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Home » Amos Bronson Alcott Centre for Educational Research » An introduction to adult education – and the role of the private sector in it

An introduction to adult education – and the role of the private sector in it

The concept of postsecondary education aimed specifically at adults has a long and at times controversial history. In the nineteenth-century, institutions began to offer programmes that would form the foundations of contemporary night school and distance education offerings. These programmes led to the concept of the “external degree”, whereby a student could prepare at teaching colleges or privately for a degree which was then earned by sitting formal examinations audited by the degree-awarding university.

The external degree concept offered opportunities for the working adult, who had perhaps missed out on a chance to attend university after leaving school, to obtain a qualification that would otherwise have entailed an impossible compromise between campus attendance, career and family responsibilities. This was the beginning of a revolution that would go on to embrace non-traditional education and much else besides.

During the 1990s, the number of external degree programmes on offer from private providers increased sharply with the advent of the Internet, and those programmes began to concentrate on distance learning and correspondence instruction as their modes of delivery. This has resulted in a wide choice for consumers and a spectrum of offerings in terms of their programme type, cost, delivery methods and quality.

In this paper we will give an overview of some universal considerations of adult postsecondary education, and then examine the role of the self-regulating private sector in fulfilling them.

Adults seeking education 
Some of the many types of adults seeking postsecondary education include the following:

  • Working adults seeking an award to consolidate experience and education gained through informal sources, or through formal sources that has not led to an award;
  • Working adults seeking to update their skills and move up to the next educational level, often through a graduate level degree or diploma;
  • Working adults seeking to change career;
  • Adults who are taking a career break or who are unemployed and seek to improve their prospects in the workplace;
  • Adults who do not work but want to study in furtherance of their interests, hobbies and enthusiasms;
  • The retired and those who want to “finish what they started”;
  • Those who seek a title that has personal and professional significance to them and offers a competitive advantage in the marketplace, such as a professional doctorate.

Adults seeking educational opportunity do not fit into as easy categorization as do school-leavers. The main reason for this is that, except for those who are seeking to change careers, many will be already experienced in their fields and seeking to study either to consolidate this experience (“to validate what I know”) or to move ahead to the next level, often via a graduate-level programme. This means that although adults will often have very clear aims as to what they want to achieve and how to achieve it, those aims will be precisely focused and will differ a good deal from one person to the next.

Offering educational programmes to this constituency is therefore not a simple matter. Motivated adults show a wish to customize their programme to include exactly what they want and need and no more, and an understandable wish to reach their goal through the most economical and efficient route. Although a school-leaver is often happy to see their college experience in terms of three or four years of varied and sometimes digressive academic life, the adult learner rarely has the patience or willingness to sit through classes repeating what they already know. They demand an individualized educational experience that is tailored to them and them alone.

The challenge of educating adults 
Many institutions seeking to serve adults are faced with difficulties in meeting these needs. Where an institution is large and has a substantial bureaucracy, it cannot easily individualize the educational experience, and instead must serve the needs of the majority over those of the individual. Furthermore, accreditation agencies and government overseers of education do not generally take kindly to programme individualization, regarding it as impossible to assess and therefore as inherently difficult to subject to consistency measures and standardization – the core aims of such bodies. Perfect programmes for such institutions are those that follow a set pattern and where everyone does the same thing at the same time or chooses from a limited range of options. These programmes are also the most readily commodified as a set “product”.

One reason why private providers have met with such success in serving the adult market is precisely because they are free from the control of government and quasi-government regulators, and can therefore pursue programme individualization. In short, they are capable of evolving new programme methodologies that meet the needs of the market directly. This is controversial since it threatens the vested interests of public sector providers, who have instead been determined to restrict the market only to what they were prepared and able to supply. In the process, the public sector has sought to attack the freedom of the self-regulating sector and to either restrain that freedom or destroy the competition altogether, often using arguments about quality as a cover for its actions. Such arguments have uniformly failed to make the distinction between diploma mills and legitimate self-regulating schools, instead acting anti-competitively to exclude both.

The result of this policy has been that the self-regulating sector is now extremely small compared to its heyday ten and more years ago. Many private institutions have accepted public sector control or have been driven out of business as the public sector has persuaded legislators to act to reinforce its commercial monopoly. However, legitimate individualized self-regulating sector options do remain for the discerning consumer so long as he or she is prepared to work to seek them out, to assess them carefully to establish whether they meet their needs, and to see behind the false arguments provided by public sector opponents in order to discredit them.

Where can the self-regulating adult education sector meet market need? 
The justification for the self-regulating sector in postsecondary adult education is in its unique ability to meet market need. There are several key areas in which it can do this, by offering:

  • Programmes at a more affordable cost than public sector controlled institutions;
  • Programmes that are individualized and tailored to the student rather than being constructed according to the social engineering preferences of government, or the ideological outlooks of mainstream academia and its accreditation agencies;
  • Programme methodologies that are flexible and designed on nontraditional principles of empowering the student as the center of their own learning;
  • Greater flexibility in admissions, including open enrolment policies, based on what the applicant can prove they can do rather than the possession of a specific credential;
  • A smaller, less bureaucratic approach that imposes fewer costs on the student and embraces technology fully rather than being tied to outdated campus-based models, thus actively promoting the evolution of the university concept into the Information Age;
  • Progressive and experimental programmes in specific programme areas and in interdisciplinary modes that are not offered within the public sector;
  • Openness to the transfer of credits at the graduate level, in contrast to almost all public sector institutions;
  • Programmes at the doctoral level by totally non-residential study;
  • An openness to ideologies that are no longer welcome in much of academia, which has become dominated by authoritarian and politically correct ideas;
  • Transnational and cross-cultural philosophies of education rather than being restricted by the educational norms of a single nation or system;
  • Education that resists restrictions that are the outcome of vested commercial interests, that work against the interests of students and that serve as a block on progress within the postsecondary sector;
  • Direct accountability to the market (without intermediaries) and facilitating consumer choice within diverse options.

This is a long list, and it could be a lot longer still. Where there is a need, or a gap in the market, the self-regulating sector exists to fill it. If there were no need – if the public sector were perfectly responsive and performed to a level where it met demand – there would be nothing more for the self-regulating sector to do other than compete on price and quality (which in themselves would, of course, be valid criteria). As the situation stands, the self-regulating sector is excellently positioned, not only to highlight the multiple areas that have gone wrong within our current system, but also to offer real solutions to that crisis.