Ian Davidson

"Space, Place and Subversion in University Adult and Continuing Education."

The International Journal of Urban Labour and Leisure, 2(2) <http://www.ijull.co.uk/vol2/2/000015.htm>

ISSN: 1465-1270


Ezra Pound said, ‘Literature does not exist in a vacuum’ (Pound 1934). The same is true of university adult and continuing education. Its form and function will be affected by social changes, the ways in which the functions of society are perceived and representations of society are formed. The relationship between university adult and continuing education and other relevant policy has been well defined in Wales (see Francis and Humphreys 1999 Instance and Rees 1995). I am going to concentrate on theoretical work which seeks to foreground the role of space within global and local social systems. Located within the discourse of globalisation and in the context of developments in information and communication technology, examples of increasing spatialisation include the movement of international capital, the increased development of abstract systems with no visible location (insurance companies, banking etc), the international supermarket chain as against the corner shop, and geographically dislocated monitoring and surveillance systems.

In the first part I am going to present some ideas of social space from the work of Michel Foucault, Michel de Certeau, Frederic Jameson and Henri Lefevre. I am then going to put their ideas alongside most recent developments in university adult and continuing education. The process is not one of suggesting absolute parallels, rather I will be using one set of ideas to illuminate the other. My method is influenced by Walter Benjamin who stated ‘History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled with the now’. (Benjamin 1970: 264)

This echoes Lefebvre’s view of space as a social product. He argues that rather than space being a priori, a vacuum waiting to be filled, it is produced through social action.

(Social) space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather it subsumes things produced and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity - their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder (Lefebvre 1991: 73).

I am not, therefore, mustering ‘a mass of data to fill homogeneous empty time’ but using ‘a constructive principle (in which) thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tension...’ (Benjamin 1970 p 265). From the ‘tension’ of coexistence and simultaneity will arise, I hope, ideas about the way in which developments in university adult and continuing education are connected to the spatialisation of other social forms.

Anthony Giddens in Consequences of Modernity makes an important distinction between ‘space’ and ‘place’.

Place is best conceptualised by means of the idea of locale, which refers to the physical settings of social activity as situated geographically. In pre-modern societies space and place largely coincide, since the spatial dimensions of social life are, for most of the population, ... dominated by ‘presence’ - by localised activities. The advent of modernity increasingly tears space away from place by fostering relationships between absent ‘others’, locationally distant from any given situation of face to face interaction. (Giddens 1991: 18).

These ideas are reinforced and developed by Lefebvre and Jameson; space is related to surface and synchronicity (it is a historical), while place is related to time (tradition) and implies a teleological relationship between the past and the present. Giddens develops this relationship between space and place through an analysis of tradition and its role in premodern society (local), and the role of the expert in (post)modern society (spatial). He seeks to reconcile the two concepts through the notion of re-embedding traditions within the context of a modern society whose ‘reflexivity ... consists in the fact that social practices are constantly examined and reformed in the light of information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character’ (Giddens 1991:38). The ideas of the past reappear within the context of the present, yet simple appeals to tradition (but we have always done it that way) are no longer adequate, such appeals must be reinforced by a mass of information about current practices. In the second part of this paper I want to claim that the mainstreaming of university adult and continuing education, represents a shift from the foregrounding of place to that of space.

In Discipline and Punish Michel Foucault distinguishes between sovereign and disciplinary power in the change from a pre-modern to a modern society. Clearly related to the difference between space and place, Foucault describes sovereign (pre-modern) power as descending from the heights to the depths and outwards from the centre to the margins. Within this system the degree to which the individual is recognised is ‘ascending’, the higher up the chain of command the ‘more one possesses power or privilege, the more one is marked as an individual, by rituals written accounts or visual reproductions’ (Foucault 1991:192). Within a disciplinary (modern) regime however:

Individualisation is ‘descending’: as power becomes more anonymous and more functional, those on whom it is exercised tend to be more strongly individualised; it is exercised by surveillance rather than ceremonies, by observation rather than commemorative accounts, by comparative measures that have the ‘norm’ as reference rather than genealogies giving ancestors as points of reference; by gaps rather than deeds. (Foucault 1991:193)

In any study of the development of the educational system, and university adult and continuing education in particular, this distinction is fascinating. It is made so by the intense modernity exhibited by recent structures of mainstreamed continuing education, fuelled by developments in communication and information technology, yet which exist within traditional universities wedded to ceremony and ritual.

Frederic Jameson’s concerns are primarily aesthetic rather than social and concerned with the problem of representation. In Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism he develops the notion of cognitive mapping which ‘require(s) the co-ordination of existential data ... with an unlived abstract conception of the geographic totality’ (Jameson 1991:52). His concern is that within a society in which ‘the newer allegory is horizontal rather than vertical’ (Jameson 1991:168) individuals or social groups are no longer able to produce adequate representations of themselves. For every map which is produced there is an infinite number of other maps ‘a coexistence not even of multiple and plural worlds so much as of unrelated fuzzy sets and semi-autonomous subsystems whose overlap is perceptually maintained like hallucinogenic depth planes’ (Jameson 1991:372). Jameson takes the concept of the global postmodern subject, fragmented and decentred as they are normally represented, and provides, through cognitive mapping, a method of representation. If adult and continuing education, along with other social systems and institutions, has become more fragmented and relational, as I shall later argue, then this idea of cognitive mapping might provide the means by which the individual student can position themselves within the system and reconcile that position with the other ‘maps’ of home life and work, let alone those of gender, race and nationality, within which they must somehow coexist.

I want to end this brief section with reference to two of the ideas of Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life. The first is the study of the marginal, that which sits outside those social activities reducible to statistical data. He makes a detailed case for the theoretical consideration of that which does not fit into the proper place of academic study. He uses the notion of the ‘consumer’ to illustrate this and rather than choosing to study patterns of consumption he creates the term ‘users’ in order to illustrate his interest in the way in which consumed objects are ultimately used, whatever the assumed intention. He sees users as ‘poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality ... (following) indirect trajectories obeying their own logic’. (de Certeau 1984:128)

The second (related) idea is the distinction he makes between tactics and strategies in seeking to locate sources of social power and control. He makes the distinction as follows:

I call a ‘strategy’ the calculus of force relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution [a university]) can be isolated from an environment. A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serves as the basis for generating relationships distinct from it ... Political, economic and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model.

I call a ‘tactic’, on the other hand, a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’, (a spatial or institutional localisation), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other. A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place fragmentarily, without taking over its entirety. (de Certeau 1984:xix)

De Certeau claims that, through tactical manoeuvres, users can subvert dominant discourses and intended meanings and functions. This is a useful distinction for those engaged in university adult and continuing education. In terms of the institution, the ‘other’ is both the adult educator and the student. Tactical manoeuvres have long been the stock in trade of both. In the shift from extra mural to continuing education and lifelong learning, adult educationalists are being asked to change from a tactical (subversive) mode of operation to a strategic one which takes forward both the agenda of the institution and a national agenda. Yet a twist to the tale (tail) is that a consequence of the shift in power operations in adult education from the tactical to the strategic has meant that in many cases institutions have relocated power from designated centres of adult and continuing education into its administrative heart.

Recent developments in university adult and continuing education can be mapped against the above concepts. In order to illustrate this I will be using broad terms and making sweeping generalisations. I want to refer principally to the process generally called ‘mainstreaming’, a term I first came across in official documentation around 1992, and which describes the process whereby all courses offered by a university, including part time and off campus, become part of its qualifications structure, its mainstream activity. The Higher Education Funding Council, which drove the process of change via its funding mechanisms reinforced through quality assurance, and justified it as part of the process of widening participation in higher education. At its most extreme this involved extra mural or similar departments in ‘accrediting’ their short course programme and wrapping them up in higher education qualifications (Certificates, Diplomas, Degrees). Such changes were made technically possible by the more or less general acceptance amongst higher education of modularised courses within a system of credit accumulation and transfer, both of which were developed within the general discourse of equality of opportunity and subsequent widening of participation through increased flexibility. Through this process ‘extra-mural’ courses, the provision of general interest and mainly non-accredited courses to the general public, became part-time higher education, part of the overall curriculum offer of the institution.

One tradition of extra-mural provision was the local class system. Classes were often named after the geographical area in which they were located. They were self-sufficient, operated via a kind of democracy and their relationship with the local extra mural department would be that they would ‘invite’ a lecturer on a particular topic. They identified with a place and claimed to draw on the traditions of that place. The source of authority was local, any comparison with the provision offered by the home institution was often coincidental rather than structural or systematic. The mainstreaming of such provision through a process of accreditation altered the relationships between the class and the institution. The course now becomes part of the university provision, the class members part-time students. The overall extra-mural programme, rather than being described as a number of geographical classes is described as a number of qualification routes. Control of the curriculum moves from the class to the university, which validates it against the ‘norm’. In order to monitor the progress of class members, now turned part-time students, a range of administrative systems come into play. The site of the learning might still be in the community but it is linked to the centre by the umbilical cord of administration and quality assurance. Through a process of moderation or external examination student progress is measured against the norm. To combine Foucault and Giddens sovereign power and tradition in the place of learning is replaced by disciplinary power and abstract systems which seek to monitor the activity of a spatialised provision. In Lefebvre’s terms it is the colonisation of the concrete space of everyday life, a space which is framed by the economy and the state yet which also contains intensely local experiences and memories, by abstract space, the space of expert (abstract) systems of commodification and bureaucratisation. Yet, contradictorily, it is precisely through the administrative processes of collecting information on students and classes, monitoring the progress of students and tutors and the general paraphernalia of quality assurance that an institution can operate reflexively, can use the flow of information to alter the nature of its provision.

This, educationally, relatively straightforward process, throws up another whole mass of contradictions. Through taking part in qualification bearing courses students are given standing within the educational system. They are able to carve out their own space, to create their own pathways; they become consumers and are empowered as such. Yet in order to do this they must hand over authority to abstract experts, the expertise of the higher education system. On the other hand if students do not become part of the mainstream system, if they are retained within their communities taking courses designed for them alone, then it could be claimed that they are being retained within their marginalisation, a kind of ghettoisation, from which the university remains only a distant possibility and for which it takes little responsibility.

Traditional higher education is primarily full time and involves students taking linear courses delivered face to face in a particular location (normally redolent with tradition, ivy hanging off the walls, oak panelled lecture room, plaques and portraits watching over you). The mainstreaming of continuing education has opened up the possibility for the development of a (normally) modularised and credit based system in which credits can be accumulated towards a qualification over a period of time to (as the rhetoric goes) suit the students, at a range of locations and through different modes of study. Such a change can be easily located within a general trend of commodification of all social services and empowerment of the individual consumer, and within higher education has been established for some time through the work of the Open University and others. The service becomes more synchronic, varieties of modules at different levels are offered, there are a range of choices not only of subjects but also modes of study and entry and exit points. Modules might well be offered by a number of different providers. Whereby within traditional linear courses the structure and the options could often be outlined on the back of an envelope the more flexible course becomes difficult to represent, increasingly abstract. Coherence arises not from the development of highly determined course structures but from the individual student and their relationship to the different elements of their programme. While the problem is only one facet of Jameson’s fragmented subject seeking to co-ordinate themselves within global abstract systems, there are parallels.

The primary form of representation of space is the map, a synchronic surface. And indeed where regional developments (the University of Derby, the Community University of North Wales and others) are seeking to develop systems of more flexible higher education linking diverse provision, then a mapping process is often the starting point. There will be tensions. As Derek Gregory states in Geographical Imaginations, mapping is ‘necessarily situated, embodied, partial: like all other practices of representation’ (Gregory 1994: 7). Different providers will want to highlight different areas of the map - does it start at postgraduate and work down or basic skills and work up, does the first degree sit in the centre or on the margin. Students will always push at the borders of the map and subvert the official routes it signifies, asking awkward questions about credit transfer and entry qualifications. As users of the system they will adopt a variety of tactics. They will also get lost, not necessarily a negative process but one with potential creativity according to Benjamin who says ‘But to lose one’s way in a city ... requires practice ... it fulfilled the dreams whose first traces were the labyrinths on the blotters of my exercise book’ and ‘To understand something is to know how to chart it. And to know how to get lost’ (Benjamin 1985). De Certeau, in describing the users of urban space, refers to ‘walkers ... whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban text ... make use of spaces that cannot be seen’ (de Certeau 1984).

While the map might, therefore, indicate a service which is ‘functionalist and rational’, the users of the system will adopt a variety of ways of progressing through it. The learning process of the individual is imperfectly circumscribed by the qualification at the end (and a qualification is never more than a description of the quantity and level of learning which is negotiable either within the job market or within a hierarchy of status). The learning process is creative and constructive, it changes the ways in which individuals perceive themselves and the world around them, a process in which things explain each other through their relationships. The self-reflexivity of the learning process, the way in which they will use the ongoing accumulation of knowledge and development of understanding to inform future decisions within their own educational process, will mean that students will be unable to map out the totality of their journey from the starting point but will take short cuts, fast tracks and meander down minor roads and arrive at destinations it would be impossible to predetermine. The administrative totality of the educational service as represented by the map can never be more than a guide which describes one level of activity and through which each student positions themselves and traces their progress.

The spatialisation of educational provision is deeply individualising. In Foucault’s terms individualisation is descending, it spreads out to the furthest margins. It assumes an empowerment of the student in their ability to map out their own routes through the system. Within adult and continuing education a counter tactic has been the development of ‘community education’, a service which seeks to draw on the interests, needs and desires of specific groups within communities, to locate the learning within the community under their own authority and (often) to develop a curriculum in conjunction with that group. Such provision is often targeted at those communities or groups within them who are least likely, or for practical reasons, unable to attend other types of learning. This process seeks to counter a spatialised and normalised provision, operating outside processes of monitoring and citing as its authority the site of learning and the people within it rather than the institution. Within the discourse the needs and desires of local communities are paramount. Such provision can, with some tactical manoeuvring, fit onto the functional and rationalist map yet this may often distort its principle aim of the development of a specific locale.

The current phrasing of ‘social inclusion’ and its counterpart ‘social exclusion’ suggests there is a social norm which certain communities or groups are not part of and the discourse of community education expresses this both implicitly and explicitly. Yet it is precisely from these intensely local developments, outside the ‘proper’ place and distanced from the normalising tendencies of large institutions that the ‘socially excluded’ often become involved in learning. In Lefebvre’s terms it provides a concrete space in which it is possible ‘to conceive everyday life in such a way as to retrieve it from its modern state of colonisation by the commodity form’ (Gregory 1994:402).

Spatialisation contains within it the potential to disturb and excite. People lose not only their ethical bearings but also their physical ones as historical markers disappear. If universities are becoming more like service stations (Duke 1992), where individuals pop in to refuel before continuing the next phase of their life, then the globalisation of other retail outlets will be reflected in university adult and continuing education, the shift from the local corner shop to the international supermarket chain the internet and the teleburean. The saviour of adult and continuing education may well be its insistent ability to reinvent itself, to celebrate the local yet resist location, to operate both strategically and tactically. Jameson’s ‘fuzzy subsets’ are embodied in the social and individual heterogenous student population in the creation of their own spaces in which they can put their learning to a variety of uses and subvert the normalising processes of disciplinary power.


Benjamin, W. (1970) Illuminations, London, Jonathon Cape.

de Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life, London, University of California Press.

Duke, C. (1992) The Learning University, Buckingham, Open University Press.

Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and Punish, London, Penguin.

Francis and Humphreys (1999) Citizenship: a NIACE Cymru discussion paper.

Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity, Oxford, Polity Press.

Gregory, D. (1994) Geographical Imaginations, Oxford, Blackwell.

Instance, D., Rees G. (1995) Lifelong Learning in Wales, Leicester NIACE

Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism, London, Verso.

Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space, Oxford, Blackwell.

Pound, E. (1934) ABC of Reading, London, Routledge.


Ian Davidson. University of Wales Bangor, Wales.

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