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UK freelance journalist and author Sean McManus

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The trouble with adult education

09 August 2008

The trouble with adult education is that it's typically run by institutions that usually cater for school-leavers. Universities might need to treat full time students like cattle to cope with the vast numbers of them they have, but people who have left full time education and moved into the workforce expect more respect than that. When people are paying money, they expect something that resembles customer service.

I've been to three different places offering courses to adults in the last couple of years. After I'd cleared three consecutive Saturdays for a course at one of them, the tutor said 90 minutes into the first session that she couldn't make the third session. At that institution, it took months longer than promised to get test results back. Needless to say, if I missed deadlines and meetings like that in my job, I'd be out of work.

At two other places, lessons have been cancelled without me being notified in advance, leaving me with a wasted journey.

I do understand that things change. But as a customer, buying a service, I expect to be told when there's a problem in advance so that I don't waste my time.

The signal that universities send to their students (both full time and part time) is that it's okay to be disorganised; it's okay to miss deadlines; our time is more valuable than yours is; you need us more than we need you.

That's not true, of course. I value my time highly and when institutions waste it, they lose my lifetime value as a customer. At a time when most universities and colleges are trying to get more money in from the private sector, they need to be more business-like. If you're selling a service, you behave like a service industry. You follow the benchmarks for communications set by organisations like Amazon. When things go wrong, you say sorry and make sure it doesn't happen again. You don't just shrug your shoulders and say 'that's just how it is today. Live with it.'

I am strongly opposed to tuition fees, but if anything good can come from them, it will be that students will start to demand a better service from their educational institutions. They'll start to expect the kind of customer service they deserve if they're investing thousands of pounds in an institution.

(For more on customer service, see The Customer Service Pocketbook.)


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Hi Sean,

I feel it's probably all too common.

You don't say where you went, but my experience as a student at City Lit was very different. I found all the staff I met to be very professional. Its facilities, that opened a few years ago, are fantastic and a real example of what decent funding can do.

But sadly in most counties or London boroughs, adult education is a bit of dead zone. In the pecking order of teaching jobs, it's one rung down from FE. It is often poorly resourced, teaching staff are paid appallingly and, sadly, considered to be a bit of a joke.

So the kind of teaching staff you get are either doing it for the love of it (the good ones) or the type who simply can't get any other teaching jobs.

In some cases, adult education is a social thing. People attend those 'flower arranging type' courses mainly to meet people and they don't really care if the course is any good. That's fine.

But on the courses I've been on all the students were pretty serious. Adult students have limited time to study, they are paying their fees out of their hard earned cash and want to be treated with some respect.
Hi Steve.

Thanks for your comments.

Teaching standards vary widely, but often it's been excellent on the courses I've been on. My main complaint is about the organisation around that. If the teachers are professional and talented, it still leaves a bad taste if the admin is unresponsive and you can't make a smooth booking or find out lesson times and so on.

I didn't name the institutions because I didn't want to single them out. For the record, one was a university, one was an independent training organisation specialising in media, and the other was an independent college specialising in programming.
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