A long-delayed government survey of adult learners has found that participation has fallen to its lowest level since records began 15 years ago and could fall further due to the impact of the fees and loans system next year.
The National Adult Learner Survey (NALS) was carried out in 2010, the first official survey of participation since 2005. But it has taken until now to publish its results, a delay that was due to the complexity of the data and a contractual issue with the researcher, according to the government.
The report, published without any formal announcement, shows that the proportion of adults involved in learning fell from 80 per cent to 69 per cent over the five years. "It is the lowest level recorded in the NALS series," the document says.
It also contains a warning over the introduction of loans for adults taking level 3 qualifications. A trade-off exercise with potential learners intended to simulate real decisions about learning and fees found that they were "relatively insensitive" to costs up to pound;2,000, after which the expense had a "significant impact" on decisions to study.
But most level 3 courses are expected to cost over-25s upwards of pound;3,000, and as much as pound;11,000 in the case of some equipment-intensive engineering courses, according to adult education body Niace.
"The results aren't surprising, but they are extremely worrying," said David Hughes, chief executive of Niace. "They're not a surprise because our own surveys have shown the same thing. Worryingly, we think things have got even worse since 2010."
The greatest decline was in what the survey calls "non-formal" learning: taught courses that are not accredited qualifications. Non-formal learning fell from 56 per cent participation in 2005 to 39 per cent in 2010. A decision to fund longer qualification-bearing courses rather than short courses will account for some of the impact, but participation in formal learning saw no increase from 24 per cent.
The report also blamed the recession, saying that 58 per cent of respondents cited cost as an obstacle to learning, compared with 21 per cent in 2005. Mark Malcomson, principal of City Lit adult education college in central London, said that while his college's recruitment had increased in recent years, it was having to introduce new types of financial support as money was increasingly a barrier.
"There's still great demand, but what you tend to see is that people are more cost-conscious than ever," Mr Malcomson said. "We are getting more requests for financial aid, whether it's a bursary or people paying in different ways. They are struggling more. People think twice about joining a course.
"What I think is a great shame is if, as a whole in the country, people are accessing learning less than they would have been. More adults in learning is a very good measure for the progress and intellectual capability of the country as a whole."
Informal learning - defined by the report as self-study to improve knowledge of a subject - also saw a sharp drop from 56 per cent participation to 43 per cent. Mr Hughes said that the recession had an impact here, causing employers to reduce on-the-job training, which often forms a large part of informal learning. Staff are also less motivated to learn if promotion opportunities or more demanding jobs are not available.
"Employers are less likely to invest in their workforce; 40 per cent of them don't invest at all. Individuals themselves have less money, not just for fees, but for childcare, travel, learning resources," Mr Hughes said.
The decline in participation in learning could have long-term effects; those who have taken courses or studied on their own are more likely to learn in the future. "There's a big issue about inequality increasing," said Mr Hughes. "Eighty per cent of current learners intend to learn again, but only 20 per cent of those who haven't been learning recently intend to in the future."
According to Niace's surveys, a third of adults now say there is nothing that could be done to make them more likely to learn in the future. The NALS also found that adults' own assessments of the likelihood of their learning in the future had dropped.
Mr Hughes said that if the adult learning loans were to be successful, students needed much greater and higher quality information about the benefits of specific courses to overcome the concerns about cost.
"What the research says is that the principal concern for learners is the benefit that will accrue to them. Price comes second in a sense," he said. "But the information that is given to learners at the moment is inadequate for most of them to make that decision in an informed way."
But Mr Hughes said increasing participation would also require greater investment from employers, many of whom do not train at all, as well as work by colleges, training providers and voluntary organisations in persuading people of the value of learning. "It's not just the government's job to sort this out," he said.
Photo credit: Alamy
Original headline: Adult participation drops to record low as cost puts off learners