Rebalancing adult learning: Research report

How can we break down barriers to lifelong learning and help address the UK skills crisis?

Through our Strategic Partnership, Ufi and the RSA (The Royal Society for Arts Manufacturers and Commerce) have today published research exploring how we can break down barriers to lifelong learning and help address the UK skills crisis.

The report identifies concrete steps for policy makers, businesses, educators, and UK society as a whole.

Download the Rebalancing Adult Learning Research Report

The research comes as a result of our pledge as outlined in the VocTech Challenge White Paper to commission research that addresses the “challenges facing those most impacted by the digital divide” and understand how we can better design learning and use digital tools to overcome confidence and motivation barriers.

Speaking today, Ufi Chief Executive, Rebecca Garrod-Waters said:

“This report shows how we need to shift the debate away from specific industrial skill needs towards a wider understanding of adult learning that is more inclusive and speaks to the real motivations of adults who have not, up to now, engaged in formal learning. In particular, the report sets out how at the core of achieving greater participation in adult learning is the need to develop and deploy the very best technology to support people in gaining new skills.

Our joint report demonstrates that by addressing foundational access to technology and digital skills, by improving learning confidence and by speaking to people’s real motivations to learn, we have the capacity to address the UK skills crisis."

Key findings

This research outlines some of the fundamental barriers that prevent adults from engaging in learning opportunities. These include situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers, as well as technological ones. Key findings include:

  • Digital access and digital skills are foundational needs for learners. Over 50 percent of survey respondents identified access to broadband and digital devices as vital access to learning.
  • Confidence and learner identity that stem from learning experiences are another significant barrier for many. One quarter of adults do not identify as confident learning new things and 17 percent of survey respondents identified a ‘lack of interest in learning’ as a barrier.
  • Situational barriers were found to disproportionately affect women who are more likely to have their learning efforts disrupted by caring responsibilities or competing time demands.

The report also identified the core motivations that help learners to overcome these barriers. The most effective triggers to participation in adult learning were socially driven. Around one third of survey respondents identified a ‘recommendation from a friend’ as a key trigger to learning.

The report makes several practical recommendations on how we can encourage more people to engage in adult learning which will in turn help us to meet societal skills needs:

  • Build foundational skills by providing access to hubs within community settings.
  • Improve access to digital learning by implementing a ‘minimum digital living standard’.
  • Build learner identity with quality assured validation to recognise non-accredited learning.
  • Provide social supports and triggers by ensuring in-person support for people accessing or transitioning between learning.
  • Support blended, flexible and non-linear learning by funding ‘hybrid by default’ adult learning provision.

Andy Haldane, Chief Executive of the RSA said:

"The UK faces a skills emergency - we do not have enough people with the digital, environmental or social care skills to meet the industrial challenges of today, let alone the future.

However, when we only consider the economic or industrial need for skills, we divorce the notion of skills from the people learning them. This report is our attempt to rebalance this ‘skills for jobs’ narrative from the needs of industry towards the needs of learners.”

Tom Kenyon, Head of Enterprise Design at the RSA and author of the report, added:

“These barriers to learning exist for everyone, however, it is the most disadvantaged learners who are most likely to encounter them. The very people who have the most to gain from adult learning are the least likely to participate.”

The research was launched at an online webinar, where Ufi and the RSA were joined by Simon Parkinson (CEO of WEA) and German Bencci (Founder of Code Your Future) for a panel discussion and audience Q&A. The recording of the session will be made available in the coming days.

Explore our work with the RSA