Adult Learning in Decline? Recent Evidence at UK National and City-Region Level

This paper draws on analysis of Labour Force Survey data and a newly-constructed dataset for 44 British city-regions to examine recent trends in adult learning,
including participation in a wide variety of education activities – both vocational and leisure-related in nature – as well as in job-related training.

It finds that in 2002 some 33% of all people aged 25-59 participated in formal education, job-related training or leisure education, or some combination of these
activities. This represented an increase from 29% in 1999. However, by 2009 this proportion had declined to 31%. All three components of the combined measure of adult learning contributed to this decline but the steepest fall occurred in the proportion engaged in leisure or similar education.

Falling participation in different forms of adult learning represents a setback for recent government policy aimed at promoting lifelong learning. The decline has
primarily involved people aged between 30 and 49 and those classified as unemployed or economically inactive. Although better-qualified people are still more
likely than low-qualified people to engage in adult learning, the probability of engaging in such learning has also declined for all qualification groups at NVQ2 and above in recent years.

The analysis also reveals sharp regional inequalities in adult participation in training. In some city-regions job-related training rates for 25-59 year olds are three
times higher than in other areas. These disparities in adult training rates are mirrored by equally large gaps between city-regions in employment rates and skill
levels. Adult training rates at city-region level are strongly positively related to the proportion of the workforce with high-level skills (NVQ Level 4 or above). Adult training is also positively influenced by the share of financial and business services in employment and the annual growth rate in the population of working age (which captures the net effects of changes in age structure and migration into city-regions). By contrast, adult training rates at city-region level tend to be lower, the larger is the share of older people (aged 50-retirement) in the total workforce. The large differences in adult training rates between city-regions have not diminished in recent years even though gaps in employment rates and skill levels have narrowed to some extent. These regional disparities in training rates compound the problems faced by government policy-makers in their efforts to encourage adult skills upgrading.