We are testing a new beta website for gov.scot go to new site

Looking to Learn: Investigating the Motivations to Learn and the Barriers Faced by Adults Wishing to Undertake Part-Time Study



3.1 This chapter addresses the question of who participates, and by extension who does not participate, in adult learning. Most of the work done on participation sets out to address this question, and though it provides interesting background information it consistently fails to tackle some of the critical issues. The international literature over the last half-century shows that more educated people tend to be more involved in adult learning, as do employed people from upper classes. The benefits of adult learning, despite the rhetoric of access and widened participation, tend to accrue to those who are already doing well. The types of issues unaddressed include why people from lower socio-economic classes do not participate in formal or non-formal adult learning even when it is designed to recognise their needs. The mass of participation literature, whatever the location or educational form, tends to repeat the findings that some social groups participate and others do not without looking in detail at the factors involved.

3.2 Some information can be gleaned from these studies. If, for example, we know that older people participate less than people in their 30s and 40s, we can suggest that perhaps provision is not well designed for this age group. Care is necessary with this kind of broad attribution, however. We also know that the dominant reasons for participating in adult learning are vocational, suggesting that it is entirely logical that older people would participate less. So while studies of who participates can provide some clues to the structural aspects of participation they certainly do not provide complete answers.

3.3 There are a number of important UK and Scottish studies to review, though it has to be recognised immediately that there are extremely significant differences in the way each of the studies develops the idea of participation into a theoretical tool. This means that numerical data cannot be compared directly between the studies. Whatever the approach taken, it is interesting to note that the same factors are consistently identified as being correlated with participation. Most of these studies are based in the specific academic discipline of adult education, but are extremely relevant to the broader question of lifelong learning addressed in the present study.

Scottish Studies

3.4 One of the most important Scottish studies was published just before the cut-off date of 1990, and I have chosen to include it. This was the 1988 'Adult Participation in Education and Training Report' published by the Scottish Centre for Research in Education (Munn & MacDonald, 1988). In this study the researchers adopted the notion of the 'adult returner,' an individual over 20 years of age with a break of at least 2 years from initial full-time education. This is a useful notion for targeting a particular group of learners. Participation in this case was defined as 'any course or systematic programme of learning which lasts for a total of 7 hours or more within a three month period' (p.3). This inclusive definition embraces both full-time learners and those whose participation is below what might usually be considered part-time, and so the figures can be expected to be on the high side.

3.5 In the study's sample of 1826, 42% could be defined as adult returners, suggesting that a lot of Scottish adults are engaged in educational activity. This was divided almost equally between men and women. In more detailed analysis, there are significant differences between social groups, as expected from other literature. Social classes AB have a 74% participation rate compared to 23% for classes DE 1. There were dramatic differences between the educational qualifications of returners and non-returners, with 15% of returners having advanced education compared to 4% of non-returners. The preferred mode of attendance was part-time in the evening (45%), with part-time day attendance getting 23% support and full-time a relatively small 15%. It seems that adult returners are strongly in favour of part-time attendance.

3.6 Reasons for not participating in adult education included 'not really interested' (28%), 'no time' (16%), 'children/dependents' (13%), and 'wouldn't help in a job' (8%). Reasons for participation were that the participant 'thought it would help in my job' (19%), was 'interested in the subject' (17%), or 'thought it would be useful to me' (15%). It is worth noting that this third category could also refer to vocational benefits. When asked for reasons for return defined by returners, the current job and personal interests were both mentioned by 41%, a potential job was mentioned by 17%, and increasing qualifications by 19%. The authors of this report (Munn & MacDonald, 1988) suggest that there is widespread lack of interest in returning to education and training, and that this lack of interest may come from negative school experiences.

3.7 The situation 16 years later is not as dramatically different as might be expected given the growing importance of lifelong learning rhetoric. In 2004 Slowey (2004) analysed the Scottish responses to the survey on adult participation in learning conducted by the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education ( NIACE) on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills. NIACE used a very broad definition of learning that included self-directed learning and study, and found that 25% of adult Scots were involved in some kind of learning and a further 19% had been in the previous three years. The 44% total is remarkably similar to the 42% identified by Munn & MacDonald (1988) yet uses a considerably broader definition. Altogether, two-thirds had been involved in educational activity since leaving full-time education.

3.8 Many of the same patterns held true. Individuals with degrees made up 43% of recent learners and only 14% of non-recent learners. Gender seemed to make little difference in the overall pattern of participation. Social class still played a central role, with almost half of those not participating from social class DE and 15% from AB. Recent learners were younger than those who had not recently participated in learning.

3.9 Overall, further education colleges and the workplace are the two most frequently mentioned locations for learning. Interestingly, the location of learning was strongly stratified by class. Groups AB were most likely to be learning at university (28%), the workplace was dominant for groups C1 and C2 (29/30%), and further education colleges were almost equally important for C2 (29%) and dominant for DE. Education and class are still significantly linked in Scotland.

3.10 In terms of the time spent in learning activities, the majority (54%) spent less than 10 hours a week on their main subject. This implies that 46% spend more than ten hours a week, remarkably high given the breadth of the definition of learning, which would tend to bring in a higher number of short learning projects. One in five women and one in twenty men were committing over 30 hours per week to learning. This suggests that women may be more engaged in part-time learning.

3.11 The NIACE survey used a forced choice menu of options for identifying the motivations for learning. Interest in the subject (35%), the enjoyment of learning (30%), and advancement in their current job (29%) were the most commonly selected motivations. The study did not address barriers in any substantive way.

UK studies

3.12 NIACE has been conducting surveys on adult participation in learning for over a decade, and are the most well known source of such statistics. The UK figures are different from the Scottish analysis presented above, but the trends are consistent. Having a longitudinal series of surveys means that change over time can be detected in a way not currently possible with the Scottish statistics. It is interesting to compare the later English and Welsh figures with ones from the early 1990s, and any trends that show up may also be relevant to Scotland, allowing tentative propositions about the development of participation over time. It is useful to examine participation studies chronologically despite serious concerns about their comparability.

3.13 One important study from around 15 years ago (Sargant, 1991) looked specifically at policy implications arising from the patterns of participation. The report was based on interviews with 4,608 people over the age of 17 from England, Scotland, and Wales. The study found that 10% of respondents were currently studying, and a further 16% had studied within the previous three years. Another 10% are engaged in self study of some sort, making a total of 36% involved in learning over the three years before the study. About 3% of the sample were still at school or in some form of full-time post-school study such as university. More men were involved in study than women (31% vs 27%), and there was a significant division between the people studying for a qualification (mostly male) and those studying in areas not leading to a qualification (mostly female).

3.14 The main influence on participation was social class, with 42% of ABs current or recent learners compared with 17% of DEs. Generally minority ethnic groups participated at a rate comparable with the upper classes of the white population. The subjects for study are predominantly vocational, with arts and social science having lost learners over the ten years leading up to the 1991 report. The main reasons for people preferring part-time study are availability of time, money and the existence of work and family pressures. Sargant argues that:

What is serious is the failure of policy makers to get to grips with providing a proper framework for support for the financing and organisation of part-time post-school learning, clearly the preferred, if not the only available, mode of study for the majority of adults. (Sargant, 1991, p.17)

3.15 Finally, Sargant (1991) also found that four out of ten adults who were not currently studying and who had not studied recently were interested in studying, suggesting that there is significant potential to support learning among people who are currently not engaged in it.

3.16 At around the same time an influential study on the routes adult learners took through education was published (McGivney, 1992). The study found that those who participated in learning very frequently did so for vocational or vocationally related reasons, but the author suggested that the learners themselves did not discriminate enough between vocational and non-vocational outcomes for this to be a meaningful distinction.

3.17 Some interesting patterns of participation and progression did emerge from the data. 'There is substantial evidence that women, more than any other group, make use of adult and community education opportunities, including those provided by local voluntary organisations, to make their way back into formal education or employment' (McGivney, 1992, p.22). Other groups, such as ethnic minority, unemployed, literacy and older learners, also frequently used community-based education as a pathway to other outcomes. The implications of this analysis lie not so much in participation in community-based programmes, which generally have open access policies, but in the next level of participation. If people are using community based learning as a route to participation in Further and Higher Education, it is critical that formal education provides access to learners from community-based programmes. There has been a number of initiatives designed to achieve wider access for learners.

3.18 Both of the studies above mention the difficulty of tracking students and of making sense of their movements and development over time. This continues today, as there is no uniform system of collecting and collating data on learners in order to follow their learning careers. While such a system has worrying shades of surveillance about it, it may well prove to be the only way to truly understand and react to the issues of a society where learning becomes a universal activity.

3.19 By the late 1990s there was little change (Sargant, Field, Francis, Schuller, & Tuckett, 1997). The 1996 NIACE survey on adult participation in learning interviewed 4,673 people over the age of 17 to find out about their participation in adult learning, and found that 23% were learning at that time, with a further 17% have been involved in learning in the previous three years, for a total of 40% either currently or recently learning. Social class was a key factor in determining likelihood of participation, as was employment, with half of employed people current or recent learners. The single strongest predictor of participation in adult learning was the length of initial education. Just under three quarters of learners of working age are studying for a qualification. The main reason for taking up learning was promotion at work, and the main barrier was work and other time pressures. Interestingly, more than 9 in 10 (93%) believed that learning is something people do throughout their lives.

3.20 The 2004 NIACE survey of adult participation in learning follows many others by identifying the factors affecting participation as socio-economic class, age, employment status, and education beyond the minimum school leaving age. The 2004 survey shows the lowest participation rate since the adoption of the current survey format, with 19% of adults currently participating and 38% having participated over the last three years. Adults in socio-economic groups ABC1 are more than twice as likely to be learning as those in groups DE. Nearly three-fifths of the members of socio-economic group DE have not participated in learning since leaving school (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 2004). The NIACE survey participation rate is in line with previous iterations, and there is little reason to believe that there are significant trends towards greater or lesser degrees of participation-in fact, there is remarkably little change since the early 1990s despite the increased attention given to adult and lifelong learning in policy.

3.21 There are two further important sources of data on the UK level. One is the National Adult Learning Survey ( NALS)(Fitzgerald, Taylor & La Valle, 2003), which suggests that 76% of respondents had taken part in some learning over the last three years. This is a much higher figure than other surveys, though given the broad definition of learning applied in the survey it may be more in line with intuitive expectations. Nonetheless, the discrepancy is important to note. The factors influencing participation remained the same: age, educational background, employment, financial circumstances, and local deprivation. The report claims that 'the national learning target for adult participation has been met' (p.1) in gross percentage terms despite the significantly lower participation of some under-represented groups such as those with no qualifications (29%).

3.22 The Pathways in Adult Learning Survey ( PALS) (Snape, Bell & Jones, 2004) is an attempt to understand longitudinal patterns of participation in learning based on the NALS samples and data. Of the PALS sample, 58% were involved in learning both at the time of the 2001 NALS and the PALS follow up in 2003. When examining barriers, PALS found that those who continued to learn often had more formal barriers than those who dropped out, and that 'practical barriers such as lack of time due to work commitments may be more easily overcome than barriers related to a lack of motivation to learn' (p.7). Interestingly, relatively low percentages of people citing a specific barrier said they would be likely to participate in learning if that barrier were removed. For example, only 30% of those citing childcare as a barrier said they would participate if childcare were provided. Overall, PALS underlines the complexity of participation patterns once more.

Participation in Further and Higher Education

3.23 It is worth noting that despite efforts to widen access to Further and Higher Education there is still widely differential access at the level of traditional students. One way of looking at this is to divide the population into five groups by deprivation, ranging from the least deprived (most privileged) 20% to the most deprived 20%. In a perfectly equitable system 20% of students would come from each group or "quintile". Currently in Scotland the ancient universities draw 38% of their students from the least deprived 20% of the population and 8.5% from the most deprived (Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, 2004). This means the least deprived group are twice as highly represented as their numbers suggest they should be, and the most deprived group are half as represented. The average in Scotland across all higher education institutions is 28% from the least deprived, 13.3% from the most deprived-a great deal better than in England and Wales. There is also limited evidence of a trend towards growing numbers of students from the most deprived groups over the last few years in Scotland while this is not the case in the UK as a whole (Department for Education and Skills, 2005).

3.24 Further Education colleges do a far better job with deprivation indices, with each quintile being represented by close to 20% of the student body (Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, 2004). Across all institutions, 37% of students are part-time, and 47% are mature learners (over 21 at time of entry to study). It would be interesting to break down the figures further, in order to examine the types of courses mature learners are doing, and how strongly maturity correlates with part-time status or the deprivation index. Some of these correlations have been calculated for the UK as a whole, and show that between 1994/1995 and 2003/2004 the proportion of mature students increased from 59% to 60%, and over 90% of part-time students in the UK are mature students (Department for Education and Skills, 2005). In summary, Further Education colleges are serving people from diverse backgrounds relatively effectively, and are working intensively with part-time and older learners.


3.25 The many surveys conducted on participation in adult learning have come up with a consistent list of factors that matter-educational experience, work status, social class and age. They have also come up with a consistent level of participation at around 40% of the adult population. On the positive side, this suggests that there are many more people who could become involved in learning, though more negatively it shows how far we may have to go to develop a rich learning society. The UK participation rate is higher than many other OECD countries, though the factors affecting participation are strongly consistent across the OECD countries (O'Connell, 1999). Vocational benefits are far and away the strongest motivation for participation in learning.

3.26 Though the surveys cited generally show that there has been little change in who participates in adult education over the last fifteen years, there are two factors to bear in mind. The first is the difficulty of getting reliable figures for participation in learning, an international issue (Collins, Brick, Kim, & Stowe, 1997). The second issue, at least for the present study, is that these large scale surveys do not provide any insights into concrete policy measures. Knowing that people from social classes DE, or people with less initial education, participate less in adult education is a long way from knowing what to do about it. There is a need for future research to tackle the specific issues of why people with these backgrounds do not participate in learning. We know to whom access may need to be widened, but as yet there is little indication of what it would take to do this.