As a result, Kenneth Clarke, then Secretary of State for Education, placed the decision for continued funding in the hands of the local authorities, well aware of the competing claims on their resources. Whilst he expressed his support for the service, his action clearly threatened to weaken it.
Now adult education is facing new changes that have received little attention in the press, though they are of great significance. In February the long-awaited report of the Higher Education Funding Council for England made it clear to the universities that from 1995 onwards there will be very little government money available for courses that do not lead to some form of qualification.
In other words, anyone currently attending a university-run adult education class where the emphasis is on learning for learning's sake is likely to find the nature of that class changing in the not too distant future.
University extra-mural departments - or centres for continuing education, as they are increasingly known - are currently devising their responses to this new funding policy. Many indeed are well advanced in these responses since the policy was not difficult to anticipate in the present climate.
In many cases, systems of accreditation being implemented are designed to recognise the work which students in adult classes have always undertaken. They have always written essays, prepared class presentations, participated in discussion and shown their active involvement in a host of different ways.
Now these achievements can be recognised by the awarding of credits at university level, putting the part-time adult learner on a par with the conventional undergraduate. Students can work towards certificates, diplomas, even part-time degrees.
The process undoubtedly opens up new opportunities for adult students and the University of Leeds presents these in positive terms. 'The Government and the universities now recognise that the achievements of adult students are worthy of proper academic recognition. Accreditation is a real 'coming of age' for adult continuing education,' it says in its publicity material.
Clearly, the prospect of extending the clientele for adult education and opening up new opportunities for university study to those for whom they have not previously existed is an exciting one.
Adult educators are well aware of the low take-up of higher education in this country compared to our European partners and new and flexible means of gaining a university qualification are to be welcomed. However, there is also widespread concern about the effect of the changes on existing student groups, those who study as an end in itself, for enjoyment and stimulation and who have no desire or use for a further qualification. How will the new system respond to their needs?
There is already concern in the student body that they will be pushed aside by the changes. The University of Bristol acknowledges this in its prospectus, referring to fears that 'all the pleasure will vanish'.
The University of Surrey, whilst implementing accreditation, is fully aware that a majority of its present adult students are in the 60-plus age group, many of them well educated, and declare themselves to feel no need for a further qualification. They attend classes to gain a greater knowledge of a particular subject, not for any specifically utilitarian motives, though they will frequently comment on the overall benefits of attending classes.
One student put it very well when he said that while he didn't want to make it sound like 'intellectual meals on wheels' both he and his wife put a high value on the contribution which adult classes made to their quality of life in retirement. Of some 5,000 students enrolling for classes in 1993-1994 the majority would share his sentiments.
Under the new policy some students of this type may be encouraged to submit themselves for assessment in order to gain credits but increasingly there will be little room in the system for those who are unwilling to do this.
It appears that the universities will in future largely ignore their needs. Some very small amount of funding may be obtained for non- accredited classes via a bidding system, but for the most part it would appear as if the liberal adult tradition may have to be continued by the University of the Third Age rather then by extra-mural departments.
Educationalists have long recognised the immense value of life-long learning both to the individual and society but the new policy of accreditation is a response to government funding restrictions, not to a perceived educational need.
Those involved in the change do their best to meet it optimistically, to speak of participation, empowerment and personal progress, but for many it is hard not to feel that a valued and successful educational tradition is being slowly killed; that a service born of high ideals, and which has achieved so much, is about to take its final curtain call.
The writer is an associate lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Surrey.