Adult Education


Governments have been among the more visible participants in adult education in British Columbia for well over a century. Many of the initiatives had economic motives to enhance labour force skills, but municipal, provincial, and federal funds also supported social, cultural, and recreational programs. The following brief overview of government support for adult education in British Columbia is but a small part of the much larger "invisible giant" that is adult education.

Colonial explorers, miners, and fur traders in pre-confederation British Columbia had little public assistance in learning how to survive in a rugged new land, learning much from the First Nations people and each other. Hudson's Bay Company officers early introduced library services for their own use, followed by more broadly accessible reading rooms and literary institutes that prepared the way for libraries and Mechanic's Institutes in the larger towns of the province. Missionaries also provided educational services to colonial immigrants and the native people, teaching English or French, literacy, and the norms of European society, although these efforts were not always well received. Early farmers and professionals organized societies to improve their own vocational skills, while the few who could partake in "high culture" organized cultural societies in such urban centres as Victoria and New Westminster. The British Columbia Institute in New Westminster received funds from the Mainland colony government in 1865, making it perhaps the first use of public funds in support of adult education.

Soon after British Columbia joined confederation in 1871, the provincial government encouraged adult education for economic and social development. To encourage better use of farmland and promote settlement, the British Columbia government passed legislation to support agricultural societies and agricultural education, providing farmers with literature and lectures. These societies led to the Farmers' Institutes in 1896 and Women's Institutes in 1909.

The Dominion Agricultural Station, opened in Aggasiz in 1899, also had an educational role. Agricultural education in various forms continued for decades to come, particularly after the Agricultural Instruction Act of 1913 made federal funds available. Public funds also supported the several Mechanics Institutes in the province for a few years. These organizations typically provided access to reading rooms, lectures for skilled artisans, and various social activities. The Provincial Bureau of Mines promoted mining, another early and important industry, through educational lectures in Victoria, Vancouver, and New Westminster, while legislation to improve conditions in Vancouver Island coal mines in 1877 also prompted educational responses. Night school classes in public schools could also be found in these larger centres before 1900. Independent but publically supported libraries also began to dot the British Columbia landscape, after the Public Library Commission was established in 1919. The PLC provided information on a wide range of vocational and cultural topics.

The rapid industrialization characterisitic of British Columbia in the early twentieth century encouraged various educational measures. Industrial education joined the traditional arts curriculum at Vancouver College in 1900, while a number of private schools opened to help adults learn the skills necessary for the new industries. Such early businesses as the B.C. Electric Company and British Columbia Telephone Company began their own in-house technical education. Much of the government encouragement for industrial adult education was indirect, however. Legislated educational standards for boiler operators or steam engineers, for example, required aspiring operators to seek the appropriate skills and knowledge. Yet the provision for technical education was minimal until 1907, when the Vancouver School Board offered night-school classes. They were so successful that the program expanded to become one of the largest in the province and country. With subsequent amendments to the Public School Act, other school boards in the province began providing classes on vocational and personal interest topics. In 1913, the year of a Royal Commission on Technical Education, the Department of Education appointed John Kyle, the initiator of the Vancouver School Board night school program, to oversee technical education in the province. At about the same time, the Dominion government established marine schools in Victoria and Vancouver. Public "night- school" for adults became a perennial feature in British Columbia.

The province's new University of British Columbia opened in 1915, and almost immediately began a program of extension lectures. Many lectures discussed agriculture and mining, but covered a wide range of other topics as well. The Department of Education soon offered correspondence courses, particularly in coal mining. The Workmen's Compensation Act of 1916 also encouraged education for workplace safety and industrial operations. With the end of the First World War, UBC (assisted by John Kyle) conducted short courses for veterans in agriculture, mining, mechanics, steam engineering, and machining. The Dominion government helped cover costs, as it would from time to time in years to come. The federal Technical Education Act of 1919 helped to launch Technical High Schools in several British Columbia towns to provide facilities mainly for young adults. Libraries and museums continued to grow across the province in the 1920s, and the new Vancouver Public Library eagerly provided and promoted various adult education activities.

The Depression sparked several educational responses. Some teaching and correspondence work took place in relief camps to boost morale if nothing else. School board night-school declined sharply at first, then climbed as the Depression eased. The provincial government after 1933 appointed a special Adult Education Committee to encourage vocational classes for the unemployed, and to support such regional initiatives as Vancouver's "Self-Help" program that aimed to boost morale and improve domestic skills. Provincial support for correspondence courses in general had been strenghthened prior to the Depression, and continued through the 1930s. Perhaps the best known public program of the era was the Provincial Recreation Program for young adults, a program popularly called Pro-Rec. The federal government helped to fund Pro-Rec and other vocational education later in the decade. Toward the end of the Depression, the provincial government even supported a program in community drama.

The University of British Columbia, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, launched its Department of University Extension in 1936. UBC Extension provided popular short courses on vocational and general interest topics, and helped west-coast fishers learn to establish and manage their own co-operative marketing and harvesting ventures. UBC Extension subsequently grew to become among the province's largest public providers of adult education.

The Second World War prompted federal schemes to prepare wartime industry workers and to ensure preparedness in case of wartime emergencies. Following the armistice, federal funding allowed many hundreds of veterans to take short vocational courses or academic degree programs. Even correspondence courses experienced a post- war jump. The Vancouver Vocational Institute opened in 1949 in part to accommodate the large numbers of veterans.

Various educational providers expanded after the war. Community centres, museums, and public libraries increased their educational efforts as support from the Province increased. Night schools in particular expanded during the 1950s. By the 1960s, British Columbia had the highest participation rate in adult education in Canada. Such government bodies as the British Columbia Department of Health and Welfare also began providing educational programs.

As Canada entered the "Sputnik era," considerable attention turned toward technical education. Federal legislation made available large amounts of money to expand existing educational institutions and to create new ones. The Vancouver School Board converted King Edward Secondary School into a full-time centre for adult studies. UBC's new president, John Mcdonald, proposed new colleges, a new technical school, and two new universities across the province. The British Columbia Institute of Technology opened in 1964, providing technical education to young and returning adults.

The colleges began to appear across the province in 1965, and within a few years had shifted from academic "junior colleges" for young adults, to broadly-based community colleges for adults of all ages. The new University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University soon provided their own extension services. Federal legislation, particularly after 1967, made returning to formal vocational education more financially attractive to adults through tax allowances and other incentives. At the same time, an expanding post- secondary system encouraged adults to commence or complete university studies.

Greater attention also shifted to providing the basic education that would allow adults to participate in more advanced technical education. Adult basic education (ABE) and English as a second language (ESL) received some of the federal funds, administered through school boards and colleges. The Department of Indian Affairs provided educational programs to the province's native people following studies on the living conditions of First Nations.

By the 1970s, British Columbia's commuity colleges had assumed responsibility for many of the night school programs once sponsored by school boards, and provided short courses, general interest classes, and various certificate programs. For some people, the colleges represented a sort of adult education counterpart to the public school system. The Colleges and Institutes Act (1977) led to the creation of the Open Learning Institute and then its television broadcast arm, the Knowledge Network. (They were later combined as the Open Learning Agency.) Basic education, career technical training, and university level programs were now much more accessible to those living away from urban centres.

The early 1980s saw the provincial government provide financial support for various ABE activities through school boards and provincial correspondence courses, while federal employment programs (often held at colleges) included educational upgrading. The Ministry of Education adopted policy to provide adults with "reasonable access" to a high school education. In 1988, the province expanded the policy to provide adults over nineteen years of age free education to the grade twelve level. However, except for ABE, the early 1980s was a time of dwindling government support for public education. Colleges, universities, and public schools in general felt deep funding cuts resulting from public restraint during a sharp recession.

By 1994, a new provincial government had initiated the Skills Now! program to provide increased access to adult education through colleges, universities, or other providers. Skills Now! had broad ambitions to provide educational opportunities for many people, from high school students to adults seeking pre-employment skills or entering university. The general orientation was toward the skills and knowledge that might contribute to the province's growing "high-tech" economy.

Adult education—sometimes called continuing education or lifelong-learing—had become a much more visible feature of British Columbian society at the end of the twentieth century. Yet although colleges and school board night-school classes were prominent institutionalized providers of adult education, many aspects of the field remained hidden. Community groups received public funds for educational purposes, yet these activities often went unrecognized by the general public. Adult education independent of government support remained diverse, widespread, and ubiquitous, ranging from large corporate training centres to citizen's advocacy groups. Despite a highly visible institutionalized component, adult education remained to some extent an "invisible giant."

Researched and written by Dr. Eric Damer, UBC, June 2001


Gordon Selman, The Invisible Giant: Adult Education in British Columbia, Occasional Papers in Continuing Education, No. 25, Vancouver: The Centre for Continuing Education, The University of British Columbia, 1988.

Selman, A Chronology of Adult Education in British Columbia, Occasional Papers in Continuing Education, No. 14, Vancouver: The Centre for Continuing Education, The University of British Columbia, 1977.

Selman, Adult Education in British Columbia During The Depression, Occasional Papers in Continuing Education, No. 12, Vancouver: The Centre for Continuing Education, The University of British Columbia, 1976.

Selman, Adult Education in Vancouver Before 1914, Occasional Papers in Continuing Eduation, No. 9, Vancouver: Department of University Extension, The University of British Columbia, 1975.