In the week that the SDLP's Sean Farren was given responsibility for post-16 education, training and employment in Northern Ireland's new assembly, a survey shows that though nearly everyone agrees learning is a good thing, getting them to do any is another matter.
A report in the 1999 Social Omnibus survey shows that 93 per cent of people in Northern Ireland think they are more likely to get a better job if they undertake some learning, training or education; that learning boosts your confidence; and that going to classes is a good way to meet people. Nearly as many (92 per cent) agreed that learning about new things was both enjoyable and interesting.
But while the vast majority talked of the benefits of further education, active involvement in study of any kind - especially among the unemployed - was markedly less.
Of those in jobs, 59 per cent reported that their most recent learning activity was within the last year but almost a quarter did not report any learning at all in the last five years. This included both education and training courses as well as informal and unstructured types of learning.
The position among the unemployed was even worse. Thirty per cent reported a learning activity in the previous year, while a similar number hadn't learned anything for 10 years or more. Only 43 per cent had had a learning experience in the last five years.
The findings, reported in the Training and Employment Agency's 13th Labour Market Bulletin, confirm several other recent pieces of evidence. For example, a survey commissioned by NIACE, the national organisation for lifelong learning, in 1996, showed that only 28 per cent of Northern Ireland adults were currently, or recently, involved in learning compared with a UK average of 40 per cent. Almost two-thirds said they were unlikely to take part in adult learning in the future.
In Northern Ireland, 36 per cent of the workforce is qualified to NVQ level 3 compared with 40 per cent in Britain. Among those out of work, 46 per cent in Northern Ireland had no qualifications compared with 29 per cent in Britain.
The Social Omnibus survey found that that almost all training at work is vocational, with only 4 per cent being for personal development. It also confirmed the widening gap under which training goes to those who have already received a lot: people in managerial and technical jobs were twice as likely to get training as manual workers.