Workers' association celebrates 100 years

When the Workers’ Educational Association – or WEA – was established in Australia in 1913, participants could attend lectures on such topics as ‘‘The reign of ill custom in English spelling’’. Today, at WEA Illawarra, the focus is on digital literacy and lifestyle courses.

It’s the adult education institution’s ability to adapt to the times that has helped it survive a century of change and that will be celebrated in Wollongong today.

Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills Sharon Bird will be among those to speak at the official centennial celebrations at Wollongong City Gallery.

WEA Illawarra chief executive Greg Fisher said the event would reflect the spirit of WEA, with participants enjoying such activities as cupcake decorating, coffee art and hula-hooping.

There would be a more serious side too, with a look at the not-for-profit organisation’s historic past; stories of how participants’ lives have been positively changed; and a glimpse into the future.

‘‘WEA evolved from a movement in northern England in the late 18th century and had its roots in the workers’ struggle for better pay and conditions,’’ Mr Fisher said.

‘‘In 1903, Albert Mansbridge formed the Workers’ Educational Association in England and he came out to Australia in 1913 – even attending a meeting at the Wollongong School of Arts on November 7 when WEA Illawarra was formed.’’

At the time the Illawarra Mercury reported that Mr Mansbridge’s visit “was of momentous importance to the people of Wollongong if only viewed in the proper light, for his mission was to kindle the torch of education amongst adults’’.

A century on and that flame is still alight, with the WEA surviving two world wars and countless economic downturns.

It received a boost in the 1950s and ’60s with the influx of migrants in need of language classes, and has continued to cater to community needs.

The organisation moved to its Auburn Street site in 2000, and a $1.6million modern two-storey training facility – made possible through federal funding – was officially opened in 2011.

‘‘Today WEA Illawarra has a broad range of offerings, from lifestyle and language courses to business training,’’ Mr Fisher said.

‘‘Digital skills is a big area – especially for businesses who want to help staff members keep up with changing technology, as well as for seniors.’’

Mr Fisher paid tribute to past chief executives  as well as past and present staff and community members who had made the organisation the success it was today.

‘‘The main secret of WEA Illawarra’s success is that it is community oriented, and that it is a place where people can not only learn, but connect to others and feel like they’re part of something,’’ Mr Fisher said.

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