Our occasional columnist and councillor contemplates Manchester's growing need for education to adapt

The universities of Manchester are some of the finest educational institutions in the world, but they need to move with the times and start to offer evening postgraduate courses or they risk failing to meet the demands of our rapidly changing economy. 

The opening of Manchester’s Mechanics Institute was a significant turning point in the working class struggle for education and we need to think as radically as our ancestors. 

As applicable to today as it ever was, the original prospectus stated the institute would ‘enable mechanics and artisans, of whatever trade they may be, to become acquitted with such branches of science as are of practical application in the exercise of that trade.’

Many courses are almost exclusively held during working hours, Monday to Friday, excluding the majority of the population

The need for such a venture was a significant point in our history. While we were considered peasants, the variation in the amount we could produce, and what we could produce for that matter, varied little and because of that the need for good quality education too was small.  

When machines came to the fore, the sheer volumes of goods that a worker could churn out meant that the value of the skills that individual possessed had grown exponentially. The Industrial Revolution required workers to use their minds in ever greater proportion to their brawn and that the skills required to keep your job changed throughout your life. The thirst for education boomed and any increased provision was a veritable boon on the economy. 

2019 05 29 Uni Landscaping The Tradition Quadrangle Of The University
University of Manchester

The University of Manchester (UoM) is the successor of the institute following John Reynold’s shake up to create UMIST and the amalgamation with Manchester Victoria in 2004. Although UoM is one of our great institutions, and one of the best universities in Europe, many courses are almost exclusively held during working hours, Monday to Friday, excluding the majority of the population. Manchester Metropolitan, which is a leader in many areas that would attract mid-career workers such as digital skills and teaching, offers a similar structure.

As Manchester’s job market becomes more knowledge intensive and creative, the need to access postgraduate education too is becoming greater but unless you have inherited wealth, or somebody to go to for the cash, most can’t afford to take the time off to attend the course and study. 

MOOCs (online only courses) are growing, but are no substitute for traditional university education and the connections and friendships you form there - they are often as essential to your success as degree you obtain. University is more than a course. 

This problem will only become more acute as we delve deeper in to the fourth industrial revolution, as machines begin to think and learn things we thought unique to our humanity. 

30 06 2019 Study University Manchester
Graduates outside of Whitworth Hall

We are constantly being bombarded by doomsday predictions that machines will soon be taking our jobs; automation revolutionising the workplace to the detriment of humans.  

Science was the concern of the first Industrial Revolution; creativity will be central to the fourth. 

Faced with this we can do one of two things: become Luddites, smash up the machines and start to tax anything that may appear to do something human; or we can choose to broaden our skill sets, prepare to educate ourselves and re-skill in the new emerging industries.

What is more is that new educational institutions will help keep workers here in Manchester, which we need to feed the swelling creative industries of our conurbation. Of those from Manchester, who take up undergraduate courses in Manchester, 40% of those end up working here in Manchester. It’s money well invested. 

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Manchester Metropolitan University

The success of such a venture would surely be bolstered by the ever-increasing number of city centre dwellers, the direction the jobs market is taking and the potential to import highly-skilled workers in greater volumes after Brexit. 

London, of course, already has an evening university. Birkbeck is the successor of London’s Mechanics Institute but still to this day offers its courses to workers by running them in the evening. 

The humongous and impressive population of London has allowed Birkbeck to retain its original purpose of providing quality education to those in work. Even its motto ‘advice comes overnight’ and its trade union links have been preserved - you get a discount for being a trade union member. 

This is no criticism of my old stomping ground (UoM). Manchester simply will not have the sheer volume of numbers that will be required for the establishment of a stand alone evening university; 13,000 students attended Birkbeck last year, we just wouldn’t realise the same demand. 

U30 06 2019 Study University Manchester Night
University at night

But if the soothsayers are correct, and the machines are going to learn our trades, we need to enable workers to acquire broader knowledge to ensure they are not left unemployed. This view was also taken by the Mechanics Institute back then, its prospects also stated:

‘It is not intended to teach the trade of the Machine-maker, the Dyer, the Carpenter, the Mason, or any other particular business, but there is no art which does not depend, more or less, on scientific principles, and to teach what these are, and to point out their practical application, will form the chief object of this Institution.’

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We need to enable workers to acquire broader knowledge to ensure they are not left unemployed

I think our politicians need to act and encourage our universities to reform their postgraduate courses to offer some modules in the evening, enabling workers to afford the tuition and attend the course. 

This would be a huge relief from the current system which requires somebody to give up most types of employment to attend, in the meantime forcing them to add to the already tremendous debt pile they will have racked up as an undergraduate.

John Blundell is a Labour councillor for Smallbridge and Firgrove, and the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Business, Skills & Employment on Rochdale Council.