‘Exit, loyalty and voice': the experience of adult learners in the context of de- industrialisation in County Durham
Forster, Mary Josephine
This thesis examines the effects of de-industrialisation on the lives of adult learners attending adult education programmes in the former coal mining and steel working communities of County Durham. It presents the outcomes of a qualitative study of life history stories which are ‘person centred’. Focusing on the subjective experiences of learners, both past and present, was an appropriate way in which the learner voice could be heard as well as helping to understand their experiences and views on the effects that de- industrialisation has had on their lives, and if lifelong learning was improving their life chances. The importance of social class and gender in configuring and understanding adult learner experiences are critical factors whilst, at the same time, the collective resources of these working class communities have been systematically undermined. Furthermore, the provision of publically funded adult education has declined dramatically since the 1980s. Through the prism of learners’ lives the study explores experiences of employability skills programmes and community adult education programmes on shaping the position, disposition and identity of learners who have experienced a major trauma to their communities, their families and themselves. Ontological insecurity, a product of de-industrialisation, has a critical impact on the lives of these adults. The thesis adopts Hirschman’s (1970) framework of ‘Exit, Loyalty and Voice’, originally used to frame the responses of workers confronting the possibility of job losses in a firm, as a way of understanding the reactions of adult learners to the impact of de-industrialisation on communities. In Hirschman’s framework the relationship between exit, loyalty and voice followed a distinctive pattern. Loyalty, for example, was the opposite of voice, as people in a firm stayed silent in order to be saved from job loss. In this study, loyalty to the community has enabled individuals to benefit from support and community provision, which has given them a lifeline for survival and a step on the way to finding a voice. Exit, in the original framework, involved proactive workers getting ‘ahead of the curve’ by finding alternative employment before others. In this study, employability skills training – as a resource for exit - does not deliver. Instead, it systematically demoralises individuals and undermines their capacity to act. It involves churning learners between welfare and more training programmes and, where and when available, into short-term work. The overall impact has resulted in the social exclusion of these learners from the labour market and from the community - the opposite of agency. It is argued that this is a paradox given that social and economic inclusion was an aim of lifelong learning policies. The thesis challenges the claim of neoliberal ideology that purports to promote the freedom of individuals to determine their own fate. Those attending employability skills programmes are expected to find solutions to structural problems, and are subjected to coercive methods through psychological interventions that are expected to bring about attitudinal behaviour changes to achieve employability. It is argued that this is a paradox given deficient labour market conditions which are beyond the control of the learner. Attention is given to public sector community adult education that once offered liberating models of adult education, but have now been subjected to the logic of neoliberal governmentality. This is creating new ‘subjectivities’ for educators, who are being coerced to deliver learning for the economy rather than social purpose education. What has emerged is a new role of the employability trainer.