Provision of adult education began in Melbourne in 1839 with the establishment of the Melbourne Mechanics Institute. Based on English intellectual premises which assumed an embedded class structure, Mechanics Institutes were organised by the middle classes for the benefit of the working classes. But with the rise of mass trade unionism and working-class political organisation, which sharpened the class divide, the Institutes failed within 40 years.
During the latter half of the 19th century, adult education shifted to the newly founded technical colleges and schools of art, which offered informal adult education programs and hobby courses along with certified professional and trade qualifications. But from 1892, a time of economic depression, these programs were a casualty of Victorian government cuts to the funding of technical education.
In 1891 the University of Melbourne established the University Extension Board (UEB) which offered to the public fee-for-service 'extension' lectures based on subjects offered within the university prospectus. From 1913 the UEB formed a close working relationship with the new Melbourne branch of the Workers' Education Association (WEA). The WEA organised and recruited students while the UEB provided subjects and lecturers. However the UEB-WEA arrangement soon failed: the public ignored it and the organisation's primary target group - trade unionists and their leaders - used the services of their own labour college from 1917.
The UEB-WEA structure endured under hapless leadership for three decades until its reconstitution as the Council of Adult Education (CAE) in 1947. The CAE was led by the charismatic Colin Badger until 1971 and then by a succession of highly capable directors. From its inception the CAE popularised adult education through innovations such as summer schools, an arts train, rural theatre and book discussion groups, plus an expanding scheme of fee-for-service hobby and skills-based programs.
Increased awareness of adult education led to its expansion. In 1962 the CAE supported the establishment of the Wangaratta Centre for Adult Education, the first of a growing network of locally funded neighbourhood and community houses. The first Melbourne-based community provider was the Diamond Valley Learning Centre, established in 1973. In 1985 the Adult Education Association, a student body affiliated with the CAE, began classes for the volunteer-staffed University of the Third Age. From 1975 the Adult Migrant Education Services (AMES) offered adult education in English as a Second Language (though forms of this service had been offered since 1947).
Following a 1974 Commonwealth initiative to establish the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) sector and its inclusive acknowledgment of the role of adult education in promoting lifelong learning, adult and community providers received funding to offer an increasing number of certified vocational programs. This broadened focus and heightened profile firmly located adult education as a preferred entry point for adult career, life skills and leisure education and training. From the mid-1990s in excess of 100 000 adults participate annually in a further education course, whether at a community organisation, CAE, AMES, TAFE institute or private agency.