that these can be largely saved, and that extending the opportunity for assessment to all is a major step forward.

We have done some initial market research which suggests a substantial level of potential interest in gaining credit, even among our existing students. Our hope is that we shall attract more people, where gaining some formal recognition of what they have learnt will tip them into taking part. The key issue is that the assessment tail should not wag the learning dog.

The parallels between adult education and comprehensive schooling are intriguing. They also throw up important questions about the effects of one on the other, but that's another story.

Tom Schuller is director for the centre for continuing education at the University of Edinburgh.

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