Activities outside Parliament

Keynote Address on 20th Anniversary of the Swansea University Part Time Degree Scheme

12th September 2009

Communities of Learning 1989 – 2009 by Hywel Francis MP

Personal Opening Remarks

I am delighted, indeed honoured, to be part of this very special celebration – a celebration of twenty years of collective progress and personal achievement.

I feel very proud and relieved that the scheme which we began in the late 1980’s is still with us, and is prospering.

What I have to say today is in praise of what has been called “A Community of Learning”. This is what one of our students, Jan Hulley, here in Banwen, called her experience.

Given that we are celebrating success across the whole of South West Wales, we should salute our many ‘Communities of Learning’.

I feel that this is a very appropriate description because this part-time degree scheme is defined not only by the unique commitment to community delivery and community partnership but also by the very strong bond, indeed a fellowship, between tutors, students and by now a large number of community groups, making up a very special kind of democratic partnership.

I am therefore very pleased to be here today for so many reasons. Firstly, obviously, to salute the achievements of the students over two decades and their dedicated tutors. The excellent publication which we launch today “Twenty Years: twenty stories” gives us a glimpse of how the scheme has made a difference to so many lives.

I should single out, in particular, Dr Keith Davies, who later did important widening access work at the University of Glamorgan, and Rob Humphreys, now Director of the Open University in Wales. Both were pioneers in the early days, ably supported by Anne Jenkins on campus and Sue Carter here in Banwen and in recent years Dr Lynne Jenkins and Professor Colin Trotman who have expanded the programme massively far beyond our modest efforts in the early days, to many more locations and also online.

I should pay tribute to all the internal academic staff especially in the early days: I owe a personal debt to two very good friends, the late Dr Bruce Waller and Professor Noel Thompson who is now a Pro-Vice Chancellor at Swansea. Both taught on the first history course with me. Bruce’s very first lecture to launch the course on the ‘Fin de Siècle’ was especially memorable.

Secondly, of course, to be here in Banwen, with DOVE in the place where the innovative Community University of The Valleys was launched in 1993 - I am especially pleased that this iconic centre of community learning is the place we choose to hold this special celebration.

In so many ways DOVE’s work fundamentally helped define the thinking and the practise of the overall scheme. DOVE, under Mair Francis’ leadership and now through Lesley Smith and Julie Bibby has shown us and continued to show us the way in terms of, student support with a crèche, transport, study skills and guidance and progression routes – all provided under one roof – and crucially a tough democratic partnership which emphasises the importance of negotiating curriculum and provision with community students and groups.

And of course in its key supportive work, the South Wales Miners’ Library, here and elsewhere, has been literally taking the books back to their roots, thanks to Sian Williams, Mandy Holford and all the other staff.

On a personal note as Member of Parliament for Aberavon I am very gratified to see that one of the newest venues for the scheme is at Port Talbot YMCA within my constituency just a few yards from my office. Maybe you might like to try Cwmafan YMCA in the very near future and also venture further up the Valley, to Croeserw or Glyncorrwg..


It would be instructive to remind ourselves of the world we inhabited in 1989-1990. The last colliery in this valley – Blaenant – closed in 1990. The then Vice Chancellor, Brian Clarkson, was prophetic in describing his long term commitment at the time. This has very much a resonance for today:

“The University is committed to widening access…..this second chance is for all who seek to acquire new skills and develop new interests with which to enrich their lives. Some of the courses will also help directly in career development or mid-career change which is becoming much more common now as old industries and working practises give way to new”. [1]

Looking back, then, we were moving away from very traditional, non-accredited evening , extra mural classes, which were largely for middle class groups to a much broader based radical approach reaching out to large numbers of socially excluded groups including, in particular, working class women.

It was a time of revolutionary change: a Conservative Government was committed to increasing higher education participation from 13% to 30%; the Berlin Wall came down and I persuaded the University and my own staff to talk about ‘Perestroika’ and ‘Glasnost’, to break down the ‘Berlin Walls’ in our own minds and in our styles of work.

There was a growth in Access Programmes and we pioneered their expansion in Wales and also set up the first Community Access Programme here in Banwen. That one decision led directly to the need for a community based part-time degree scheme.

It was our Department which initiated a range of partnerships beginning with the Valleys Initiative for Adult Education, launched here at DOVE, linking adult education to community development.

The Department provided the leadership across the region in accreditation and progression with the creation of Open College Networks, ultimately becoming the South West Wales Open College and Access Consortium. We also began work in Wales of providing Guidance to adult students with substantial European Funding led by the Heather Pudner who I am pleased to see that she is with us this morning.

We took the lead in developing access strategies throughout the University of Wales and also linked up through an ERASMUS programme with other radical adult education departments across the whole of Europe.

1989 then was a year of revolutionary change from Berlin to Banwen. Three years after the University was thinking of running the Department down, a full inspection by the HMI concluded

“The Department…is in a period of transition. Its approach is increasingly flexible, its policies and broadening curriculum are relevant to the educational needs of the Communities it serves, and its concern to cater for isolated neighbourhoods and to collaborate with other agencies in this and other respects is commendable…the general standard is satisfactory and there are instances of exemplary practice…the Department…is applying its energies to good effect”.

As if to illustrate these innovative approaches, a new young tutor in the Department, and one of my former students, Colin Trotman, published a controversial and highly influential report in 1990 with Tony Lewis entitled, “Training and Education: The experience and needs of Redundant Miners at Cynheidre and Betws Collieries in South Wales”.

The Challenges Today and for the Future

I am glad to say Colin Trotman has remained true and consistent to the radical approach we had at the time, in a uniquely distinctive way, always championing the underdog, the excluded, and the disadvantaged.

Those were challenging, exciting, if sometimes grim times. European funding was often a lifeline for this innovative work. In many respects today we live in more hopeful times.

Swansea University continues to be a pioneer in its regional strategies, through this Department and through the University’s plans for a second Science and Technology Campus- I am pleased to say within my constituency in Jersey Marine- and also through its recent success in gaining £7 million mainly from the Convergence European Social Fund for its ‘STRIP Project’ – Steel Training Research Innovative Partnership’.

With higher level skills becoming ever more important as highlighted by the Leitch Report in England and the Webb Report in Wales, followed by the Globalisation Report of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the challenge of embracing change is still with us, but is more urgent as Vice Chancellor, Professor Richard Davies emphasised recently,

“..This (STRIP) Project builds upon existing collaborations – but on a larger scale and with a renewed sense of purpose in helping to deliver a stronger post – recession economy – with each partner University mobilising their research strengths and facilities to support high level skills.” (Western Mail, 20th August 2009)

This linking of University expertise to rebuilding our regional economy is but one more illustration of how Swansea University has always been at the cutting edge of educational change, as it has been with its part-time degree scheme over the past twenty years.

Education Minister, Jane Hutt’s path breaking University of the Heads of the Valleys Initiative is a clear commitment to deepening and widening access which has long been pioneered at Swansea with the part-time degree scheme. What Jane Hutt, however, has done, is to begin to change the mainstream of higher education in a very bold and dramatic way.

In reflecting on past achievements we must not be complacent even if we can reassure ourselves that we are heading in the right direction, using what adult educator and writer, Raymond Williams, called the correct “resources of hope”.

For those shaping higher education policy in Wales in the next twenty years, I would commend a ‘global Wales’ approach, peep across the border and learn from elsewhere as I am sure others have learnt from us.

Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills gave a challenging lecture at Birkbeck recently. He quoted from it in his letter to The Times (29th July 2009),

“There is clearly a place for the conventional campus-based full-time, away-from-home model of study leading to a final degree. But we need to keep encouraging the alternatives that are springing up: two year honours degrees, part-time modular degrees and modular programmes that don’t have to lead to a full-time degree”

He went on to add,

“Why did I argue this? Because the model of University education as something solely for those in late adolescence is badly outdated. Almost half of British university students are mature students and most of the future British workforce of the 2020’s are already in their twenties or older and will need flexible learning options to exploit university education. Under these circumstances, it is hard to disagree that a more diverse range of options for higher education students in the UK is a good thing”

Alongside these policy projections I reflect on my own experience over ten years ago when the incoming Labour Government’s Education Secretary, David Blunkett, invited me to represent Wales on the Fryer Committee – the National Advisory Group on Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning.

Its successor, today, chaired by Sir David Watson, will publish on the 17th September its report Learning through Life: enquiry into the future of Life-long Learning. This is a major commission by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.

Governments, Universities, Employers, Unions, Policy makers and indeed students would do well to study this Report as it addresses two major trends: an ageing society and changing patterns of paid and unpaid activity.

Retrospect and Prospect

Twenty years ago as Director of Continuing Education at Swansea University I wrote this in my 1990-1991 Report,

“..Inevitably our role will and must change if higher education itself is undergoing a revolution. Our role therefore in the wider community is changing, but what is more challenging is a new burning idea: the idea that Departments of Adult Continuing Education can better serve their communities by helping transform Universities themselves from elitist institutions to mass higher education institutions accessible to those under-represented and disadvantaged groups of adult students we have always sought to serve”. [2]

And there you have it! My mantra then was “Marginalise the mainstream”.

We failed then, but I think we will now succeed. Not simply because Lord Mandelson and Jane Hutt agree with us, but because there is no other alternative.


[1] Quoted from the first part-time degree brochure.
[2] Hywel Francis From Extra Mural to Learning without Walls (Annual Report of the Department of Adult & Continuing Education, University College of Swansea, 1990-1991) p3

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