The WEA in Adelaide is one of Australia’s most successful ACE organisations and Denis Binnion was at its helm for almost 20 years. This May, he was made a member for the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Denis Binion became involved in adult education in the 1970s teaching evening classes in history for the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Institute of Technology. He joined the WEA in 1979 as a course programmer in language and liberal studies.
Whilst CEO, Denis established WEA Travel, a licensed travel agency that has been conducting Australian and overseas study tours for 24 years. He has personally led dozens of group tours with up to 40 participants at a time to India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Canada, Peru, Argentina, Chile and New Zealand and brings a background in cross cultural studies and history to his work and travel.
Denis has sat on the Minister’s Advisory Council on ACE and the South Australian ACE Council. He was an ALA national board member representing South Australia for a short time and was active in the South Australian branch for 20 years. In his retirement he still leads WEA overseas study tours and runs regular one day and weekend historical tours of rural areas in South Australia.
Quest reflects with Denis on his career in adult education:
South Australia has one of the strongest ACE sectors in the country? What do you think has contributed to its development?
South Australia is fortunate in that the WEA has been a major provider of ACE since before 1920. Perhaps because of the example of the WEA many other smaller providers have been keen to enter the field. So in one sense the WEA has provided a good example of what can be achieved with relatively limited resources provided you have community support and interest. In another sense, the WEA has had a nurturing role in providing support to new groups and access to tutors. The state and local governments have also been strong in partially funding and encouraging neighbourhood houses and neighbourhood or regional level provision.
WEA is the largest not for profit, non-government adult education organisation in Australia with around 35,000 course enrolments annually. What can others in the sector learn from its success? What has it done so well?
The WEA celebrates its centenary in 2013. To survive for so long it has always had to have a flexible approach to changing conditions of funding, educational needs and social aspirations. It has constantly changed with the times. Perhaps change is the one constant! The WEA has always been focused on student needs and willing to experiment with new programs and new educational provision. It has also been willing to admit when new programs are not successful and to drop them quickly. You have to be quick to respond and adapt in ACE to survive. You also have to constantly experiment and make sure you have a broad range of programs and activities so that as one area of provision declines you can expand some other area. You have to keep abreast of all social and community changes. The WEA has also managed its finances well, been careful with expenditure but also committed to advertising well and ensuring that it has the best educators or tutors available.
In your extraordinary career, what have you learnt about adult learning? Why are organisations like the WEA so important?
Adult learning can and does transform lives although for most people it just enriches them. Over the years I have been amazed and pleased to see adult students progress to being adult educators or tutors where they first started learning. I have seen people grow amazingly in confidence and change the course of their lives through new careers, new relationships or by adopting a new world vision. This above all else is the reason why ACE providers are so important in society. They give people a second chance or new hope and new aspirations. ACE is about change, the future, hope and optimism.