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Adult learning worth a celebration

Opinion piece for Adult Learners’ Week: 5-11 September 2005

Adult learning worth a celebration

By Janice Shiner, Tertiary Education Commission Chief Executive

Tertiary education in New Zealand is more than just degrees and diplomas – it’s also about all the other learning that people do after they have left school.

This week is Adult Learners’ Week, which was set up in the 80s to promote and celebrate adult learning across the world.

Up until now, I celebrated Adult Learners’ Week in the United Kingdom, where I spent more than 20 years in education and at one time, was principal of a college with 28,000 adult learners.

In that role, it never ceased to amaze me how adults from many different walks of life managed to fit learning into their busy often complex lives, and the tremendous progress they made – at home and in the workplace.

Now in New Zealand – I started as Chief Executive of the Tertiary Education Commission in July this year – the story is the same. New Zealand’s vibrant community education network is giving adults – especially those who, for whatever reason, did not do too well in education first time around – the chance to improve their literacy skills and get a new kick out of life.

A study done for The New Zealand Treasury in December 2004 found that adults with good literacy skills are more likely to be working and earning more than those with poorer literacy skills.

While that should not come as a surprise to anyone, we should also note the impact of improved literacy skills in other aspects of people’s lives. Parenting, for example, where it must feel so good for people to be able to read to their children for the first time, or help them with their homework.

In New Zealand at the moment, there is a greater focus on quality and relevancy in tertiary education. It is just not enough to get people into education. The education they receive must be top notch and enable them to move forward – within the education system, in their careers, communities and family life. For adults, going back into education is a big commitment, and they deserve the best.

Most literacy learning is provided through the adult and community education network in New Zealand. Moves are afoot to strengthen this network, and ensure it delivers for adult learners from all works of life.

A new set of priorities has been developed for adult and community education following widespread consultation with a wide range of people. The new focus is on people whose initial learning was not so successful and raising their literary and numeracy skills, as well as encouraging lifelong learning.

Other priorities include strengthening communities and social cohesion. This covers courses that could lead a better quality of life. Often certain so-called ‘hobby courses’ are good at getting people back into the classroom atmosphere, and used to being at a certain place at a certain time for a certain period of time. With these basics and a feeling of achievement under their belt, they can move on to some higher-level learning, which could lead to a job. Success breeds success, especially when someone is moving back into learning.

In all of this, the teachers and tutors are so important. There is also a focus on ensuring they have all the skills and resources they need to deliver courses and qualifications of quality and relevance.

It is an exciting time to be involved in adult and community education. I am confident the new focus will deliver for learners, their families, employers and communities, and ultimately for New Zealand.

Life long learning – and the way it offers people the opportunity to reach their potential – is something to be celebrated. What better way than by Adult Learners’ Week.


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