From education to employment

More Generation Z youngsters choose distance learning

Ros Morpeth

 @NEC_Education survey: Finance is the biggest barrier to learning

 More young people aged under 25 (Generation Z) are choosing distance learning, according to a survey by the National Extension College (NEC). But those with the greatest need for education and training – the most disadvantaged – are worryingly underrepresented.

These are the key messages in the report The new online learning generation by the NEC (published on 14 January 2021), based on findings from two surveys of over 200 distance learning students carried out in 2020. Combined with data from their total student population, the report provides insights into the motivations and aspirations of a distinct group of adults and young people studying online for national qualifications before and during the pandemic. 

Key findings 

Distance learning students are getting younger, with just over half aged under 25

Nearly 23 per cent of NEC students are now aged 18-24 and 28 per cent are aged under 18.This contrasts with earlier surveys where the majority of distance learning students were in the 25-44 age group (Millennials). The decline in part time adult education classes in     further education colleges, especially for GCSEs and A levels, is a factor explaining the growth in demand for distance learning from both under 25s and older students, boosted by the Covid-19 lockdowns. (It is significant that the Open University has experienced a rise in degree applications from the 18-24 age group as well.)  Another factor is the trend among the “boomerang” generation to move back in with their parents for economic reasons. 

Finance is the biggest barrier to learning

The main social mobility “cold spot” is affordability, with location, the lack of pre-existing qualifications and ethnicity as other significant factors. Just 18 per cent of NEC students in the survey identified themselves as from BAME backgrounds. Very few students (just under 4 per cent) stated that they received funding towards NEC courses and the majority are on low incomes earning less than £26,000 a year. Finance is a substantial barrier to learning but an issue not highlighted enough in other surveys or by policy makers.

Two thirds of students see their course as a stepping stone in their career journey

Progression to higher education, further education, a professional course or an apprenticeship was mentioned by two thirds of students when asked their reasons for studying with the NEC. More than one third (35 per cent) said that progression to higher education was their main reason for study. A levels are the most popular courses, overtaking GCSEs which were the most popular qualification five years ago. This reflects the increasing professionalism and high entry qualifications needed for many  professions like teaching, nursing and social work. It also supports the findings from other research that those students who are studying now are the most likely to go on to further studies. 

Nearly a quarter of students have a disability or health condition

Half of respondents said they had a mental health condition, nearly one third (32 per cent)   a physical health condition and nearly one fifth (18 per cent) a combination of both. This is always a significant feature with distance learning students as those with health conditions or disabilities find it hard to travel to attend courses.

Impact of Covid-19 

Students studying with the NEC and other distance learning providers like the Open           University have reported adjusting to the Covid-19 pandemic better than peers within mainstream education. Responses from the qualitative survey were split almost equally, with 49 percent saying that restrictions resulting from the pandemic had affected their study in a positive way or not at all. But 51 percent said restrictions had negatively affected their study, citing increased childcare and home schooling responsibilities, difficulties with mental health (including a lack of concentration and motivation) and the lack of study space due to the closure of libraries. The cancellation of exams was also mentioned as a demotivating factor.

One positive outcome is that the pandemic has temporarily reversed the decline in adult learning, with 43 per cent of adults choosing to learn during lockdown, 90 percent of whom are studying through online platforms like the OU’s Open Learn. We are yet to see whether this reversal is short-term or has long lasting effects. Two other outcomes are an increase in demand for digital literacy and for qualifications leading to entry to professions such as teaching and nursing.

Ros Morpeth, Chief Executive of the National Extension College, says:

“There are many positive findings in these surveys. But sadly, adults who would most benefit from learning are the least likely to access it. This is not just the experience of distance learning students; adult learners in general face more barriers than the majority of students. The availability of adult learning opportunities continues to narrow and the sector as a whole is seriously underfunded as adults are overlooked in favour of younger age groups studying through traditional methods. This has a huge impact on the most marginalised within society – those who are disabled, on low incomes and ‘left behind’. Lifelong learning affects every individual in the country. With longer life expectancies and the spectre of automation, individuals will need to upskill and are likely to change careers several times throughout their lifetime. This has been made more urgent by the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to significant job losses and an economic downturn. Now, more than ever, is the time to invest in lifelong learning.” 


  • Reinstate tuition fee grants for all disadvantaged part-time learners and create a learning entitlement for adults Many adults are unable to afford to take on the significant financial commitment of studying for a national qualification. Access to funding should be on the basis     of the interests and aspirations of the individual rather than on meeting skills needs alone. We believe that this could best be achieved through a learning entitlement which a learner could   use at any stage in their life..
  • Remove the barriers to assessment. The barriers and costs of assessment are unnecessary barriers for students who enter national and vocational qualifications as private candidates.
  • Take immediate action to improve digital literacy and access to online distance learning. The government’s new digital skills entitlement is a good first step, However, much more has     to be done to close the digital literacy gap and make online distance learning and the use of   technology within the workplace a possibility for individuals across the country,
  • Make a firm commitment to lifelong learning that is sustained when lockdown restrictions are lifted. The pandemic has dramatically reversed the decline in adult learning, with 43 per cent of adult choosing to learn during lockdown, 90 per cent of whom studied online. This surge in engagement would be a massive missed opportunity if we do not take advantage of it. The government needs to make a bold commitment to lifelong learning in order to sustain engagement.
  • Invest in distance learning and build it into education policy decisions. We are calling for investment in distance learning as a credible alternative to traditional school or college-based   full-time education or apprenticeships. Policy makers need to change their mindset to embrace distance learning instead of assuming that all learners are aged under 21 and studying full time.


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