Commercial adult education: cupcakes

Demand for adult learning shows no sign of diminishing, yet in many countries the volume of public provision is in decline. That is certainly the case in the UK, where the Learning and Work Institute tracks participation on a regular basis. Meanwhile, provision by voluntary and commercial organisations appears to be thriving.


It isn’t hard to find examples of new forms of private provision: you can spot them simply by walking around with your eyes open. I photographed these images in a shop window while we were heading for coffee in the Edinburgh suburb of Roseburn. While I mustn’t over-generalise on the basis of a narrow and unrepresentative sample of advertising placards, a few thoughts occur to me.

Businesses sometimes offer courses as a by-product of their main activities, as in this case. Consequently the additional costs of running even an extensive course programme alongside the core activity appear to be quite modest. Prices can seem high (my partner, who is not an adult educator, was shocked in this case by the fee of £65 for a two and a half hour class). The offer is unconstrained by government regulation, or by expectations of a community benefit. There is no bar on participation, but there is also no focus on social or educational disadvantage.


Alan Tuckett sometimes compares adult learning to an infestation of weeds: “However hard you try, you can never kill it off”. If it dies off in one place, it soon pops up in another. And while there are benefits from a healthy range of private and voluntary sector provision, I also think there are risks; what we need is a balance, with public policy playing its part alongside other actors.

How can we explain the UK’s strong performance in the European Adult Education Survey?


Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey (AES) suggest that participation across most of Europe is rising. I’ve already taken a look at the figures for Austria, which show a surge in participation following rthe adoption of a national policy for lifelong learning in 2011. But the figures for the UK are equally striking: if the AES is to be believed, participation in the UK rose from 35.8% in 2011 to 52.1% in 2016.

As Tom Schuller pointed out in a comment on my post, the UK’s performance is something of a puzzle. Recent years have seen significant cutbacks in all forms of public adult education provision in all four UK nations. The Learning and Work Institute, which monitors participation rates over time, last year described the continuing falls in participation in all forms of publicly funded adult learning as ‘disastrous’. So what might explain the UK’s strong showing in AES?

First, the AES is confined to adults aged 25-64; the European Commission considers this group a priority because it is of prime standard working age. It is likely, in my view, that cuts in publicly funded adult education impact most heavily on the retired, who do not have access to workplace learning.

Second, the AES is a household survey and covers all participation in the twelve months prior to interview. By contrast, the European Labour Force Survey is a workplace survey which covers training in the previous four weeks. According to the LFS, training participation in the UK fell from 20.5% in 2011 to 18.8% in 2016 (though the LFS shows an even sharper fall between 2010 and 2011).

Third, the AES divides adult learning into ‘formal’ and ‘non-formal’. Its definitions of these terms follows the UNESCO International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). Formal education and training comprise ‘education that is institutionalised, intentional and planned through public organisations and recognised private bodies and – in their totality – constitute the formal education system of a country’, and which is ‘recognised as such by the relevant national education authorities’.

Non-formal education ‘may include for example learning events (activities) that occur in the family, in the work place, and in the daily life of every person, on a self-directed, family-directed or socially-directed basis’, and ‘may cover educational programmes to impart adult literacy, life-skills, work-skills, and general culture’.

In the case of the UK, the AES found a huge rise in participation in non-formal education – from 24.3% to 47.5% between 2011 and 2016; at the same time, participation in formal ecucation and training fell, from 14.8% to 11.9%. In other words, the UK rise in overall participation is due entirely to growth in non-formal learning rather than formal education and training. The Survey also suggests that the growth was particularly strng in job-related non-formal education and training, while non-job-related participation showed a small decline.

This leads me to wonder whether what we are witnessing in the UK is a growth in overall participation rates, combined with a fall in the quality and depth (and cost) of activities. The AES offers some support for this hypothesis, in that it shows a clear drop in the duration of learning: the average time sent by UK participants overall fell from 167 hours in 2011 to 121 hours in 2016. The fall was particlarly marked in the average time spent by participants in formal education and training.

So perhaps an apparent growth in UK participation doesn’t translate simply into more learning going on, but rather a redistribution of opportunity – and thinning of resources.

Any other suggestions out there? Am I daft in ignoring the possibility that AES has got it right, and against all expectations the UK is experiencing a lifelong learning renaissance? Or are the survey results just a blip?

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, the UK’s participation in the AES doesn’t necessarily end with Brexit. Non-EU member states taking part include Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey. Brexit will complicate matters, though: as members of a federal state, it will probably fall to each individual national government – which is where responsibility for education policy lies – to decide whether to continue co-funding AES in the future.

What has Austria got to teach us about adult learning?

Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey are now available. Broadly, they show a rise in learning participation across the continent, with rising participation rates between 2011 and 2016 in eighteen of the nations taking part in both waves, and falls in only six; one country – Norway – reported no change at all.


Austria – worth a closer look?

Growth was particularly strong in Austria, where participation levels among the working age population shot up from 48.8% to 59.9%. It seems unlikely that the 2016 result is a blip, given that the Labour Force Survey also reported comparable growth rates over this period. For an outsider, the obvious question is how we might explain this impressive growth spurt.

An article by two Austrian specialists points to key factors which they think might lie behind rising participation levels. First, the proportion of the workforce involved in workplace learning has risen. Presumably this largely reflects enterprise-level decisions on continuing training investment, as well as a growing willingness to participate on the part of employees.

Second, they attribute growth in ‘non-formal learning’ (the Survey’s term for general adult education) to changes in public policy as well as learner demand. In particular, the authors point to the emerging impact of the Initiative Erwachsenenbildung (‘adult education initiative’), a joint programme of the federal government and the Länder, launched in 2012 to promote free basic skills and second chance courses for adults to achieve lower secondary school leaver qualifications.


The Initiative clearly has its weaknesses, but they seem to result from practical design flaws rather than the underlying concept. An external evaluation noted that the insistence on achieving formal qualifications and rigid limits on the length of participation were deterring some of the very people that the Initiative was designed to reach. Overall, though, it concluded that the Initative was making considerable progress in tackling educational disavantage and was meeting a clear need.

It’s early days in the release of AES findings, and anyway I suppose a cynic would say there’s nothing new in the Austrian adult education initiative. We already know the value of concerted campaigns directed towards well-defined target groups and backed by adequate resources. It’s still useful to be reminded of this, though, particularly at a time when some governments are disinvesting from adult learning. And it is certainly interesting to see the broader evidence of sharply rising participation. If you get the chancd, Austria certainly merits a second look.





We’re so good at switching people off learning

The Matthew effect is well-known among adult educators: the already well-educated get more, and the least well educated get none. So I was interested to read a recent piece of research examining the learning intentions of low-qualified workers (a link is below).

The researchers surveyed 673 workers in 39 organisations, who had few if any school-leaving qualifications. The results were analysed using methods that allowed the researchers to control for a range of variables, so that they could isolate the factors that predict intentions to learn. They also interviewed 14 workers to provide greater depth.

Two factors were clearly linked with intentions to learn in the future. The first was what they called ‘self-directedness’ in their views of work. People who had a high degree of self-directedness placed a higher value on learning. This is an interesting finding, but of course self-directedness is not an abstract and free-floating personal quality – it develops over time as a result of being involved in work and workplace relations that make you feel there is a point to positive planning.

This is why researchers like Lorna Unwin and Alan Felstead have placed so much emphasis in their recent writing on what they call ‘expansive workplaces’ that promote high levels of autonomous learning. And interestingly, one reason why some of the low-qualified workers rejected learning was that they thought it would lead them into more stressful and unpleasant roles.

The second factor was people’s earlier experiences of education.  It wasn’t just that school learning had switched people off, though that was certainly one of the findings. The researchers also reported that learning intentions were higher among those who had learned during working hours, gone on study tours, or had taken part in an innovation project or a study group. For other activities – including self-tuition through online learning and after hours taught classes – there was no positive effect on learning intentions.

In other words, bad memories of schooling are overcome by positive experiences of adult learning. The question is then how we get people back into learning – particularly if they are on the margin of the labour market, in precarious work, or on a fixed-term contract.


‘Examining the learning intentions of low-qualified employees: a mixed method study’, by E. Kyndt, N. Govaerts, L. Keunen and F. Dochy, Journal of Workplace Learning, 25, 3, 2003