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Adult education

by Kerryn Pollock

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.

Beginnings of adult education, 19th century

Adult education is a process by which adults make a deliberate effort to learn, either on their own or in groups. It is often seen as a second chance for adults, allowing them to gain skills they missed out on during their schooling. Courses are offered by a range of providers, from community organisations to universities. They may be formal and lead to qualifications, or be informal and done for personal enrichment and enjoyment.

What is adult education?

The Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning defines adult education as ‘the entire body of ongoing learning processes, formal or otherwise, whereby people regarded as adults by the society to which they belong develop their abilities, enrich their knowledge, and improve their technical or professional qualifications or turn them in a new direction to meet their own needs and those of their society.’1

Māori learning

In traditional Māori societies the type of adult learning varied depending on social status and gender. For men of chiefly status, lifelong learning through the whare wānanga (house of learning) was of great importance. Adults also learned on the marae by participating in or listening to oratory. After European missionaries settled in New Zealand in the early 19th century Māori adults were taught to read and write and learned new agricultural techniques.

Mechanics’ institutes

Adult education was available from the earliest days of European settlement, at least to those who lived in the fledgling new towns. Mechanics’ institutes (founded in Britain in the 1820s as adult education establishments for skilled working men) were open in Auckland, Nelson and Wellington by 1842 and there were over 100 throughout the country by the mid-19th century.

In New Zealand, mechanics’ institutes offered a broad range of classes and lectures, as well as libraries and reading rooms. The libraries were the most popular part of the institutes and by the 1860s most had stopped offering courses. After 1869 public libraries received government funding, which encouraged mechanics’ institutes to evolve into libraries.

Mutual improvement societies

Mutual improvement societies were groups of people who met to discuss essays written by members. They emerged when mechanics’ institutes stopped running classes. Most were connected with churches, and meetings were held there. Religious groups like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YWCA) had an education component.

Some mutual improvement societies were secular groups whose members discussed topics frowned upon by churchmen, such as spiritualism and socialism. Members of debating societies argued over the important questions of the day, in doing so learning the techniques of formal argument.

James Hector, public lecturer

James Hector, the leading government scientist of the 19th century, was a great giver of public lectures. People paid to attend these lectures in the expectation of learning something new. Hector also spoke at mechanics’ institutes and YMCAs.

Women participated in these groups, but not to any great extent. Women’s organisations like the Women’s Social and Political League of Wellington (founded in 1894), which promoted women’s social and political education, provided better learning opportunities. Women were also at the forefront of temperance (anti-alcohol) groups. Participation in this movement spurred women to expand their reading and take part in group discussions and public speaking.

Technical education

Technical schools, the precursor to institutes of technology, started in the 1880s. The first was the Wellington School of Design in 1886. This institution was initially geared towards teachers but also provided other adults with evening tuition in various subjects. Later technical institutes were similarly focused.


Further developments, 1915 to 1940s

Workers’ Educational Association

In 1915 the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) was founded in New Zealand and became the major provider of adult education in the country.

WEA, devoted to promoting higher education among working women and men, started in Britain in the late 19th century, and focused on individual self-improvement for working people. A typical course involved up to 30 students taking 24 classes, each of which entailed a lecture followed by a group discussion. Unlike earlier adult education initiatives, WEA catered equally for women students.

Most tutors were university lecturers, and university colleges formally supported WEA branches through regular grants. From 1919 the government made a direct annual grant. By 1930 there were 224 classes and 7,355 students. Classes were held in main centres, small towns and rural districts.

New Education Fellowship conference

The New Education Fellowship was an international organisation that promoted equal access to educational opportunities and new learning philosophies. In 1937 a New Education Fellowship conference was held in New Zealand and adult education was a major theme.

Government support

The first Labour government set up the Council of Adult Education (CAE) in 1938 to co-ordinate all strands of adult education and advise the government on funding requirements. University colleges were directed to spend adult education funds as required by the CAE. The CAE had no staff and the registrar of the University of New Zealand acted as secretary.

Community education

That same year, the Feilding Community Centre, a pioneering adult education institution and the country’s first rural community centre, opened in the Manawatū town at the instigation of Feilding Agricultural High School principal Leonard Wild. It was funded by the Department of Education and attached to the school.

Gwen and Crawford Somerset were the first directors (1938-47) and offered subjects such as literature, art, psychology and physical education. They began their adult education career at Oxford East District High School in Canterbury in the 1920s and went on a study tour of European adult education institutions in the following decade.

Keeping tabs

In addition to teaching, Gwen and Crawford Somerset gave a regular series of evening lectures during their tenure at the Feilding Community Centre. Subjects included Hitler and fascism, war, capitalism, communism and religion. Some of these topics were hard for the more conservative residents of the town to swallow. The mayor’s mother is said to have paid regular visits to the centre to ‘find out what they are hatching down there’.1

Army adult education

During the First World War soldiers attended Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) lectures and classes, which were designed to help them integrate back into civilian life after the war. Similar programmes were run during the Second World War. A special unit, the Army Educational and Welfare Service, was established in 1942 to run training courses and library services. The service published regular bulletins on all manner of topics. The navy and air force offered comparable programmes.

    • Quoted in B.L. Evans, ed., Golden jubilee of the Feilding Community Centre, 1938–1988. Feilding: Feilding Community Centre Golden Jubilee Committee, 1988, p. 19. Back

Growth of adult education, 1940s to 1970s

National Council of Adult Education

In 1947 the government passed the Adult Education Act, the first stand-alone piece of legislation dealing with adult education. The Council of Adult Education (CAE) was replaced by the National Council of Adult Education (NCAE). Under its direction, university colleges set up regional adult education councils which employed directors and tutors. They were sent to areas that had never had adult education services before, such as Whangārei and Invercargill. The council also funded the Community Arts Service, which organised tours of performing artists and exhibitions in rural areas. By 1955 there were just under 1,500 classes and discussion groups overseen by the NCAE.

Non-vocational classes

In the 1950s a significant number of adult education students were taking non-vocational classes out of personal interest in subjects like cooking and woodworking. Schools also offered an increasing array of evening classes.


From 1963 universities were no longer required to have regional councils and were free to deliver adult education as they wanted. The programmes were referred to as university extension or continuing education rather than adult education, highlighting the fact that they were based on university subjects.

1970s boom

Adult education expanded in the 1970s. The decade opened with the establishment of the the Committee on Lifelong Education, sponsored by the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO. From 1974 adults could attend daytime classes at secondary schools, and the following year Radio New Zealand created its Continuing Education Unit to air adult education programmes. Both these initiatives were recommended by the committee. It also supported the creation of Hawke’s Bay Community College in 1975. Community colleges offered vocational and non-vocational classes.

Students continued to sign up to Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) courses in droves – by the late 1970s there were over 17,000 enrolments. The WEA book discussion scheme, in which books were distributed throughout the country to book groups, started in 1973.

In 1979 the Rural Education Activities Programme (REAP) began. This was aimed at smaller rural communities without existing adult education programmes and also provided support and resources for rural education in general.

Internationally, there was growing awareness that adult education was not reaching the most educationally disadvantaged. The NCAE appointed Māori and Pacific liaison officers and an adult reading assistance programme was instituted. This work was strengthened by the establishment of the Pasifika Education Centre in 1975, and Te Ataarangi, an adult education provider teaching the Māori language, in 1979. English as a Second Language (ESOL) tuition also began in the 1970s.

In 1974 the Association of New Zealand Community Education (now ACE Aotearoa) was formed to represent non-formal adult education providers.

Challenging times, 1980s to 2010s


The oil price shocks of the late 1970s forced the government to reduce spending in many areas including adult education, an area in which Minister of Education Merv Wellington had little interest. Initially threatened with abolition, the National Council of Adult Education (NCAE) had its annual budget slashed by almost two-thirds and became ineffective. It was put into recess in 1986 and disestablished in 1990.

Meanwhile, in 1988 the minister of education set up a new body called the Committee for Independent Learning Aotearoa/New Zealand (renamed Community Learning Aotearoa/New Zealand or CLANZ in 1989) to advise the government and distribute funds to community adult education groups. CLANZ could not employ staff and was not well-funded. It lost its advisory powers under the National government elected in 1990.

Adult education funding was slashed in the 1991 government budget. The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), along with some other adult education providers, lost all government funding over the following two years. It continued to offer classes but at a much-reduced level. Throughout the 1990s very little government policy on adult education was produced and its profile was low.

University of the Third Age

The University of the Third Age is an international organisation that promotes education and mental stimulation for retired people. The first New Zealand branch started in 1989. Members attend lectures and study groups.


Adult education was placed back on the government’s agenda in the 2000s when the incoming Labour government (elected in 1999) included adult education in its pre-election policy. The government set up a working party on adult education, whose report guided policy on the sector, and an adult literacy strategy was released. Adult education came under the ambit of the Tertiary Education Commission (founded in 2003), which planned and funded tertiary education. CLANZ was administered by the commission but applications to it for funds declined and it was wound up around 2007.

Social benefits

Funding cuts were announced to non-vocational adult education courses in 2009. Glenfield College principal Ted Benton commented that for people who attend courses, ‘it’s the highlight of their week. It’s not the macramé they look forward to, it’s the social contact – it must save a small fortune on the health budget. Whether it’s belly dancing or yoga or Thai cooking these courses enable people to get out of the house and do something in the community.’1

More cuts

In 2009 the National government announced significant funding cuts to evening and weekend adult education classes at schools. Remaining funding was directed away from non-vocational classes like cooking towards literacy and numeracy classes delivered by schools and community providers, and foundation courses delivered by institutes of technology and wānanga to prepare students for tertiary study. Non-vocational courses continued but providers had to charge higher fees. Enrolments dropped and many schools closed their adult education programmes. Community providers that received no direct government funding relied on grants or funds provided by other government departments. The number of evening and weekend class students dropped from 153,746 in 2009 to 22,503 in 2013.

New approaches

New adult education services less reliant on public funding emerged in the 2010s. Wellington-based Chalkle (founded in 2012) connected teachers and learners through a website. Teachers set their own fees and classes were held in all sorts of venues, including libraries, community halls, offices and cafés.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Adult education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 20 June 2012