November 21, 2022, by Kathryn Steenson

Experiencing Adult Education at Nottingham

This is a guest post by Mark Gilman, Professor of Economics at the University of Derby.

Knowledge, Power and Class are words close to my heart. As a working-class lad who left school on a Friday in June 1976 and started work on the Monday, with little formal qualification, education left me feeling as though I was cannon fodder, feeding the huge industrial factories (Boots, John Players, Raleigh, etc) of Nottingham. I soon began to feel as though I was as much a cog in the machinery at work as I was at school.

My outlet for my intrigue into why this was accepted as the norm was the trade union movement – and I wanted to do something about it. The more I played an active role the more I became intrigued, and it drove my thirst for knowledge. This I only know with hindsight! In reality, I was scrambling about in the dark, in thick mud trying to find out what it all meant and whether there was a way forward.

Ken Coates editing Clarion magazine

Ken Coates editing the National Association of Labour Students’ Organizations magazine, ‘Clarion’
Ref: MS 958

I continued, through the Trade Union movement, to attend short workshops/courses. The real light at the end of the tunnel at this stage was Ken Coates who alerted me to Adult Education and in particular the Department at the University. I found out about the Diploma in Industrial Relations and Economics and set about assessing how the hell I could do this as it was one afternoon/evening a week and I was in an 8 till 5 job. Remember these were the good old days before people in working class jobs were allowed time off for development unless it was directly to do with their job. Anyway, as a senior shop steward I approached the company for support. The answer was point blank no. They would not give me the time off never mind pay me for it. Several negotiations later I managed to get some time but no paid leave, but I was determined and enthusiastic to say the least. I was not given enough time off to travel and get there for the 2.00 start. So, I had to work up to the last minute, strip off my overalls and run like hell to cover the distance from Boots, Beeston to the university campus – always arriving 15 minutes late. I enjoyed every single minute of the two years the diploma took to complete and met some great people. I read papers, articles, chapters – some of which seemed so technical I struggled to understand them, but I persevered, and I absorbed it all!

Taking me on this journey were Derek Cox and Brian Towers, who engaged my enthusiasm and helped steer me through it, for which I will be eternally grateful. One day over a pint they raised the fact they realised that I really enjoyed the course and said that I should think about doing a degree. I didn’t really understand what that entailed but had recently watched Educating Rita and immediately thought I want some of that! Hold on a minute though don’t you need qualifications to do a degree?!

Photograph of the Trent Building and Portland Building, University of Nottingham, 1960s, with Highfields Park lake in front.

Photograph of the Trent Building and Portland Building, University of Nottingham, 1960s, with Highfields Park lake in front.

‘Don’t let that get in the way yet’ said Derek and Brian. So, I set out to find out what degrees were available. I really wanted to carry on with Industrial Relations and Economics. Only three Universities did such a degree: Cardiff, LSE and Leeds. I decided for a whole host of reasons, not to mention to do with having a young family, that Leeds was probably the most feasible. But still the problem of no qualifications. Brian and Derek to the rescue. They organised an interview with the head of Department at Leeds, having given a good reference of my ability/suitability which was accepted as mature matriculation. I came out of the meeting being accepted for a position on the degree on the proviso that I obtained an O level in Maths. So off I went to night school again to complete my Maths O level. The next year I upped sticks, family and all, and began my degree in Leeds….and the rest is History, as they say.

I remember my first day at Leeds when on registering the lady said to me “are you undergraduate or postgraduate”. “I don’t even know what that means” was my reply: talk about a complete lack of knowledge and understanding! It was a cultural jump that I could never have envisaged: I was working class through and through and didn’t even understand the higher education system! But an Honours degree and a Masters and Phd at Warwick Business School later I was offered my first job in Academia. What a journey! Much of it a blur as in reality for much of the time I didn’t have a clue where the journey was taking me. But none the less a journey which I now see more clearly as each growth in my knowledge gave me the freedom to work out the next part of the journey. Without Adult education and the support of the trade union movement none of this would have been at all possible. I honestly don’t believe that either Ken, Brian (both no longer with us) and Derek knew what a huge role they played in my personal growth. Knowledge is power and I would have been powerless if not for their support. I don’t take it for granted and every day of my life I learn and embrace something new, and I strive to pass this on to others. All thanks to the Adult Education Department at Nottingham University.

‘Knowledge is Power: Class, Community and Adult Education’ runs at Lakeside Arts until 12 February 2023. For more information, including opening times and details of the programme of events, please see our website

Posted in Guest blogs