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The Kerslake Collection | Opportunity, access and skills

Growing adult education

One of the reasons the report of the original Civic University Commission, chaired by Lord Kerslake, was so compelling was because it set out such a powerful and practical vision of what a civic university looks like. This was encapsulated in its four tests. A civic university, it showed, is one that can identify its local area and explain what it is doing for it (the strategic test), is aligned to the needs and preferences of people in that place (the place test), generates a sense of pride and ownership in the population (the public test), and does so in a measurable and effective way (the impact test). 

In this essay, I want to argue that engaging adult learners is one of the best ways civic universities can pass those tests and strengthen their connection and benefit to their local communities. Though adult learners have been overlooked in terms of policy, funding and practice for decades, the time is right for a decisive shift in the way we approach them. 

I will come to the data and evidence, but I want to start with an anecdote. A few years ago, I interviewed a number of adult learners as part of a project on the state of adult education. I was bowled over by their passion, enthusiasm and excitement in telling their stories. It was so impressive that it shaped the ultimate recommendations, as we called for government and institutions to better harness the ‘thousands of potential evangelists willing to share their positive experience’ in some sort of ambassador scheme to recruit other learners. If universities want to transform lives in their local community – to have people speak of them with pride and affection, to be visible – they should not ignore the potential of adult learners. 

The discourse around adult education has in recent years tended to be couched primarily in economic terms. This is understandable, since a major motivation for adult learners is to improve their skills and competitiveness in the job market, and a motivation for policymakers to fund it is to improve the flexibility and resilience of the workforce. Indeed, when we at the Social Market Foundation (SMF) examined the consequences of undertaking adult education using the Understanding Society longitudinal survey, we found engaging in study – especially at a tertiary institution – did improve people’s labour-market outcomes. 

In our analysis, adults who undertook a degree or diploma-level course at a university or college saw their incomes rise by 10 percentage points more over five years on average than those who did not (25 per cent versus 15 per cent). By contrast, those who only participated in employer-provided training saw essentially no benefit. The impact was particularly strong for poorer individuals: incredibly, studying at a university or college boosted income growth for those in the bottom income quartile by more than 60 per cent. Moreover, participating in learning increased the likelihood of a person switching job and reduced their chances of unemployment five years later.

These numbers should be treated with a little caution, as our analysis was relatively unsophisticated, simply looking at incomes before and after engaging with education. We do not, for example, try to account for the motivation or personal characteristics of individuals that drive them to enter education, which would likely have served them well in the labour market, anyway. But our analysis corroborates the common-sense idea that lifelong learning boosts economic outcomes. It fits broadly with other research that suggests adult education can raise job satisfaction, carry a wage premium and (perhaps) boost productivity – though the evidence base on adult learners specifically is thinner than we might expect.

As compelling as the evidence on economic benefits is, the evidence that adult education brings personal and social benefit is, if anything, stronger. Engaging in learning has been shown to develop characteristics such as self-confidence and empowerment, as well as individual focus and socialising. These are doubtless valuable traits for success in the labour market, and as such good for the economy, but they are equally important for succeeding in wider life. 

Adult education also seems to instil positive behaviours. One study found that adults from disadvantaged backgrounds who took part in ‘leisure courses’ – things like amateur photography, art or pottery – were three percentage points more likely to give up smoking, and seven percentage points more likely to take up exercise (although those taking lots of leisure courses tended to drink more – perhaps as part of the socialising that comes along with it). Engaging with education was also linked to lower drug use, fewer unhealthy diets and greater likelihood of attending cervical screening.

Adult education appears to have psychological benefits, too. It has been argued that continued education contributes to a ‘cognitive footprint’ that may delay dementia, and some studies suggest it can have a positive effect on mental health. Is it any surprise, then, that adult education seems to make people happier – raising individuals’ life satisfaction and sense of purpose? In general, people’s life satisfaction tends to fall in middle age – but those who participated in education between the ages of 33 and 42 experienced less of a decline, offsetting 35 per cent of the typical fall.

Beyond this, there are the societal benefits of adult education. Engaging with learning seems to help improve people’s parenting skills and involvement with their children’s education. It also appears to increase civic mindedness: encouraging people to be better citizens, and improving social cohesion, tolerance, trust and participation in the democratic process. Adult learners are more likely to participate in clubs and associations. 

None of this is a surprise to those of us who have spoken to adult learners, who are often as positive about these non-cognitive gains as they are about what they actually learned. In our research, the pleasure of learning, the social nature of it, were absolutely central:

‘When I have studied…in terms of self-esteem and self-worth – I feel quite proud.’ 

(Female, 55)

‘[Study] breaks up the monotony of the week… it is a rewarding experience.’ 

(Female, 46)

‘My teacher told me that I’m going to catch the learning bug! I have caught the learning bug because I am carrying on.’ 

(Female, 31)

The Learning and Work Institute’s authoritative Adult Participation in Learning Survey reports that 57 per cent of learners are motivated primarily by work or career reasons, compared with 41 per cent for leisure or personal interest. Yet when they are allowed to choose from a wider range of options and account for multiple simultaneous motives, that gap closes: 57 per cent cite work-related reasons and 57 per cent cite personal and social reasons for learning. Indeed, the leading motivations straddle the distinction, demonstrating its limitations: 38 per cent of learners say they want to learn to develop themselves as a person, or that they are interested in the subject. These figures are also reflected in the perceived benefits of learning. The single biggest change that learners report is that they enjoy learning more (30 per cent), followed by improved self-confidence (25 per cent).All of this means that institutions and policymakers should be paying close attention to adult learning. Encouragingly, reported participation in adult learning rose substantially in the Learning and Work Institute’s most recent survey, with almost half of all adults saying they took part in some form of learning, up eight percentage points on the previous year. But that comes on the back of several years of decline in the 2010s. In international comparisons, the UK fares mid-table at best.

Universities’ role in adult learning has not been particularly creditable in recent years. There was a collapse in mature undergraduate numbers following the introduction of £9,000 fees, from more than 400,000 in 2010-11 to 240,000 in 2017-18 – a drop of 40 per cent. There has been a modest uptick since then, but we remain well short of previous heights. In part, this reflects the design of the student-loans system, which has made it very difficult to borrow for part-time courses. 

The most prominent current policy measure designed to address the specific student-finance issue and the broader decline in adult learning is the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE), which is discussed in more detail in another essay in this collection. It is certainly true that the LLE has the potential to make adult-education funding more accessible and generous for some learners – even if that potential is limited by the fact that it depends on mid-career workers taking on debt. However, achieving that potential will depend on a number of enabling conditions. A critical one is careers information, advice and guidance: people are unlikely to know what they need to study and where they can study it unless there are people to tell them. Our research at the SMF has found that awareness of the National Careers Service, the body responsible for supporting adults, is incredibly low. Investment to boost the numbers and training of adult careers standards is therefore critical. The fact that politicians nevertheless tend to spend more time talking about Jobcentres – organisations with a quite different remit and skillset – is not encouraging.

The key challenge for universities is around their offerings. The other critical success criterion for the LLE is whether institutions develop more flexible, modular courses of the sort that work around the lives and commitments of adult learners. In the 2010s, universities seemed to neglect mature learners, prioritising the relatively easy money of full-time undergraduate courses and international students. A more challenging funding environment may encourage them to be more innovative and civic-minded. Yet universities can be conservative and inflexible – as the lack of progress on credit transfer has shown – so progress for adult learners cannot be taken for granted.

The LLE is not the only game in town, however. The 2022 Skills and Post-16 Education Act has created a new skills policy infrastructure, with which universities’ engagement is inconsistent at present (as much because universities haven’t been actively included as because of lack of desire). Specifically, Local Skills Improvement Plans are intended to root the educational offer in a particular area in the future economic needs of that place. Especially when it comes to reskilling, it would be better to involve universities more in such processes and bring their expertise and resources to bear. The Labour Party’s proposed Skills England body is likely to play another important role in identifying the country’s skills needs, and will be another institution to engage with, should the opposition win the next election.

Devolution is also changing things. Since 2019, the government has started the process of devolving the adult-education budget (AEB) to mayoral combined authorities and the Greater London assembly, which now control over half of the existing budget. The government has set out a framework to allow more areas to take control of the AEB without needing a metro mayor. This presents another opportunity to prioritise adult education and to work with local policymakers to meet key skill needs and help learners achieve their ambitions. 

There are, then, a number of funding pots that the Westminster Government can expand if it wants to help universities achieve their civic mission. Overall, adult education spending is down 30 per cent on its peak 20 years ago. We would not necessarily expect most – or even very much – of this money to go to universities, but they should be a constructive part of the conversation and delivery system, for example, in partnership with FE colleges and other local skills providers. 

Some of the resources necessary for a more ambitious adult-education offer will come from sources like the LLE and the broader student-finance system. But that is not the only way universities may be able to serve adult learners. The striking thing about many of the personal and social benefits from adult learning outlined in the section above is that they can come from less-formal ‘hobby courses’ as well as degree-level study. Those sorts of courses – things like arts, crafts or languages – tend, to the extent that they have survived, to be delivered through colleges. But they need not be. If part of the objective of the civic university is to close the gap between the research carried out by academics and the communities they are embedded in, we can certainly imagine small, accessible courses in subjects such as history, psychology and sociology, which help to kindle and sustain love of learning among adults in the community. Some such courses may even run on commercial grounds, or could operate as tasters for those who might be tempted to continue on to earn full qualifications. 

The changes in the social and technological landscape mean that we may have to think a bit differently about hobby courses now. Online tutorials on YouTube or TikTok, or informative and entertaining podcasts, may be more convenient substitutes in many cases. At the same time, the failure of massive open online courses to live up to some of the more breathless hype they once generated should ensure that we are realistic about demand. Yet in an era of social atomisation and loneliness, the benefits of direct, in-person instruction, and an opportunity to learn together with disparate peers from one’s community, should be attractive, if sold well. 

Universities have come to be identified with delivering education to young people emerging from school, readying them for the workforce. Even when we think about mature university students, we usually imagine them to be learning career-appropriate skills. Those functions are doubtless important, and likely to be the bread and butter of universities for years to come. But to achieve their civic goals, to improve people’s lives, to be more relevant to their local communities, and potentially to identify some alternative revenue sources, universities could do worse than broaden their view and offer a wider range of courses. 

Aveek Bhattacharya

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