Time to give adult education a boost

By Jim Silver

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press October 26, 2023

INVESTING in adult education should be a cornerstone of the new Manitoba government’s approach to supporting people who want to work. In his speech on election night, Premier Kinew was emphatic in his commitment to supporting people who want to move into the paid labour force. Adult education is an effective and relatively inexpensive way of doing that.

Unfortunately, Manitoba’s adult education system has been seriously underfunded for years. Total expenditures for Adult Learning Centres (ALCs) that offer mature high school programs, and Adult Literacy Programs (ALPs) that work to improve literacy and numeracy skills to a level sufficient to succeed in high school, have declined in real terms by 23 per cent since 2016. Two respondents to the survey undertaken for a study soon to be published said “our funding is barebones,” and adult basic education has been “stripped to the bone in terms of funding.”

Enhanced investment in adult education will produce benefits with respect to poverty, reconciliation and labour supply.

Manitoba has especially high poverty rates, including the highest child poverty rate of any province. Poverty produces enormous costs in worsened health and educational outcomes, for example.

Adult basic education is proven to be an effective anti-poverty strategy because it enables people to enter the paid labour force. There is also lots of evidence that when mom or dad is doing adult education, their kids are likely to do better in school, thus breaking the cycle of poverty.

Reconciliation is especially important in Manitoba, and education — especially adult education — is an important part of reconciliation, since Indigenous adults participate in adult education at a rate of about two and a half times their share of the population. They do so because they want to work. Adult education makes that possible.

Like much of Canada, Manitoba has a labour supply problem. Workers are desperately needed in all aspects of health care, child care and many local businesses.

Adult education can play an important role in resolving this labour shortage problem since adults who earn a high school diploma are much more likely to be employable.

Many adults currently on Employment and Income Assistance want to improve their education but are thwarted by a “work first” policy that pushes them into the paid labour force even when they want to improve and are capable of improving their education.

This should be changed to an “education first” policy, by which EIA continues to support adults while they are in school. This will enable them to break out of the dependence on social assistance that traps people in poverty.

Years of austerity have damaged adult education. Two studies published in 2022 and a third to be published early next year involved interviews with most directors of adult education programs in all parts of the province.

The findings in all three studies are consistent. Austerity has reduced staffing levels, increased workloads and hours, reduced the number of classes offered, necessitated class sizes much larger than what is best for adult learners, and has left a large, unmet demand for adult education.

The number enrolled in and graduating from ALCs and ALPs has declined by roughly 25 per cent in the past two decades. The number of ALPs has declined by about 30 per cent since 2009/10, even though a 2013/14 study found that there were approximately 192,600 adults in Manitoba with literacy levels so low they could not fully function in society.

The NDP campaigned on reversing the cuts to adult education. That’s a start, but better still — let’s build the best adult education system in Canada.

Instead of long lineups to get into adult education programs, we could have thousands of adults graduating year after year with the skills needed to obtain decent, well-paid jobs that would pull them and their families out of poverty and change them from social assistance recipients to taxpayers. Doubling the annual adult education budget of $20 million is relatively easy to do in an annual provincial budget of some $20 billion. It would be transformative, providing benefits to Manitoba for decades to come.

We would all benefit if the new provincial government were to include in their first Speech from the Throne and their first provincial budget a commitment to doubling their annual investment in adult education. What a wonderful start that would be — for all of us.

Jim Silver is a professor emeritus at the University of Winnipeg and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba.