When the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Leicester was threatened with closure, a campaign was launched to re-open it as a community-owned college. Founder member Dr Miriam Gill looks forward to a brighter future for adult education in the city
‘”If you’re going to save your department, you’re going to have to do it. No one else will”: this was the stark statement of a visiting academic from another university adult education department. It was June 2016 and the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning (VCLL) in Leicester was in the early stages of a consultation on its proposed disestablishment. The realisation of our responsibility and our commitment to the provision of accessible, part-time higher education for mature learners has motivated what we have done since.
VCLL traces its origins back to adult-education work begun in 1862, and bears the name of Rev David Vaughan (vicar of St Martin’s Leicester, now the Cathedral). Vaughan College was the only provincial working men’s college to survive into the twentieth century and from 1929 was the extra-mural department of Leicester’s fledgling University College. The TES described the fate of VCLL as “particularly emotive”, but it cannot be divorced from national trends, the closure of two thirds of the specialist university departments of adult education in the last decades, the more recent catastrophic decline in the number of mature and part-time students (55% drop since 2010 for sub-degree courses) and the underlying changes in university funding which prompted both of these. The Save Vaughan campaign was vociferous, but, in terms of the University of Leicester, unsuccessful; the centre will close its doors in 2020 once its students have completed their courses.
“I’m devastated – not just for my job but for the city,” a lecturer told the Leicester Mercury on the day in September 2016 the university council voted for VCLL’s closure. As staff and students campaigned together there was a strong sense that it wasn’t only their employment or their individual courses at stake. Protesting against the University of Leicester’s plans, supporters and politicians expressed their sense that Vaughan and its provision essentially belonged to the locality and its people. In their thank you blog, the Save Vaughan campaigners wrote: “We will look to the future and we will do our best to make sure this provision continues. We owe it to the city, the supporters, the future students and to David Vaughan himself”.
Not alone but together
As staff and students we found we were not lone voices, but in solidarity with colleagues, fellow adult educators and academics, alumni and supporters and local politicians. Even before the decision to disestablish was taken, a colleague was proposing the idea of becoming an autonomous co-operative institution, inspired by the support and example of the current burgeoning co-operative Higher Education movement. In August 2017, less than a year after the decision to disestablish was announced, Leicester Vaughan College (LVC) was registered as a community benefit society with the intention, as our objects state, of “providing flexible, university-level education which is aimed primarily at mature students, and delivered in an equitable and sustainable context for staff”. The community benefit society structure allows anyone over 16 who subscribes to the objects of the society to be a member and play a democratic role in directing its future, creating an autonomous and accountable institution which “prioritises education over profit”. The alliance of local political and civic supporters, former students and fellow academics, which had proved so powerful in campaigning, is represented on the founding board of directors.
Building our own future: not without hope
The do-it-yourself, co-operative future LVC is pioneering and particularly attractive and appropriate for university-level adult education. It models a confidence in students as co-creators and contributors. It seeks to establish a college with contracted staff employed on a sustainable flat-pay structure to address the precarious employment of tutors, a long-entrenched feature of this form of provision. It replaces managerial doctrines and dictates with a democratic structure in which staff, students and the wider community have an active voice rather than being notionally ‘consulted’. This is a civic institution which makes real the sense of community ownership and belonging, which is felt so strongly in relation to Vaughan.
Our future is in our hands and this is both inspiring and daunting. While we offer our initial non-accredited programme in partnership with the Leicester Adult Education College, resources and validation present significant challenges. We will have to engage in as equitable a way as possible with the realities of the university funding regime, for we are seeking a sustainable future for staff and students and our socially-valuable provision. The changes in university regulation, which rightly raise concerns, may also open up a space for alternative providers who share this co-operative vision of higher education. We hold onto the hope that we can build an institution which provides “an alternative, reproducible and sustainable model of higher education focused on the needs of students, staff and the wider community”.