The UK falls behind many other countries in the number of adults taking part in education. Although the 2021 Adult Participation in Learning Survey (APLS) showed a slight uptick in participation compared to previous years, not everyone has equal access to training opportunities.
Who you are shapes your likelihood of taking part in learning as an adult. People from higher socio-economic backgrounds are 1.5 times more likely to take part in learning, according to the APLS. People who finished studying when they were 21 or older were also more likely to be accessing training than those who left school or college at 16. Ethnicity also matters, with white people being less likely to study as an adult than ethnic minorities.
People who are already working are also consistently more likely than unemployed people to access training, and this gap has actually widened since 2019.
Taken together, this means that people who would potentially benefit the most from training opportunities are the least likely to be accessing them.
Along with these challenges, funding for further education in England has fallen sharply over the past decade. Real-term spending on classroom-based adult education in England dropped by about half from 2009-10 to 2019-20, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) 2020 annual report on education funding. Funding hasn’t improved markedly since 2020.
Our Work Foundation report, Learning To Level Up, found that several factors can also make it more difficult for people to access training. These include being on lower pay, having caring responsibilities and working hours and time pressures. Our own analysis of the 2017 Skills and Employment Survey showed that 21 per cent of working parents felt childcare costs to be a barrier to accessing training.
These barriers to training are even greater for people who rely on welfare benefits to get by.
The benefits system requires many people who are unemployed or working on low pay to spend up to 35 hours a week looking for new jobs. Because of this, they can’t take part in training that might allow them to get a better-paid role. Failing to meet this requirement would lead to a sanction, a reduction in their benefit payments. This blanket approach ignores that people end up on Universal Credit due to varied circumstances, including temporary situations like changes in caring responsibilities.
This is particularly concerning given that individuals on Universal Credit are either out of work or working on a very low income. In-work poverty is rising sharply. Sixty-eight per cent of working-age adults living in poverty have someone in their household who is working – the highest figure since records began, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. And the number of people needing to top up their earnings with welfare benefits like Universal Credit has more than doubled since the pandemic.
For individuals in these circumstances, access to training could offer a route to more secure, better paid work. But Universal Credit’s “work first” approach risks trapping people in low-paid, insecure roles with limited progression opportunities, making them more likely to rely on benefits in the future. Given the challenges we face – industrial transition, spiralling living costs and rising in-work poverty – we need a benefits system that supports people to build new skills throughout their working lives.
The best place to start would be giving people on Universal Credit more time to study, with access to tailored careers advice and the kind of courses and training that might unlock better job opportunities and careers.
Over the longer term, more fundamental reforms, including better co-ordination between the benefits and education systems and new funding and flexible training options will be needed to ensure Universal Credit supports people into good jobs and meets their needs.
Olivia Gable is a policy analyst and Melanie Wilkes is head of research at the Work Foundation, which is running a new study on Universal Credit and access to training