National survey records adult participation in learning at a historic high but identifies persistent inequalities between groups


06 11 2023

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A national survey reveals a positive picture of adult participation in learning, tempered by persistent inequalities by social class and geography.

Learning and Work Institute (L&W) has tracked the number of adults taking part in learning through an annual Adult Participation in Learning survey, the largest of its kind, and now in its 27th year. The results for 2023 – released on Monday 6 November, the first day of Lifelong Learning Week – show that almost one in every two adults in the UK (49%) have taken part in learning in the last three years. This is a statistically significant increase (+8 percentage points) on the participation rate in 2022 and the highest recorded since the survey began in 1996.

This historic high reflects increasing numbers of people learning for leisure since the pandemic, often online and independently. Recent L&W research has revealed that individuals in the UK invest £7.3 billion a year and £55 billion worth of time in learning – more than the Government and employers invest in learning and skills.

This picture contrasts with sharp falls in employer investment in training, down 26% per employee since 2005, and cuts in public spending on learning, down £1 billion in England compared to 2010. Together this shows adults have an innate interest in learning and have taken advantage of new ways to access learning, but face reduced opportunities to take part in formal learning that can have added benefits, including providing accreditation that can aid careers. This highlights the importance of widening access to all forms of learning so people don’t limit their chances to progress in learning.

Explore the Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2023

For 27 years, the Adult Participation in Learning Survey has provided a unique insight into adult learning across the UK.

In addition, there are stark and persistent gaps in participation in learning between demographic groups and geographic areas. These need to be more effectively tackled for everyone to have a fair opportunity and for the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda to succeed.

Adults in lower socio-economic groups (DE) remain twice as likely to not have participated in learning since leaving full-time education compared to those in higher socio-economic groups (AB). While this gap had narrowed slightly in recent years, it has increased again between 2022 and 2023.

Meanwhile, of the four UK nations, only England has shown a substantial increase (+9 percentage points) in participation rates since 2022, leading to a gap in participation across the UK which was not evident in last year’s survey. Among English regions, London continues to have the highest participation rate, in part because of its younger and more highly qualified population. The North East has the lowest participation in learning. Worryingly the gap between London and the UK region with the lowest participation rate seems to have widened somewhat since the pandemic, standing at 23 percentage points, compared to an average of 13 percentage points 2000-2019.

However, there has been a welcome decline in the gaps in participation in learning between the oldest and youngest age groups, suggesting older learners are taking advantage of new opportunities to learn online. This is particularly welcome given the health and wellbeing benefits of adult learning, and our aging population.

Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said:
The increase in adult participation in learning is good news, and the survey indicates that this is driven by adults being motivated to learn for leisure post-pandemic. The Government and employers need to reverse their reductions in investment in learning to tap into this interest and ensure people’s opportunities to learn aren’t capped and cut off. It's good to see some narrowing in inequalities in learning, particularly by age. But the gaps remain stark and persistent and if anything, geographical differences have widened. This is where Government policy needs to step in to help level up opportunity so everyone can access learning.

Discover Lifelong Learning Week 2023

Part of our flagship Festival of Learning campaign, Lifelong Learning Week offers the opportunity for organisations, education providers and lifelong learning advocates to collaborate on conferences, talks, learning taster sessions and more.