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Letters From ~ 9 

Letter from England

Universities are also for working-class adults

Barbara Merrill

I first met Chris in 1991 when he appointed me to work in my first job in academia in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Warwick, UK.  Initially I was employed to work with him and others to develop the 2+2 Social Studies degree and Part-time degree, both aimed at local adults. These two degree programmes put into practice Chris’ belief that universities are not just for younger adults. The 2+2 Social Studies degree is a full-time degree programme and was unique in the UK. The practice and ideology behind the 2+2 degree reflected Chris’ ideals and passion for adult education and university education and in particular the belief and recognition that university degree programmes should be available to adults and particularly working-class adults.

Over the years hundreds of working-class adults have graduated and achieved a 2+2 degree at Warwick in an institution which is elite and middle class. The programme is a recognition that class culture and inequalities meant that working-class young people left school at the earliest possible age. The Social Studies degree offered the opportunity for them to ‘complete’ their education and as many women students have said ‘to do something for myself’ other than being a partner, mother and housewife. 

In establishing these two degrees Chris was challenging and questioning what a traditional university should be – not an easy task. It was difficult to persuade some social science departments to teach adults and adults who did not have the traditional university entry requirements. Chris was also asking colleagues to step out of the ‘ivory tower’ and collaborate with lecturers in local further education colleges (post-compulsory education) as the first two years of the degree were taught in the further education colleges. The adult students came to Warwick for the final two years (honours level) but were Warwick students from day one. The two degree programmes therefore brought about significant institutional change. 

Chris was enthusiastic about his work as Professor of Adult Education and Chair of the Department. He had endless energy for new ideas on a daily basis, while at Warwick. However, this did entail phoning myself and other colleagues – Russell Moseley and John Field - late in the evening or even 0600 on a Saturday morning!

On a personal level I would not have had a career in academia without Chris’ support and encouragement as I changed career in my early forties leaving teaching in secondary education. Chris enabled me to become a researcher in adult education, initially through a project about adults in university with Belgian colleagues Etienne Bourgeois and Jean-Luc Guyot. The research culminated in a book entitled The Adult University in which Chris outlined his arguments for opening up universities to adults. And finally thank you, Chris, for being a great ‘boss’ and a democratic and an egalitarian one to me at Warwick.     


Importantly, Chris has made a significant contribution to adult education not only in the UK but also in Europe and worldwide.


Barbara Merrill, Emeritus Professor, Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Warwick, UK.

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