Four ways to reverse the decline in adult learning

An increase in adult learning is crucial for our economy and society – but it needs to be accessible, affordable and attractive

Fiona Aldridge

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The forthcoming Budget has been heralded by chancellor Sajid Javid as an opportunity to “unleash Britain’s potential, level up across the UK and usher in a decade of renewal”. Alongside investment in infrastructure and tackling the cost of living, it must include investing more in adult learning and skills.

Between 2009-10 and 2018-19, government spending on adult education (excluding apprenticeships) fell by 47 per cent. Employer-provided training has declined significantly in recent decades with UK employers now investing just half the EU average in continuing vocational training.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the latest figures, published by Learning and Work Institute, show that just one in three UK adults (33 per cent) have taken part in any form of learning or training in the past three years, the lowest figure on record. In fact, since 2010, participation in adult learning has fallen by a staggering 10 percentage points – with an estimated 3.8 million fewer adult learners at the close of the decade than at its start.

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The significance of this decline should not be underestimated. Learning and skills development is key to boosting productivity and equipping people to respond to rapid economic and technological change. There are important wider benefits too, for health and wellbeing, for social justice and in supporting active and inclusive communities. As the CBI has concluded: “Adult learning is headed in the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time for our economy and our society.”

If we are to reverse the decline in adult learning, we need both further investment in adult learning and a better understanding how we encourage and support more adults into learning, particularly those who are currently under-represented. So, what does our most recent survey tell us about why and how adults are learning, the challenges they face and the benefits they experience? And how might we use this to engage more adults in learning?

Adult learning needs to be more accessible, affordable and attractive

Amid busy working and family lives, adult learners often find it challenging to fit their learning around other time commitments such as work and caring responsibilities, with meeting the costs of learning also a significant issue. However, while a focus on ensuring greater accessibility and affordability is critical, we need to give at least as much attention to communicating the relevance and value of learning. The most frequently cited barrier by those who have not recently participated in learning is a lack of interest and perceived lack of relevance.

We should be more explicit about how learning can help people achieve their aspirations and goals

Four-fifths of adult learners in our survey started learning for work-related reasons, while other important motivations centre around personal development, subject interest and enjoyment of learning. And the benefits of their learning were already becoming evident, including improved subject knowledge (36 per cent), improved skills for their current role (29 per cent) and greater self-confidence (23 per cent). One in eight learners said that they are now more productive at work or produce higher-quality work. And there were wider benefits, too: making new friends, having a better understanding of other people and cultures, and feeling more in control of life.

We need to ensure that local education institutions can meet the needs of adult learners as well as young people

While adults are most likely to be learning at work – either on the job or on a training course, this year’s survey shows a marked increase (up from 29 to 43 per cent) in the proportion of adults studying with a university, further education college or adult education centre. While government data shows a significant recent decline in the number of adult learners in both further and higher education, they clearly remain an attractive option for adult learners where the right opportunities are made available.

We need to embrace the opportunities that technology provides, particularly as part of a blended offer

While just 13 per cent of learners are currently learning online, a much higher proportion (47 per cent) have done so at some point. While much of this online learning was undertaken independently without extra support, others benefited from face-to-face tuition or access to tutor support alongside this. Learners identified a range of challenges including maintaining motivation, feeling isolated and dealing with technical issues; however, the flexibility of online learning to fit around wider commitments was of significant benefit in enabling them to participate.

If the 2020s are truly to be a decade of renewal, then it is critical that we reverse the previous decade of decline in adult learning. Learning from the motivations and experiences of those adults already engaged in learning is a good place to start.

Dr Fiona Aldridge is director of policy and research at the Learning and Work Institute

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