Why we need to act now to encourage more adult learners

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Adult Learners’ Week celebrates learners that have taken the plunge back into education at a later stage in life. In this post AAT Chief Executive, Jane Scott Paul, argues that if the UK is to remain competitive in a global market it has to act now, not later, in encouraging more adult learners

Every year, I read in awe the success stories of those who embrace learning as an adult. Many have overcome hardships. Many (if not all) have hectic lives already brimming with family and work commitments, but still they find the time to upskill, learn and gain qualifications.

Just recently I heard about one AAT student who worked 14 hour days as a chef, but desperately wanted to change careers to address his work/life balance to spend more time with his son. After trying to find work within the industry but not making much headway he made the decision to fund his own studies through the AAT Accounting Qualification.

Why encouraging adult learners is so important

Adult learners take their learning seriously when self-funding and parting with their hard-earned cash. It’s a huge commitment in terms of money, but also time. Adult learners are extremely dedicated students with a drive to succeed. We should be encouraging them.

But the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) Adult Participation in learning survey released in May last year showed the number of adults that had participated in learning at least once over the previous three years was declining. In fact, it dropped from 43% in 2010 to 38% in 2012. This year the decline could be even greater.

Why is there a decline in adult learners?

The statistics already in the public domain look truly bleak. The Higher Education Funding Council confirms there has been a 40 per cent reduction in part-time learners since 2010 in the higher education sector.

The statistic seems to have gone unnoticed. Is it that universities and colleges are not concerned about catering to the needs of those wanting to study part-time who are mainly adult learners? Or is it that the hike in tuition fees means that for many adult learners education is simply out of reach?

Are Advanced Learning Loan the answer?

Advanced Learning Loans have been introduced for the over 24s, but there has been a lack of take up. Either people aren’t aware of them or are fearful of taking on debt (even on favourable terms) when times are tough.

It is not only saddening, but also worrying, that there is such a lack of investment in people who do not hold qualifications and don’t feel they have the opportunity to go back into education once they’ve left the schooling system – especially if that schooling system failed them first time round.

Training budgets have also been slashed across sectors of business, which means those that have the right attributes (and would normally receive support by employers) don’t have the opportunity to access funding and support for further study.

If we want a nation that is competitive in a global market we have to act now, not later.

Why an adult learner aged 30 is important to the UK economy

We need to be a country of highly skilled professionals and we need a workforce that is evolving to meet the demands of employers. Someone at age 30 still has 30 years of their working life ahead of them. If they are not upskilling within that time, they risk not staying relevant to the fast pace of the changing working world.

There is a huge pool of adults out there who would jump at the chance to study and retrain, so the solution must lie in more Government investment and more employer engagement and incentive.

We must also ensure that the welfare system encourages people who want to return to learning.

More advice on Adult Learners’ Week can be found on its official website.

Jane Scott Paul was AAT's Chief Executive between 1997 and 2014.

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