The TUC Library holds the archive papers of the Workers Educational Association, founded in 1903 with the object of providing working class people with access to university-quality education classes from academics who volunteered their time to provide lectures and lead discussion groups.
The impetus for creating the WEA came from its founder, Albert Mansbridge, who in 1903 had written the pamphlet Co-operation, Trade Unionism and University Extension. Today the idea of universities undertaking “outreach” activities in the local community is uncontroversial (it is the strategic goal of the TUC Library’s host London Metropolitan University to extend its reach into the local community), but at the start of the 20th century the demand that Oxford and Cambridge undertake such activities, particularly among the working classes, was radical.
Following the foundation of the WEA by a number of people connected to Oxford University, the issue of democratising the university’s entry became more widely debated. In 1907 a conference was held on the theme ‘Oxford and Working People’ and it resolved to set up a committee to investigate mechanisms by which more working people could be exposed to higher education.
In 1908 the committee published its report Oxford and Working Class Education which has become a classic of adult education. The report recommended the formation of a Standing Committee of Oxford’s University Extension Delegacy, to be comprised of equal numbers of university and working class representatives.
The Standing Committee should be responsible for the provision of a system of tutorial classes to groups of working class students outside the university, and also responsible for the provision of funds for scholarships so that upon completion of the tutorial classes those students suitably qualified “should be enabled regularly and easily to pass into residence at Oxford, and to continue their studies there.
The WEA archive documents the gradual development of the organisation as it spread around the country and began to provide such tutorial classes. One of the first tutorial classes took place in Rochdale and was taught by the respected academic and social critic R. H. Tawney. The archive contains many files dedicated to Tawney’s involvement with the WEA.
You can see a catalogue of the WEA archive here.
In addition to the WEA archive, the TUC Library also contains a wealth of material documenting the development of education policy more generally. The collection dates from the 19th century onwards and includes educational developments such as the Mechanics’ Institutes, the Working Men’s Colleges, Ruskin College, and the contributions to education made by the Co-operative Movement and the Trade Union Movement.