If Further Education is considered the overlooked middle child of the UK’s education system, adult learning might be seen as a distant cousin.
The Learning and Work Institute reports that fewer adults than ever are enrolling on courses - resulting in four million ‘lost learners’ since 2010 - and warns that opportunities for adults to learn have been significantly eroded.
Decade of decline in adult learning with four million 'lost learners' since 2010: Survey shows adult participation in education has fallen to record low The government has been urged to put lifelong learning at the heart of its domestic agenda, as a… https://t.co/4sX5GQMm8L pic.twitter.com/6MAez2nmR2— FE News - The #FutureofEducation News Channel (@FENews) January 2, 2020
In spite of this, the case for more investment in the education of adults is compelling.
There is powerful evidence that adults who keep learning enjoy better health, are more productive and are more active in civic life.
Equally, research shows that further education plays a vital role in helping adults to upskill for a morphing workplace, meeting the demands of a technology powered economy.
So, if it’s imperative to improve opportunities for adults to learn, what strategies can educators and the wider industry employ to reverse the current downward trend?
Tech-ing down the barriers
There appear to be three main stumbling blocks to student enrolment:
- Lack of time
- Lack of confidence, and
- Perceived stigma around adult education
Of these three major barriers, perhaps the easiest to tackle is a lack of time.
Adult learners understandably have a number of constraints on their time, particularly if they are juggling education with a job or family responsibilities.
FE colleges also tend to serve wide geographic areas, meaning the closest FE institution could still be a long commute away for a potential student. One of the clearest benefits of education technology is its ability to reduce the impact of distance on learning opportunities.
For many of the colleges we work with at Instructure, the ability to bring courses online in their entirety has been transformative for their students, who are now able to access the same level of learning from home as they would in the classroom.
Of course, it’s not always possible to provide a full course online, particularly in the case of practical or vocational subjects where in-work training is required. However, by ensuring that every course is built using technology, and with distance learning in mind, FE institutions can help ensure they are providing the kind of teaching and learning that their student body needs.
In contrast to an issue like distance, the question of how to tackle negative perceptions of adult education and lowered confidence for potential students is less clear cut.
In the UK we are often guilty of believing that education starts with early years and ends with labour market entry - and, so, a mindset shift is required where lifelong learning is promoted and normalised.
The Learning and Work Institute is far from the only organisation calling for change. Last Summer, for example, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee looked at extolling the benefits of post-school education while the UPP Civic University Foundation has also reported extensively on the needs of part-time students. Importantly, both parties invested in marketing strategies to promote the significant benefits of learning as an adult.
Organisations like The Open University are successful in promoting ongoing learning too, focusing its efforts on the positive effects on the workforce.
Indeed, with PwC suggesting that anywhere between 20 percent and 40 per cent of jobs are potentially at risk of automation by 2030, how to educate, and train for, an unknown and fast changing business landscape has become a key focal point for business - and one which further cements the need for continued learning opportunities.
Lessons from across the globe
Of course, and as with so many issues in education, there are lessons to be learned from other territories, and plenty of best practice examples that we can share.
In Switzerland, and Germany, for example, vocational education is held in high esteem and receives adequate public investment - in stark contrast to the diminished funding for the vocational education sector in the UK.
Nordic societies too, often regarded as prime examples of social democratic welfare regimes, are committed to offering adult education opportunities for all; providing funding and resources for students where it is required.
So called ‘learning cities’ have also become a major engine for driving adult education opportunities.
For example, the city of Suwon in South Korea guarantees a library within ten minutes’ walk of every citizen’s home; a scheme made possible through close cooperation with universities and local businesses. In Singapore, too, support from industry creates optimal conditions for creating a learning society.
So, while reversing the downward trend in adult education enrolments will neither be easy or quick, what can be agreed is that this trend can’t be ignored, particularly now we’re aware just how serious an impact the skills gap could have on our workforce.
Ultimately, we believe that, in order to promote lifelong learning, it’s vital that we understand the barriers preventing adults from enrolling onto FE courses and work collectively to showcase the importance of continuing education.
Sam Blyth, Director of Schools and FE, Instructure