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Reproduced from 1989 Conference Proceedings, pp

Reproduced from 1989 Conference Proceedings, pp. 279-284 ã SCUTREA 1997


Adult education in Great Britain and Nigeria: a comparison

Clifford O. Ihejieto-Aharanwa, Northern Illinois University


Great Britain defines and patterns adult education practice proactively. That is, the country uses adult education as a continuation mechanism, a form of innovative instrument aimed at revamping the social, political, and economic life of the British, adopting the liberal approach. Conversely, Nigeria defines and patterns adult education reactively. Nigeria uses adult education as a response mechanism, a form of reactive instrument used to fight the shackles of cultural imperialism, adopting the behaviourist approach. Adult education materials in Nigeria are more content and teacher-centred than those of Great Britain, with the exception of correspondence material which is self-directed.

There is concern whether adult educators considering the definition and philosophy of adult education can ever formulate world-wide policy. Rubenson1 noted that adult educators have no central policy, and often times participation research is designed with a psychological instead of a sociological orientation. This method at best elevates the quantitative approach to research, and at worst reduces adult learning to a mere psychological construct. This study compared the concept of adult education in Great Britain and Nigeria, focusing on key issues such as: how each country defines adult education, purpose of adult education, the social/historical forces that influenced the need for adult education, participation, formal/informal organisations, teaching, and research.

In addressing those issues, the following premises were offered:

  1. that the definition of adult education is culture-specific. Each country has a different definition of adult education, based on its social, political, and economic needs,
  2. that philosophical assumptions about the practice of adult education are different, and
  3. if (a) and (b) are correct, policy formation in adult education that would be applicable world-wide, would be very difficult to attain

The study was conducted using an observation method, examining some texts and journals from Great Britain, Nigeria, and the United States of America. The results show that, while the primary intent of educating adults in both countries is learning, regardless of the purpose, participation, organisations (formal/informal), and research approaches are different in each country.

The definition of adult education:

Great Britain and Nigeria

As Legge2 pointed out, one of the problems of writing about the education of adults in Britain is a general failure to agree what that term should include. He identified three main issues that beleaguer the definition of adult education in Britain: (1) types of subject, (2) the meaning of adult, and (3) the types of activity. The problem of types of subject lies partly in the concept of education necessary for gentlemen, contrasted with that required for artisans and others who needed only technical know-how to produce goods and services. Liberal studies, it was said, are concerned with the ends rather than the means of living; in a twentieth century catch-phrase, ‘they held one to live rather than to earn one’s living’. On the meaning of adults, Legge wrote:

It is generally assumed that 18 is a suitable minimum age for the education of adults, though inconsistently there has been a tendency to exclude undergraduates of 18 to 21.... The age question is bedevilled by thoughts about maturity and citizenship...3

On the types of activity, Legge argued that ‘all experiences can lead to learning and people are ‘educated’ by their daily life at home, at work, and in the community. Human beings learn informally about attitudes, values and action, and it is often difficult to separate this from more formal education’. With types of subjects, the meaning of adult, and the types of activity under consideration, adult education is defined in Britain4 as ‘ liberal ‘ vocational education (training) and further education (avocational). The confusion about how adult education is or should be defined did not emanate from Cantor and Roberts; it has been a familiar problem. As Ruddock5 noted, the British are ‘confronted with adult education as a segment of further education, which is itself defined as a segment of adult education’. At the time of the Elsinore Conference,

Adult education is taken to mean those forms of education which are undertaken voluntarily by mature people (in the United Kingdom meaning persons above the age of 18) and which have as their aim the development without direct regard to their vocational value, of personal abilities and aptitudes, and the encouragement of social, moral and intellectual responsibility within the framework of local, national and world citizenship.6

This definition presupposes a general standard of literacy resulting from compulsory childhood education; it is equated with regular education; the debate is rather about how comprehensive adult education (embracing all learning experiences) ought to be. Another definition in The Exeter Papers said:

Adult education is a process whereby persons who no longer attend school on a regular and full-time basis (unless full-time programmes are especially designed for adults) undertake sequential and organised activities with a conscious intention of bringing about changes in information, knowledge, and understanding or skills, appreciation and attitudes; or for the purpose of identifying and solving personal and community problems.7

According to Lowe, this definition is more suitable for developed than developing countries since the phrase ‘no longer attend school on a full-time basis’ implies universal compulsory education and makes no allowance for programmes designed for adults who never attend school. Nonetheless, the problem of defining ‘adult education’ illustrates the point that the concept is a construct; it is adapted to suit a particular culture. Whereas the British definition of adult education considers adults aged 18 and over, Nigeria’s definition is confounded by the inclusion of the word ‘youth’.

Nigerian pre-independence definition of adult education between 1948 and 1959 stated:

Mass literacy, community development, and creating awareness.8

The British were the ones that appointed the teachers, suggested what was taught, the type of awareness, and the audience. They, in conjunction with other world bodies such as Laubach, financed the efforts. The post-independence definition of adult education reads as follows: Adult and Non-Formal Education, according to this document, ‘consists of functional literacy, remedial, continuing, vocational, aesthetic, cultural, and civic education for adults and youths outside the formal school system’9. The document stated the objectives of this sector of education as:

  1. To provide functional literacy education for adults who have never had the advantage of any formal education.
  2. To provide functional and remedial education for those young people who prematurely dropped out of the formal school system.
  3. To provide further education for different categories of completers of the formal education system in order to improve their basic knowledge and skills.
  4. To provide vocational in-service on-the-job training to professionals in order to improve their skills.
  5. To give adult citizens of the country necessary aesthetic, cultural, and civic education for public enlightenment.

What the definition of adult education in both Great Britain and Nigeria have in common is that, they both concern people; while Great Britain talks about adults (18 years and over), Nigeria is concerned about adults and youths. In both cases, however, adult education does serve a useful purpose.

Purpose of adult education:

Great Britain and Nigeria

In addition to the 1919 Report intended ‘education for responsible citizens’, the purpose of adult education in Great Britain includes the following:

  1. to provide sufficiently highly educated men and women to support an adequate economic and social development.
  2. in response to the changes technology has introduced and developing an acceptable ethic, and from the increasing range of options, individuals can choose not merely that which they can perform. but that which they ought to perform.
  3. to provide an intellectual leisure pursuit, feeding interest in the arts and hobbies.
  4. to provide insights the use of reasoning power and the development of moral values.
  5. for working class upward mobility.
  6. for ‘second chance’-helping the underprivileged or disadvantaged to ‘catch- up’, e.g. literacy projects.10

In contrast with Great Britain, the purpose of adult education in Nigeria includes:

  1. empowerment - the implicit application of self-worth as realised in the social and cultural contexts. This is the hallmark of education for independence, traditional education for clarification of values, and education for nation building. The goal is to realise political, economic, social, or cultural ends.
  2. to provide functional literacy; functional remedial education; further education; vocational in-service on the job (OJT) to professionals in order to improve their skills.
  3. for women’s education.
  4. for community development11:
  1. Integrated rural development to improve and increase the per capita income and the general welfare of the people.
  2. Community development as a process to discuss and define their wants, and then planning and acting together to satisfy them, including the evaluation of the results.
  3. Community development as projects - promotion of better living conditions through projects that local people support.12

A close look at the purpose of adult education in these two countries shows adult education as an instrument for social, economic, and political realisation. In Great Britain, political realisation may be in terms of who is qualified for which job in professional appointments. Conversely, political realisation in Nigeria. means the government efforts to re-establish independence in education. Interestingly, however, the citizens of both countries use adult education to enhance their social and economic life, dictated by social and historical forces.

Social and historical forces:

Great Britain and Nigeria

Until about 1870 in England and Wales, primary schooling was not made available for all by law. This means that public schools prior to that time were set for the sons of gentry. They offered character building and curriculum based on Greek and Latin, which was believed to be the correct general education for gentlemen who would rule the Empire13. This class distinction became a forerunner to the later class differences in the British social and economic cadres; hence the working class and labouring poor. As class distinction seemingly perpetuated inaccessibility to education, it received help from heavy industrialisation, which rendered many workers’ skills obsolete. In addition, the problem of educating the poor and illiterate got exasperated by two other episodic events: loss of colonies and immigration. In Africa alone, since after the Second World War, between 1957-1968, Britain ‘lost’ about twelve colonies. Last but not least, immigration problems created by the emancipation of British citizens (by birth and naturalisation) from Asia, Caribbean, Africa, etc., further exasperated the British educational needs. The Ugandan Asians ejected by Idi Amin for example, created a lot of problems in the British social, political, and economic life. While the social and historical forces that propel adult education in Great Britain seem to be internal, except for immigration and perhaps loss of colonies, the Nigerian case is external.

As Asiedu14 stated, until they came under colonial rule, most of the people of Africa lived in small ethnic groups. Nigerians lived in tribal villages and had some form of native schooling; and classes were held under big trees.

One such example of formal education in the pre-colonial era was called ‘bush schools’. These schools existed under various names, the most common being poro for boys and sande for girls. Instruction in the poro lasted three to seven years while in the sande the period was much shorter.

However, when colonialism finally extended its pangs, western form of formal education involving the new skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, the use of imported technology such as books, chalk, pens, etc., and teachers who had been trained outside the tradition of the system, changed the social, political, and economic life of the people of Nigeria.

Colonial education brought dependence into the educational systems in Africa, notably religion and commerce. The British policy was said to emphasise ‘cultural adaptation’ while French policy was characterised as ‘assimilationist’ aimed at creating ‘black Frenchmen’. For the British, this dependence served them as a mechanism to perpetuate the administration’s ‘desire to encourage the emergence of limited educated élite’ in the colonies, because ‘it is dangerous to expose the natives to full-scale education all at once’15. Nonetheless, what can be deduced from the influence of social and historical events in these countries is that it has helped to affect who participates, in what setting, approach to teaching, and research.

Participation, organisation, teaching and research: Great Britain and Nigeria

Precisely, participation in adult education in Great Britain includes adults seeking: higher education (full or part-time) often times middle class; skills for leisure and jobs in both private and public sectors; literacy and numeracy; and operational and political knowledge to deal with the Third World countries. Learning is organised in formal/informal settings through the services of lecturers, tutors, and social workers. Despite the emphasis on self-directed learning, the ‘openness’ of Open Universities, the use of small and T-groups, structured and non-structured class settings, Great Britain adopts the liberal approach to education.

Liberal education, as this author posits the British, is not the Aristotelian idea that ‘conceives knowledge as being worth acquiring for its own sake’. Instead, it is the ‘assumption that learning should be the cause and not merely the result of growth’16. By virtue of Great Britain’s long existence and excellent infrastructure, research has been mostly generated from historical studies.

In Nigeria, participation in adult education includes adults with no formal education; youth dropouts; workers, professionals seeking more skills; adults and youths alike involved in literacy; and women. Like Great Britain, learning is organised in formal/informal, and non-formal settings through the services of lectures and tutors; and in the case of the Moslem North, Islamic teachers. Unlike Great Britain, Nigeria adopts the behaviourist approach because adult education materials are content-oriented and teacher-centred, with the exception of correspondence material that can be done through distance learning and self-directed effort. Adult education research in Nigeria lean towards experiments and evaluation of programmes that promote new approaches and techniques such as in community development projects. Some researchers use library and documentation clearinghouse on adult education with special reference to Africa, publications, newsletters, and bulletins.

Rhetorical premises

Having deliberated lengthily on the practice of adult education in Great Britain and Nigeria, the questions left to be answered are: (1) why is the definition of adult education different, (2) is there any relationship between how adult education is defined and its philosophical assumptions, and (3) what are the chances of policy formation in adult education world-wide?

As indicated earlier, the definition of adult education is culture-specific. Each country has a different definition based on her social, political, and economic needs. Great Britain, as a highly developed country and former empire, defines and structures adult education practice proactively. That is, the country uses adult education as a continuation mechanism, a form of innovative instrument aimed at revamping the social, political, and economic life of her people.

Nigeria, as a former colony, defines and patterns adult education practices reactively. The country uses adult education as a response mechanism, a form of reactive instrument used to fight the shackles of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and cultural imperialism. Nigeria is fighting to close the generation gap left by the colonial powers, while Great Britain is fighting to keep the generation going.

Since the definition of adult education differs, there is the likelihood too, that the philosophical assumptions for practice will differ in these two countries. Philosophical assumption is tracing into consideration who, what, why, where, when, and how of a population and coming up with a suitable approach. Each philosophy seeks some kind of change among people, whether the change is personal, community based, or more global, but ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’, and ‘radical’ adult education clearly emphasise an overarching concern for effecting transformation.

What is a concern now is whether adult educators considering the definition and philosophy of adult education can ever come up with a world-wide policy formation. As Rubenson17 observed, adult educators have no central research policy, and often times, participation research is designed with a psychological instead of a sociological orientation. There is also disagreement on the quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches. Each school claims superiority over the other. Under this condition, it will be very difficult for the adult educators to have a central policy research.


As a form of summary, I submit that a critical view of the definition and purpose of adult education, social/historical forces that propel adult education, participation, organisation, teaching, and research in adult education, would reveal: (a) that the notion that adult education is a paradigm of rigorous human science is, at least for this paper, a true assumption given that ‘a human science is an orderly and systematic investigation, and description of a person’s (and persons’) felt experiences of direct phenomena may appear or be manifested’18, (b) where a person’s (or persons’) felt experiences of direct phenomena come into play, cultural influences would become so turgid and fragile that any attempt to establish a transferable adult education practice may constitute a cultural diffusion, and (c) allowing cultural diffusion to permeate any country’s adult education system negates the principles of sovereignty and self-directed learning.



  1. Rubenson, K (1982) Adult education research: in quest of a map of the territory. Adult Education, vol. 32, no. 2
  2. Legge, D. (1982) The education of adults in Britain. Milton Keynes. England, The Open University Press
  3. ibid. p. 3
  4. Cantor, LM et al. (1983) Further education today: a critical review. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul
  5. Ruddock, R. (1980) Perspectives on adult education. Manchester Monographs 2, Dorset, Direct Printers
  6. Lowe, J. (1975) The education of adults: a world perspective. Paris, The UNESCO Press, p. 22
  7. ibid
  8. Asiedu, K (1984) Adult Education and Development in Africa, with Particular Reference to Nigeria. Abstract from dissertation delivered at Northern Illinois University, July 8, 1984
  9. Federal Government of Nigeria (1981) National policy on education (revised edition), Lagos, Government Press
  10. The 1919 Report. Nottingham, Barnes and Humby, reprinted 1980
  11. Hamilton, E. (1984) Adult education and community development in Nigeria. In Graduate Studies Journal, vol. 2
  12. Federal Government of Nigeria (1981) op. cit.
  13. Titmus, C.(1981) Strategies for adult education practices in Western Europe. Chicago, Illinois, Follett Publishing Company
  14. Asiedu, K. (1984) op. cit.
  15. The British Colonial Secretary, 1918
  16. Hostler, J. (1981) The aims of adult education. Manchester Monographs 17, Dorset, Direct Design
  17. Rubenson, K. (1982) op. cit.
  18. Stanage, S. (1988) The subject matter of adult education: the phenomenology of adult education as a rigorous human science. Faculty in Graduate Studies in Adult Education and Department of Philosophy, Northern Illinois University

This document was added to the Education-line database on 29 May 2003