UK: Tough times for adult learners

Fri 13 May 2011 01:42:00 PM EEST

NIACE´s annual survey of current and recent adult participation in learning is bad news for anyone over the age of 25 trying to improve their prospects through learning, especially men, older people, the least skilled and those outside the labour market.

These are the main findings of the 2011 survey, which is published today ahead of the 20th Adult Learners´ Week which starts tomorrow, Saturday 14 May 2011. The number of adults who have taken part in learning over the last three years has fallen from 43 per cent in 2010 to 39 per cent.

At a time when provision for young adults (aged 17-24) is increasing, the key findings from the survey include:

  • the number of men who have learnt over the past three years (37 per cent) is now at its lowest level since the NIACE annual survey series began in 1996;
  • the least skilled and those outside the labour market (DEs) are participating in learning at the lowest reported total over 20 years, 23 per cent, a fall of seven percentage points from 2010;
  • professional and managerial groups (ABs) are twice as likely (52 per cent) to participate in learning than DEs (23 per cent);
  • participation in learning has increased among those aged 17-24 but has decreased across all other age groups. For 17-19-year-olds current participation has soared from 58 per cent to 71 per cent. However there has been a loss of over a quarter of learning opportunities for adults aged 65-74 (23 per cent to 17 per cent);
  • 37 per cent of adults who have left full-time education say that they are likely to take up learning in the next three years, down from 47 per cent in 2010;
  • minority ethnic participation shows a drop of 6 per cent since 2010, whilst the drop for white Britons is just 3 per cent;
  • nearly three quarters (73 per cent) of current or recent learners said that they had learnt for work or career reasons, including more than 80 per cent of respondents aged 17-54; and
  • over 80 per cent of those aged 65 and over are learning for personal and leisure interests.

The decline in participation has not been accompanied by a decline in people´s belief that learning makes a positive difference to their life chances:

  • 86 per cent of all adults agree that learning can have a positive impact on self confidence;
  • 83 per cent also believe that learning as an adult can have positive effects on career and employment prospects;
  • 75 percent acknowledge the positive effects on children´s education, reinforcing the argument that the inter-generational effects of lifelong learning are of great significance;
  • 62 per cent believe adult learning has a positive impact on health; and
  • 53 per cent also believe adult learning has a useful role to play in involvement in local issues and events.

Alan Tuckett, Chief Executive of NIACE, said, "If Britain is to recover economically it has to invest in the whole of its workforce not just the young. If the news here is good for the youngest adults, it´s very tough for older people in the workforce and out of it."

"Participation among the over 65s has fallen dramatically - over a quarter of learning opportunities for older adults have been lost. Learning has a positive impact on health, independence, and general well-being in later life. With an ageing labour force we need to encourage people to prolong their active working and learning lives, reducing learning opportunities will hardly help with the well-being or work-readiness of Britain´s third age adults."

"But overall, the most concerning aspects of this year´s survey are the lowest ever figures of participation for men and for the least skilled and those outside the labour market. When you take these findings, with the reported decline in people´s intentions to take up learning in the future, you have a fundamental challenge for policy makers, employers and providers. We won´t have a learning society unless everyone takes their share of responsibility to create it."