For more than twenty years Learning and Work Institute has been surveying adults to ask if they are taking part in learning. Never has the figure been lower. Just 35% of adults are taking part in learning or have recently done so. Given that our definition of learning is a deliberately broad one – not limited, for example, to those undertaking qualifications – the decline is troubling. In the absence of any announcements about adult education in this week’s spending review, the results take on new urgency.
Our survey shows stark and growing inequalities in participation in learning by socioeconomic group and region. People in the highest socioeconomic groups are two and a half times more likely to be in learning than those in the lowest, a gap that has grown in the last year. The gap in participation in learning between the nations and regions of the UK too has never been larger. This means the falls in participation in learning have been greatest where participation was lowest to begin with, reinforcing inequalities and limiting people’s opportunities to progress.
While the figures are shocking, they are unlikely to be a huge surprise to many of us, given the scale of cuts to adult education over the last decade. Indeed we published a report earlier this year showing progress has stalled over the last decade in improving skills, meaning the UK is on track to slip even further down the international league tables by 2030. Forget title-winning performance. This is more like a relegation zone battle.
These findings should serve as a wake-up call. Lifelong learning can help to boost our stalled productivity, and in turn help increase wages and the money available for public services. It can help people find work and progress in their careers. It can help build cohesive communities and benefit people’s health and wellbeing. Lifelong learning is not the answer to everything, but it needs to be part of the answer to most things.
That connection and value is only going to grow. Lengthening life expectancy means 50-year careers will be the norm. Rapid advances in technology will transform our labour market in the coming years, and Brexit will have an effect too. Put all this together and you have an increased need for people to update their skills and participate in learning throughout their lives.
The good news is there’s increasing recognition of the need to do better on lifelong learning. A growing number of commissions is looking into it, business groups are making the case, and the main political parties are all saying the right things.
The bad news is that action doesn’t yet match the rhetoric. I was pleased to see the Chancellor announce an extra £400m for young people in Further Education. This was a vital first step and the first meaningful investment in Further Education in a decade, but it simply isn’t enough.
Ongoing political uncertainty means we don’t know when there’ll be a longer-term Spending Review. But the need for a clear strategy for lifelong learning and long-term funding grows more urgent by the day. We’ve shown how an extra £1.9bn per year could, over a decade, reverse our falling international position and deliver a £20bn annual boost to the economy.
How we invest is as important as how much we invest. Our survey shows that once people are in learning, they are far more likely to come back to learning in the future. Learning is addictive, but we have to get people through the door in the first place. Things like Festival of Learning’s Have a Go Month, taking place now, can help engage and inspire adults to take that vital first step.
Adults told us that the biggest barriers to learning were time pressures – how to fit learning around life and work. Respondents said they’d be more likely to consider learning if they could learn at home or at times that suited them, or if learning was cheaper. So, yes we need to invest more, but we also need to inspire people to want to learn, and help them to fit learning into their busy lives.
The Chancellor has said austerity is over, but for prosperity to be the order of the day, lifelong learning must be a top priority for any new government. Only then will we see sustained improvement, not only in productivity, but in social justice.