Professor John Field (with special comment section)

Professor John Field

Many CR&DALL members and subscribers will have known or known of Professor John Field, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Stirling. It is with great sadness to report that he died on Monday 25 March.  He was a titan in the field of adult education and great fun to be with.

We worked together for a number of years at the University of Stirling, and he remained active in the field up until his final days. He always had something original to say, and was both a great researcher and teacher, and someone grounded in activism. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him. There will be a much more substantial tribute to him written by Professor Tom Schuller in the journal Convergence later this month, to which we will provide access. There are already great tributes at the sites of the German Institute for Adult Education (DIE) and UNESCO.

His funeral will be on Wednesday 17th April at 3.00pm at the Lorimer Chapel of Warriston Crematorium, 36 Warriston Road, Edinburgh, EH7 4HW. Our sincere condolences to his partner, Professor Julie Allan and to all his family.

Universally amongst those who have commented on his passing there has been a feeling of shock, and of a life cut short too early. If you wish to add anything in response to this message please feel free to do so by logging in using your user name and password. Should you be reading this and not be a subscriber and wish to comment then please simply request to be subscribed.





John Field RIP

I first worked with John when he moved to Northern Ireland in 1993 where we were colleagues and friends. Later we worked together in Scotland and internationally. He loved Ireland and was proud of his family roots in Donegal. He had a real sense of humour and always had something new and interesting to say. He will be greatly missed by all of us.

Funeral Oration

These are the words that I spoke at John's funeral

John Field’s sudden and untimely death is a major loss to the adult learning movement, and for me the loss of a dear colleague and friend.  He brought warmth, generosity and curiosity to his dealings with everyone – As the flood of tributes on social media following his death testify, John was widely loved and respected by adult education academics and practitioners in the countries of the UK and across the world.

John was a distinguished academic and adult educator who made a very significant contribution to scholarship, through his own writing and collaborations, and through tireless work in supporting the development of the field, inside and outside universities.

He wrote or edited 17 books; had 100 or so peer reviewed journal articles and another 100 chapters, alongside a multitude of papers, reports, pamphlets and occasional pieces in the press.

He sat on a plethora of university committees, played a lead role in research assessment exercises, advised other universities across the globe on lifelong learning. He examined multiple theses in a wide variety of international universities, and sat on editorial committees,

All with a wry smile.

John had a significant impact in policy advocacy to government in the UK and internationally.

He was a member of the Fryer commission advising the 1997 Labour Government; a commissioner on the national independent inquiry into lifelong learning led by Tom Schuller 10 years later; seconded to government for the foresight study on Mental Capital and Well Being in 2008, and again worked with the 2016 Foresight project on skills and lifelong learning.

Internationally he worked with OECD, with the EU and with UNESCO where he was one of the writers of the 4th Global Report on Adult Learning and Education, and an adviser more widely

His contributions were challenging and sympathetic. John was occasionally contrarian wary of a too comfortable consensus, sniffing out important if inconvenient evidence, but always supportive overall.

As a teacher, mentor, supervisor, examiner or evaluator he could make complex ideas accessible, and consistently brought the happy combination of serious intellectual rigour alongside the ability to give confidence and agency to others.

John was fired by a strong sense of social justice, and a commitment to international solidarity

I met him first in 1984 during the Miners Strike, when we were both seeking ways adult education could more effectively support working class men and women, and from 1988 when I was at NIACE he was adviser mentor or project leader for our work in seeking more and different chances for people failed by the system. Later he played the same role with Scotland’s Learners Forum

Internationally he worked hard at the fall of the Berlin Wall to strengthen solidarity with scholars in the old Soviet Bloc countries, and had long term alliances in Germany, as well as in Ireland.

John had a glittering career – first at Northern College, the Ruskin of the North, then Warwick – working with Chris Duke and Tom Schuller to set up a distinguished continuing education department, then Bradford to head a department; Ulster and a chair, back to Warwick and the first professorship in lifelong learning.  Finally to Stirling, where for 6 years he was Deputy Principal.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2006 by the Open University.  In 2014 he was inducted into the International Hall of Fame of adult educators.  He was visiting professor at Cologne, Birkbeck, Warwick, Wolverhampton and was Emeritus Professor at Stirling when he died.

His books, on unemployed adults, education and the state; on lifelong learning in changing times, on social capital, on mental well being, on men’s work camps are all impressive, and the core of his international reputation.  But I loved the range of his curiosity – his exploration of the Lincolnshire Bat Observation Society, Men’s Sheds, MOOCs, his love of twitter.  His wonderful blog.  He was a serious academic, but more importantly he was great fun.


I'll miss his smile

John's support and encouragement played a big role in my decision to seek a full-time post in higher education when we first met in 1988. And knowing I had his support sustained me over the years. I'll miss our arguments and, of course, his smile. 


Mischievous Ideas

I was unable to be at the funeral sadly; but having followed their travels and culinary journeys through photographs on Facebook -  it is so clear that it was a life well lived. Everybody remembers his half-smiles - inviting you to imagine what mischievous ideas he was conjuring up !  

A fine human being who will be missed.

Walks and beer at the Sherrifmuir Inn

Like others I am deeply saddened by John's death. I will remember how much he enjoyed his regular Wednesday with myself and others followed by a meal and a beer at the Sherrifmuir Inn.

Brilliant researcher, reliable colleague and a very good friend

It is very sad to hear that John Field, Emeritus Professor at the University of Stirling, Visiting Professor at the University of Warwick, and Gastprofessor at the Universität zu Köln, born 6th of July 1949, passed away on 25th of March 2024. He was a trained and dedicated historian with research focused in inter-organisational conflicts and settlements in wartime adult education, adult education and active citizenship, the educational ideas and practices of utopian movements, and the relationship between skills, work, and masculinities. His PhD was on Learning through Labour: training, unemployment and the state, 1890-1939, published by Leeds University in 1992, which he had defended at Warwick University much earlier. He also was a founding member of Continuing Education Department at Warwick together with Tom Schuller, of which Chris Duke was professor. John returned to Warwick, after many other appointments, to become Professor of Lifelong Learning.

Chris Duke introduced to me both John and Tom in the 1985, as I recall. From that time on our paths as colleagues crossed many times. We were attending the same conferences, I visited University of Warrick several times, and Chris Duke and his family in Lemington Spa, which provided occasions to see John. A long lasting friendship between John and me begun. We could follow our careers, and also our family lives closely. Therefore, it is extremely sad that John, whom I knew for most of my professional life, is gone.

John contributed 155 academic articles, and was active to his last day. His recent publications include Working Men’s Bodies: Work Camps in Britain 1880-1940, Manchester University Press, 2013. One of the mains issue of his research was an understanding of social capital and social movements. Professor Mieczyslaw Malewski from Wroclaw University invited Chris Duke and John Field from University of Warwick (and I also came there from Sweden) to a conference on Adult Education as a Social Movement in Karpacz in 1992, and a long lasting friendship and research co-operation began between four of us. This conference became an embryo for the ESREA network on Active Democratic Citizenship. All four of us were founding members of ESREA in 1992. We were also sitting on the ESREA interim steering committee. John Field was known by Polish researchers and some of them were working with him in EU research projects coordinated by Barbara Merrill. Professor Ewa Kurantowicz and Dr Adriana Nizinska represented Poland.

John Field came to Sweden several times. I especially remember when he visited me and Bernt Gustavsson in 1992 at Linköping University, as we were interested in residential adult education, and discussed Swedish folk high schools. We were also involved in research on social movements. From 2008-2014, we collaborated in two European projects about non-traditional students in Higher Education; RANLHE and EMPLOY in which we could contributed a lot to European perspectives on access, retention, drop-out and employability together. In both projects Professor Camilla Thunborg was also involved. (See Finnegan, F., Merrill, B. & Thunborg, C. (2014). Student Voices in Inequalities in European Higher Education. London: Routledge).

John Field was closely associated with the UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning in Hamburg. On their website the Institute writes: “It is with deep sadness that the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) notes the passing of John Field, a giant of adult education scholarship who also made a significant contribution to national and international policy advocacy in lifelong learning, and the work of UIL over the past decades”. He was a real international scholar who knew German and French.

John was a brilliant researcher, reliable colleague and a very good friend. He was energetic and quick in both speech and thought, and he was a very good mountain hiker, but most of all he had a positive mood or spirit, which he could spread to his colleagues, friends and students. I admired him for his humour, intellect and friendship, and will never forget his love of life, generosity and jokes.

Agnieszka Bron, Emeritus Professor, Stockholm University, Sweden


An incredibly well read and astute social historian

I had the privilege of working with John at the University of Stirling. John was a supportive and respectful colleague. He wore his considerable scholarship lightly with good humour. He also never missed an opportunity to puncture any pomposity he detected, often with a degree of hilarity that still brings a smile. Aside from the work he is well known for, John was also an incredibly well read and astute social historian. Typically, in my last conversation with him, I discovered that, many years ago, he had written a systematic comparison of E.P.Thompson’s 1950s biography of Willam Morris with the substantially rewritten 1980 edition. I was hoping to talk to him about that again. However, crucially, John was not just interesting, he was also interested in people from all walks of life and communities. For all these reasons, John will be greatly and fondly missed in the many communities he moved in, not just as a scholar, but also as a man.  



The Northern College Corresponding Society

Northern College, the 'Ruskin of the North', was first mooted sixty years ago  - 1964 - in 'The Royal Oak' pub at Millthorpe in North Derbyshire, just across the road from where Edward Carpenter had his socialist commune until the early 1920s, his house now being called 'Carpenter House'. So said Michael Barratt Brown, first Principal of Northern College, twenty five years after it opened to adult students in October 1978. I was one of the first year of students, and John Field was one of the tutors. After the first intake came to an end in June 1980, I subsequently saw John at several revived CND events in Sheffield, one notably being addressed by Edward Thompson at Sheffield City Hall, until a bomb scare caused the building to be evacuated. I next saw John at the Northern College twenty fifth anniversary in July 2003.

Earlier in 2024 I read Michael Barratt Brown's autobiographical book (2013), 'Seekers', and I came across a review by John Field which was appreciative, though critical of Michael's tendency to name-drop. I agreed entirely with that criticism, and I found John's e-mail address and, early in March 2024, I told him of this agreement. I was amazed when he not only promptly replied, but said he had a flat at Hangingwater in Sheffield, not far from where I live. He'd lived in Whitby for many happy years but found it a bit hard on his knees of late. At the same time he mentioned 'family' in Edinburgh. Coffee seemed to be a good idea, so I arranged a meeting on Thursday morning, 14th March - myself, Linda Whitehead (another Northern College 1978er who lives in Sheffield), and my partner, Leah, who John crossed paths with during Sheffield Peace Movement days when both lived in Pitsmoor. He didn't turn up - he said he got stuck in traffic whilst travelling south from Edinburgh that morning. We rearranged for the following Tuesday morning, 19th March, this time at a cafe called 'Marmaduke's' on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield. Leah absented herself because of a cough, so it was just me and Linda - and this time John turned up. We all had a good chat about Northern College days and Northern College people. Subsequently, on Sunday  24th March  I sent out a general e-mail to Northern College contacts, including John, to try to arrange another meeting. This was a slightly tongue-in-cheek e-mail titled,' The Northern College Corresponding Society', a play on the corresponding societies discussed in Edward Thompson's 'The Making of the English Working Class'. I found it odd that John didn't reply, after his prompt e-mail responses previously.

Sadly and shockingly, I now know why he didn't reply. My condolences go out to all his friends, family and colleagues.

A person you always wanted around you

I first met John Field when he was at Northern College and I was at the nearby Sheffield City Polytechnic, and we were working together to explore how we could better support adult learning. He was a regular visitor to my house in the early days of the miners strike where we had regular meetings to review and reflect on what was happening in our communities.

I kept in touch with him as he filled several roles; indeed I was one tor his successors at the University of Bradford. He was always active in adult learning forums both domestically and internationally, but more importantly he was a really supportive colleague who would question, critique and help, always with a wonderful cheeky grin. He was a colossus in our field of study and a person you always wanted around you and the shaper  of many an academic career.

This is a really sad loss and we will all miss him

Geoff Layer, Formerly Vice Chancellor at the University of Wolverhampton

Multi-talented character with wide sphere of knowledge

As colleagues have said John was a leading figure in the world of adult learning. He was always a stimulating and supportive member of the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning (UALL) and his publications were widely and warmly cited by our members and conference speakers. We remember his multi-talented character and wide sphere of knowledge, and of course his indefatigable good humour.

A tribute from Tom Schuller in Convergence

With Tom Schuller's approval and that of the editor of Convergence, Professor Peter Mayo, we reproduce here Tom's memories of John. 


John Field (1949-2024)

The ‘Learning Professor’

Tom Schuller

John Field and I met as founding members of Warwick University’s Department of Continuing Education, in autumn 1985. John had both

substantial personal experience of adult education, as a mature student himselfand then with a 7-year spell as lecturer in economic and social history at Northern College, and a PhD in the subject which he had completed several years before. I had neither the personal experience nor the doctorate, but John never made any attempt to assert his better qualifications. He was to me, as to everyone else who worked with him, a rigorous but wholly sympathetic colleague.

John was a historian by training and by inclination. The training is clear: a degree in history from Portsmouth, then the PhD at Warwick combined with a professional job teaching history to adults. The doctorate was on training and unemployment in the first part of the 20th century (published as Learning through Labour: training, unemployment and the state, 1890-1939, Leeds University 1992), and this period continued to engage his attention: thirty years after the PhD he published a book on the same historical period, this time on work camps (Working Men’s Bodies: work camps in Britain, 1880-1939, Manchester University Press, 2013). Although for the bulk of his career his professional home was in the education of adults, he maintained a disciplinary historian’s eye.

His career took him to different parts of the United Kingdom. I’d guess there aren’t many academics who have worked in three of the four nations: after Warwick, John went to Bradford in the North of England, then across the sea to the University Ulster and eventually, after another spell at Warwick - this time as professor of lifelong learning – up to Scotland to the University of Stirling, where as well as holding a chair in lifelong learning he was the Deputy Principal for Research and Knowledge Transfer. I’m not sure what Wales did to miss out on his talents. In each case he was sensitive to the national or regional preoccupations. One thing common to all these locations is that they gave easy access to hills, or at least countryside, as John was a keen walker.

But his reach extended well beyond the UK. Indeed, possibly John’s single most outstanding characteristic was his pervasive internationalism. This was not the weary much-travelled cosmopolitan variety, but a genuine belief that we should understand other cultures and traditions. He was unusually (for an Englishman) proficient in German and French, and spent some time actually teaching in Cologne. He would constantly remind us, personally or at professional meetings, of these different perspectives, intellectual and political.There will be colleagues and friends in many different countries who are mourning his loss.

The list of John’s mainstream academic duties and positions is impressive. Positions on editorial boards, on advisory panels and on research assessment. reviews are too numerous to mention. I would just highlight John’s 5-year stint as a Governor of Newbattle Abbey in Scotland and his membership ofForesight groups in the UK and the EU. He acted as PhD examiner in some 30 universities – a remarkable tally; the news of his death brought immediate tributes from some of those whose theses he had examined, as a rigorous but entirely sympathetic scholar. He engaged extensively in policy forums and committees without ever losing his academic identity.

Work on social capital was one of the major themes of John’s writing. I enjoyed working with him and Stephen Baron as co-editors on an early book on the topic, published in 2001. John went on himself to write a very successful book on social capital, published in 2003 and translated into Italian and Turkish (and maybe other languages). It’s a sign of its success, and of its quality, that it was republished five years later in a fully revised edition. Many would regard it, in educational circles, as the standard work on the topic.

I was personally delighted to have John as member of the Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning, sponsored by NIACE in 2008-10. John was always a perceptive and constructive member of the Inquiry, often contributing to the discussion with a slightly quizzical air but always with something that would give energy to the discussion. Similarly we worked together on the third UNESCO Global Review of Lifelong Education around 2015, where John’s international range of experience combined with his research expertise made him a very valuable participant.

John carried on his reading and writing up to his untimely death. He blog posted as The Learning Professor, a nice reaffirmation that each individual carries on learning, or should do so, whatever their status. Lately his communications were more often to do with rugby matches, on which he would offer commentary as rigorous and objective as his adult education scholarship. A generous, vigorous man who exemplified the value of lifelong learning.

He stood with us

Leicester Vaughan College is very saddened to hear of the loss of John Field.  John was a leading figure in the world of adult learning and of educational opportunity for all. He stood with us in the campaign against the closure of Leicester University's adult education provision, and supported the new Leicester Vaughan College from the start, including contributing to our Research Forum. We will remember him with admiration and affection as a champion of adult learning.