From education to employment

Number of adult learners has halved since 2010

People sat in lecture room
  • Learners from poorer backgrounds “hit hardest” by “self-defeating cuts” to adult education and training
  • TUC accuses the government of “levelling down” access to training and reskilling
  • Rishi Sunak must deliver “more than warm words” and properly invest in skills in Autumn Statement, says union body

The number of adults participating in further education and skills training has halved (-48%) since the Conservatives took office, according to new TUC research published today (Monday).

The independent research – carried out for the union body by the Learning and Work Institute – shows that the number of adult learners taking courses plummeted from 3.2 million in 2010 to 1.6 million in 2021.

The number of men taking adult education and skills courses has slumped by 52% since 2010 and the number of women taking courses has declined by 45%.

Younger and older learners have been hit alike

The analysis reveals that participation in adult education and skills training has nose-dived across every age group since 2010:

  • The number of learners aged 19 to 24 fell from 744,000 to 460,000 between 2010 and 2021 – a decline of 38%
  • The number of learners aged 25 and above dropped from 2.4 million in 2010 to 1.2 million in 2021 – a decline of 51%

The TUC says learning opportunities for young people and those looking to retrain and reboot their careers have “dwindled massively” over the last 12 years.

Learners from poorer backgrounds have declined the most

The analysis reveals that learners from deprived areas have seen the biggest drop in participation over recent years.

Since 2016 alone, the number of adults taking courses from the most deprived parts of Britain have fallen by over 250,000 from 705,000 to 447,000.

The fall in learners taking courses from the most deprived areas (-37%) has been at more than three times the rate of those from most affluent areas (-11%).

Red Wall areas hit harder than Blue Wall areas

Today’s research also highlights stark regional divides in adult learning and skills provision.

Between 2016 and 2021 participation in adult learning in the North East dropped from 1 in 10 adults (10.1%) to around 1 in 15 (6.3%).

By contrast, the East of England saw the smallest drop with participation levels falling from 5.3% to 4.1%.

The analysis also reveals the number of adults taking part in further education and skills has declined far more sharply in Red Wall (-31%) constituencies than in Blue Wall constituencies (-22%) over the last five years.

The individual Red Wall constituency which saw the largest percentage decrease in participation is Don Valley, where participation decreased by 58% (from 6,570 to 2,730 learners) between 2016-2021.

By contrast, Chipping Barnet experienced a decrease of only 1% (from 3,050 to 3,010) over the same period.

‘Levelling down’

The TUC says the huge fall in further education participation is mainly the result of “self-defeating cuts” to adult learning budgets.

Adult education has been slashed by 40% since 2010 and fees have been introduced for people wanting to gain basic qualifications.

In addition, in 2020 the Conservatives scrapped funding for UnionLearn which provided more than 200,000 workers a year with access to in-work training.

The TUC says recent reports that Rishi Sunak is planning to focus on skills to boost low productivity must be backed up by proper investment in adult education and its workforce.

The TUC is calling for a much more expansive skills offer, including a new right to retrain, based on a vision of a high-skill economy, where workers can quickly gain both transferable and specialist skills to build their job prospects.

Delivering this would require government to:

  • Cancel plans to scrap 3,500 Level 2 and below courses, reinstating free entitlements to Level 2 qualifications and reforming the digital skills entitlement.
  • Deliver an immediate and significant investment in adult education that reverses a decade of savage cuts.
  • Introduce a new expansive set of fully-funded learning and skills entitlements, incorporated into lifelong learning accounts alongside new workplace training rights throughout their lives, including a new right to paid time off for learning and training for all workers.
  • Create a new national social partnership on skills – led by employers and unions – to provide clear strategic direction, as in the case of most other countries.
  • Reverse the counter-productive decision to cut the funding for UnionLearn.

A package of measures along these lines is urgently needed to help workers and businesses transition as the economy and society undergo transformational change, including the move to net zero, the challenges of new tech, and the legacy of the pandemic.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“We must urgently improve access to skills and training. This is vital for jobs, productivity and economic growth – and to help us meet the challenges posed by net zero and new tech.

“But over the last 12 years the Conservatives have levelled down adult education – slashing adult learning budgets and axing vital schemes like UnionLearn.

“This has hit poor and hard-to-reach learners the hardest, with courses closing across the country.

“The government must reverse its self-defeating cuts and work with unions and other providers to upskill the nation.

“Rishi Sunak must put his money where his mouth is and invest properly in training and skills.

“Investing in better skills will more than pay for itself.”

Independent research published in 2020 revealed that for every £1 spent on union-led training the economy gets nearly £13 back.

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