Story: Adult education

Originating with mechanics’ institutes and mutual improvement societies in the 19th century, adult education boomed in the 1970s, but funding cuts later meant classes were reduced and student numbers fell.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: First World War soldiers at a literary appreciation class

Story summary

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In traditional Māori society, adults learnt on the marae by listening to or taking part in oratory. Some attended the whare wānanga (house of learning).

In the 19th century European settlers set up mechanics’ institutes, which offered classes, lectures and libraries for working men. Mutual improvement societies, often connected with churches, were groups of people who met to discuss essays and ideas. Women’s organisations like the Women’s Social and Political League of Wellington promoted social and political learning for women. Technical schools, which offered adult evening classes, were set up from the 1880s.

1915 to 1940s

The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), which originated in Britain, was set up in New Zealand in 1915. It became the main provider of adult education, promoting learning for working women and men. Most tutors were university lecturers.

The government established the Council of Adult Education in 1938. That year the Feilding Community Centre opened, teaching adults subjects such as art, literature and psychology.

Classes were offered to servicemen in both world wars, to help them reintegrate into society.

1940s to 1970s

From 1947 the National Council of Adult Education oversaw adult education classes co-ordinated by universities. The Community Arts Service toured artists and exhibitions to rural areas. Many people took non-work-related courses for personal enjoyment, on subjects such as cooking and woodwork.

Adult education boomed in the 1970s. Adults were able to attend daytime classes at schools, and Radio New Zealand broadcast adult education programmes. Large numbers of students continued to attend WEA courses.

New programmes provided reading assistance to adults and taught English as a second language. Te Ataarangi was a programme teaching adults the Māori language.

1980s onwards

From the late 1970s cuts to government spending meant that many adult education providers had to cut classes or increase fees. There were more cuts to adult education funding in 2009, and numbers of evening and weekend class students fell from 153,746 in 2009 to 22,503 in 2013. New providers of adult education included the University of the Third Age, which offered classes to retired people.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Adult education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 June 2012