Roger K. Morris

From 2-8 September 2001 Australia celebrated its seventh annual and the second international Adult Learners’ Week. It was a great success. But what is this thing called Adult Learners’ Week? Where did it come from? What is its purpose? How did it get to Australia? How is it celebrated? What has been its impact? The ALW movement, on which we have frequently reported in this journal, is receiving increasing support worldwide. In the following paper, Roger K. Morris, of the Faculty of Education, UTS, Australia and Secretary of Adult Learning Australia Inc., reports on experiences with ALW in Australia.

Adult Learners' Week: The Australian Experience

Origins

Over the past 20 or so years the importance of lifelong learning, long promoted by UNESCO, has been increasingly recognised by other international bodies, by governments throughout the world, and more recently by business and industrial enterprises. During this same period, there have been numerous attempts to raise the public profile of, and participation rates in, adult education - long regarded as the “poor cousin” or the “Cinderella” of the educational world.

In this context, an Adult Learners’ Week (ALW) was established in the United States of America in the late 1980s. The National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE), influenced by the US experience, initiated and coordinated an ALW in the United Kingdom in 1992. It is the shape of this NIACE-inspired week that has influenced the shape of similar weeks in other nations since. This is particularly true of Australia, where the origins of ALW can be directly traced to the UK experience.

Early in 1993, Alan Tuckett, Executive Director of NIACE, visited Australia, where he held extensive discussions with the Australian Association of Adult and Community Education (AAACE), which became, Adult Learning Australia (ALA) in 1999. Later in 1993, the Federal and the State and Territory Ministers for Education and Training endorsed for the first time a national adult and community education policy. This policy initiative had been largely driven by the AAACE, which then approached the Federal Minister for Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs to support an Australian ALW. The Minister funded the development by the AAACE of a discussion paper on an Australian ALW. Following extensive consultation, an elaborated proposal was prepared. This proposal led to a grant to the AAACE from the Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) to initiate, coordinate, and conduct a pilot national ALW in 1995.

A national steering committee was established. At the state/territory level, steering committees were also formed. At each level the idea was that there should be a partnership between the government and community providers. Following a favourable evaluation of this first ALW, ANTA agreed to fund the coordination of an ALW on the same basis through the AAACE for another two years, 1996 and 1997. Since that time the funding has continued on largely the same basis.

Organisational Matters

ALW is managed nationally by ALA with the assistance of a National Advisory Committee - half the members of which are drawn from organisations in the adult and community education sector and half from governmental bodies. ALA, founded in 1960, as the Australian Association of Adult Education (AAAE), became in the late 1980s the Australian Association of Adult and Community Education (AAACE), finally adopting its present name, Adult Learning Australia (ALA), in 1999. It is a voluntary association concerned with the promotion of adult education and learning. It has received, since the 1970s, federal government funding to enable it to: act as a national peak body for the field; provide advice to the federal parliament, ministers, and bureaucrats; represent the field nationally and in international forums; and provide information, research, and advisory services to the field. Although nationally led, detailed planning and implementation of ALW are highly decentralised. At the state or territory level, the senior officer of the governmental unit with responsibility for adult and community education convenes, in conjunction with local adult and community education bodies, a state or territory coordinating group. This process, not surprisingly, results in a great deal of variation across the states and territories.

Objectives

In December 1994, the first National Advisory Committtee endorsed an implementation plan which included the following objectives for ALW:

  • to celebrate the concept of lifelong learning
  • to raise the public profile of adult education and learning
  • to encourage more adults to participate in education and learning
  • to facilitate networking among providers
  • to promote the national training reform agenda

With only minor variations, these objectives have remained current ever since. Though, of course, the emphasis has varied from year to year.

Official Recognition

In addition to the federal government funds provided each year, ALW has received important official recognition. Each of the three Governors-Generals who have held office since 1995 has acted as the patron of ALW. Each year, ALW has been launched, nationally, by the federal Minister for Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs. In most states and territories, each year, the week has been launched by the relevant Minister for Education and Training. There has been a formal message from the Prime Minister for each of the ALWs. Both the federal House of Representatives and the Senate have adopted formal resolutions of support, as have many of the state and territory legislatures.

Funding

ANTA has allocated about $250,000 each year to ALA to provide national coordination of ALW. The states and territories have spent locally, in total, about another $500,000 each year. Additionally, some small sponsorships and donations have been obtained each year. All in all, a sum somewhat less than $1,000,000 has been spent each year on the activities of ALW. The financial commitments of the states and territories have varied enormously, as do their populations and resources, from almost nothing in the Northern Territory to about $150,000 in Victoria. Of the national expenditure of $250,000, typically 40% has been allocated to staff and related costs, 10% to office expenses; 30% to promotional and advertising charges; 6% to travel; and 4% to evaluation.

International Aspects

An important consideration in the organisation of ALW each year has been the maintenance of relations with other nations, especially those nations which have established similar weeks. The first ALW had six international visitors. Dr Paul Bélanger, then Director of the UNESCO Institute for Education in Hamburg and now President of the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) was one such visitor. Though the role of each of the international visitors has varied slightly, usually it has involved a series of engagements across Australia, meeting local practitioners, talking to politicians and bureaucrats, and giving media interviews. Each year, there have been about three such visitors. The experience of the Australian ALW was an important input to the Fifth UNESCO Conference on Adult Education in Hamburg in 1997. The Australian example was used, alongside others, in support of the proposition that the Conference recommend that such an annual celebration of adult learning should become an international event for the whole world. This proposition was adopted, and 2000 was the occasion of the first such international ALW.

Promotional Materials

Each year, a range of promotional materials have been produced in conjunction with ALW. Over the years, these have included posters, campaign broadsheets, sample media, releases, a series of briefing notes on significant issues in adult learning, and bookmarks. These materials have been distributed free to participating organisations. Additionally in some years a range of merchandise for sale to participating organisations has been also produced. This has included cards, coffee mugs, stickers, and banners. Users of these materials have agreed that their availability was essential because they provided the wider context for locally organised events. The logo designed for the first ALW in Australia (1995) was adopted and slightly adapted by UNESCO as the Logo for the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education held in Hamburg in 1997. In more recent years, web-based materials have assumed an ever increasing importance in the coordination and promotion of ALW. (www.adultlearnersweek.org)

Awards

Following the lead of the United Kingdom, ALA incorporated a series of awards into the celebration of ALW. These awards have been organised and presented on a state or territory basis. Until this year, there have been no national awards. Usually, there have been four categories in each of the years, though the actual titles of the various awards have varied from year to year and from state to state. The most common categories have been:

  • outstanding adult learner of the year
  • outstanding tutor of the year
  • outstanding program of the year
  • outstanding provider of the year

Some states and territories have a parallel set of awards for Australian Aboriginal learners and their organisations. Currently under consideration are two new categories: outstanding senior adult learner of the year and outstanding learning organisation of the year.

Activities

The activities of each of the weeks has been basically similar from year to year. There is a launch or some sort of opening ceremony. There are award ceremonies. There are conferences, seminars, discussions, and debates. There are open days, learning fairs, displays, presentations, and exhibitions. There are receptions, social events, cultural events, book launches, press conferences and media events. Some of these are at the national level, some are at the state or territory level, and some are at the local level. ALA believes that there have been more than 1000 activities and events associated with each of the seven Australian ALWs.

The Media

Over the years, ALA has tried a number of approaches to the media at all three levels - national, state, and local. Not all these approaches, it must be said, have proved to be successful. In general, this work has been subcontracted out to various media specialists. A number of television promotional messages has been produced and screened as part of television stations’ community service obligation. A radio series on adult learning has been produced and made available to public and community radio stations. Press features and newspaper supplements have been written and placed. Press releases have been written for national and local media, and locally relevant stories on learners and providers placed. Radio, television, and newspaper interviews have been arranged for the international ALW visitors.

Evaluation

As part of the conditions of its annual ANTA grant for ALW, ALA has produced and published each year a detailed report on the operation of that year’s ALW. Additionally, following the first (1995) and the third (1997) ALWs, substantial independent reports were commissioned by ANTA to provide additional input into the decision as to whether or not the public funding of ALW should be continued. In both cases the decision was taken to continue the funding.There will also be an independent evaluation report written on ALW 2001.

ALW has become a significant feature of the adult learning landscape in Australia. And as such it will continue into the future. There will be changes, which is normal and to be expected. But the basic premise of ALW - to raise the public profile of adult learning and to celebrate its benefits to the individual and the society - will remain.