Adult Participation in Learning Survey – Five key takeaways from our 25th year

Sophie Hall, Researcher at Learning and Work Institute


09 11 2021


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Learning and Work Institute’s centenary year also marks the 25th year since our first annual Adult Participation in Learning survey took place. Each year, our survey – the largest of its kind – provides 5,000 adults with a broad definition of learning, encompassing both formal and informal learning opportunities, and asks them when they last took part. This provides a unique overview of the level of participation in learning by adults across the UK.

Much has changed since our first survey took place. Longer working lives combined with a shifting economy and labour market have led to an increased need for adults to retrain and upskill. Alongside this, advances in technology have led to more opportunities for learning – this year, seven in 10 learners did at least some of their learning online, and over a third completed their learning independently.

Despite these changes, some things have remained constant – one of these being the stark inequalities in participation in learning across social groups. If we are to successfully engage more and different adults in learning, then we need to understand which adults are missing out, their barriers to learning, and what might encourage them to engage. Below are five key takeaways from this year’s survey which offer some insights.

1. Overall participation in learning has increased

This year’s survey shows that 44 per cent of adults have participated in learning in the last three years. This is the highest level of participation in recent years and the first increase since 2015, which in part may reflect the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic as people reflect on their career goals and/or develop new interests.

Participation in learning, 1996-2021

figure 2 APLS

Base: all respondents to each survey. Weighted base for 2021 = 5,054; unweighted base for 2021 = 5,058.

Results for 2020 were impacted by a change in methodology due to the Coronavirus lockdown and have been excluded. The 2021 survey was conducted online (rather than using face-to-face interviews) – this change in method should be taken into account when looking at trends

2. However, there are persistent inequalities between social groups

Younger adults, those who left full-time education later, and those in work are all significantly more likely to have taken up learning in the last three years. Meanwhile, adults in lower socio-economic groups (DE) are twice as likely than those in higher socio-economic groups (AB) to have not participated in learning since leaving full-time education. These findings are consistent with those from previous surveys, showing that while overall participation has increased, inequalities based on age, social class and proximity to the labour market remain.

3. Adults are increasingly learning for leisure or personal interest

In line with findings from previous surveys, adults are most likely to take up learning for reasons related to their work or career. However, the proportion of adults learning for leisure has increased from just a fifth in 2019 to 44 per cent this year. Could this reflect that adults have developed new hobbies and interests as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns?

4. Adults experience a range of barriers to participating in learning

Adults who have not engaged in learning in the last three years are most likely to raise age, cost and time pressures as barriers. Moreover, around three in 10 adults (29 per cent) who had not recently taken part in learning said that nothing had prevented them from doing so. This points to the importance of not only providing practical and financial support for learners, but also actively promoting the benefits of learning to increase the value that adults place on learning.

5. Adults who take part in learning say that they feel more confident, enjoy learning more, and have improved their skills for work

When asked about their main reasons for taking up learning, adults most commonly said that they were interested in the subject or that they wanted to develop themselves as a person. Enjoying learning more and improved self-confidence were identified as key benefits of taking up learning, alongside improved skills for employment. These findings emphasise the need to ensure that opportunities for learning tap into adults’ personal interests and ambitions.

Our research consistently tells us that when adults participate in learning, they benefit both personally and professionally. While an increase in participation is welcome news, work is still needed to tackle persistent inequalities and ensure that those who could benefit most from learning have the opportunity to do so.

Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2021

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