Are adult learners on the rise?

Are adult learners on the rise

The recent pandemic had a significant impact on the education sector.  Within the global education sector, 1.53 billion learners were out of school. It has impacted 87.6% of the world’s total enrolled learners.

Within the UK’s Further Education environment, teachers had to switch from face-to-face to online teaching within a short period of time. The curriculum had to be redesigned to help learners keep up to date with the learning materials.  Commissioned by the UK Department for Education, the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) highlighted the effects on mental and physical health, and well-being, as well as the interruption to vocational courses. According to the IPPO, the number of young people starting new apprenticeships has fallen by 46 per cent between 2019 and 2020.

The enrolment of adults has also been severally impacted by the pandemic.  The Learning and Work Institute’s 2019 survey describes a challenging landscape. The study reveals the lowest participation in adult learning since 1996. If you come from a lower social-economic environment and you have fewer years of education, you are less likely to take part in formal learning. Participation declines with age.

In our complex and fast-changing world, adult learners need to continuously develop their skills in order to handle future challenges. The more we invest in maintaining and developing our professional skills, the more productive we may become. The loss of a job or an unforeseen redundancy can be a very stressful event if we do not maintain the habit of life-long learning. If we lose our job, it could take a significant amount of time to learn new skills and to gain employment again.

Matthew Fell, chief policy director at CBI UK said: ‘Nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030, so we need the partnership of the century between individuals, business and government to ensure that everyone can benefit from the opportunities created by new technologies.’

FE Colleges received significantly fewer enrolments from adult learners throughout the pandemic. However, adults have been involved in informal and independent learning. Nearly 70%  of the respondents engaged in some form of online learning throughout the pandemic. Informal learning (self-study, educational articles and videos) can lead to a range of benefits: building connections with others, making a positive difference through our work, developing our self-awareness, and increasing our self-confidence. Learning improves our well-being and positively impacts our career prospects. Although adults have been actively participating in informal learning initiatives, they are less likely to participate in formal learning (courses, training, workshops) within FE.

According to the Learning and Work Institute’s 2021 adult participation survey: ‘Adults in lower socio-economic groups (DE) are twice as likely to not have participated in learning since leaving full-time education…’ Research shows that age and socioeconomic status matter. Younger learners coming from a higher socioeconomic group are more likely to participate in formal learning.

More recent statistics offer some good news. The Learning and Work Institute’s 2022 adult participation survey included 5,139 adults aged 17 across the UK. The survey highlights that participation in learning has returned to levels seen in the early 2000s. 

Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute highlighted: ‘It’s good to see a rise in participation in lifelong learning after years of falls, given how vital learning is for both life and work. In part, an explosion in online learning during the pandemic has sparked people’s interest in learning something new. However, the stark inequalities in access mean that those who could benefit most from learning are least likely to participate. We need a collective effort to build a culture of learning and make this the lifelong learning century.’

The pandemic has provided adults with opportunities to reflect on their interests and use remote technologies for learning. In a post-pandemic environment, adults are more confident about engaging in online learning platforms and using digital technologies to develop their skill sets.

Based on figures published  in January 2023, there are 1,056,500 (19+) government-funded Further Education learners participating in 2022/23. This figure has increased 4.3% since 2021/22. Of the 1,056,500 learners, females account for 58.7%. Higher level (level 4 or above) participation increased by 10.6%, to 204,220 from 184,610 in 2021/22.

The statistics show that the FE sector has been heavily impacted by the pandemic. FE Colleges have experienced some of the most significant funding cuts in the decade up to 2020. Although the UK Government has increased some of funds provided by FE Colleges, the sector is still experiencing complex challenges. Here are some of the trends impacting the FE landscape:

  • Increasing number of young people in full-time education. Research shows that the number of 16- and 17-year-olds in full-time education has more than doubled from around 40% to 84% since the mid-1980s. Part-time enrolments have fallen significantly due to the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) projects that the number of 16- and 17-year-olds will grow by approximately 6% or 90,000 between 2022 and 2024.

FE Colleges navigate in a complex and challenging environment and the sector has experienced a prolonged period of reduced funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies latest annual report on education spending in England  reveals that:

‘Further education colleges and sixth forms have seen the largest falls in per-pupil funding of any sector of the education system since 2010–11.’

‘Spending on adult education and apprenticeships will rise by 30% between 2019– 20 and 2024–25. However, as with spending on 16–18 education, this only reverses a fraction of past cuts.’

‘Spending on adult education is nearly two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003–04 and about 50% lower than in 2009–10. This fall was mainly driven by the removal of public funding from some courses and a resultant drop in learner numbers.’

The above figures show that spending on adult education has decreased. However, adult education is essential for workers.  Learning enables people to stay employable. Developing professional skills can help with taking on more senior responsibilities or receiving promotions.

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