‘Disappointing’ drop in adult participation says NIACE

The number of adults taking part in formal learning has fallen five percentage points, a survey by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) has revealed.

The annual adult participation in learning survey, published by the independent charity last week, shows that the majority of adults (62 per cent) have not participated in any formal study in the last three years.

The research also shows that more than a third of adults haven’t taken part in any learning since they left compulsory education.

David Hughes, chief executive of NIACE, said: “Participating in learning can help people secure work, stay and flourish in their jobs, keep healthy and play a positive role in their community.

“All of those are even more important now with a tough labour market, an ageing population and stressed communities.

“So it is disappointing that participation in learning is declining, with many of the people who could most benefit missing out.”

Roughly one in five adults who responded to the survey said they are currently learning, while 38 per cent said they had participated in the last three years.

NIACE say this is a drop of five percentage points since 2010.

What’s needed now is for policy-makers, providers, businesses, unions and charities to work together to encourage more people to take up learning.”

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) spokesperson said: “Adult learning has great benefits for individuals, their families and their communities as well for the economy and growth.

“That is why despite declining budgets we have protected investment for priority groups including the low skilled, young adults without intermediate and advanced qualifications and the unemployed.”

Toni Pearce, vice president (FE) at the National Union of Students (NUS), told FE Week the figures were “very worrying” and likely to decline further once the government’s FE loans scheme is introduced.

“It would be a national tragedy if those who have been shut out of education in the past, and who are increasingly unlikely to be offered the right opportunities to re-enter, were even further deterred from taking up life-changing routes to lifelong learning by the creation of new financial barriers to education and skills” she said.

“Ministers now need to urgently take the initiative and create a lifelong learning climate to replace the one-chance-and-you’re-out approach which casts those with huge potential onto the scrapheap and threatens to do permanent damage by offering no route back.”

The research, which surveyed 5,237 adults aged 17 and over, also provides a comparative snapshot in participation rates between adults in work, looking for work and retirement. More than 40 per cent of respondents in full and part time employment said they had participated in some kind of learning in the last three years, compared to only 14 per cent of retired people.

The survey also shows that adults who stayed on in initial education are much more likely to participate in learning than those who left at the earliest opportunity.

Mr Hughes said:  “Our survey shows that you are much less likely to take part in learning if you are retired, or outside of the labour market, if you are in a low skilled job, or if you didn’t do well in school.

“What’s needed now is for policy-makers, providers, businesses, unions and charities to work together to encourage more people to take up learning.”

The Association of Colleges (AoC) say it is difficult for providers to maintain the participation levels of adult learners when budgets are being cut and “student entitlements are being eroded.”

Joy Mercer, director of policy at the AoC, said: “It is a testament to the commitment of providers that there has not been a more substantial decline in the number of adult enrolments.

“Having said that, if colleges are going to be part of the solution to high levels of unemployment then there needs to be positive encouragement. Those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds should be helped as much as possible to engage with education, to retrain, or to upgrade their skills.”