Older people’s learning is changing: new survey from NIACE

16th November 2012

Older people’s learning is showing a big increase in independent and online learning alongside a significant decline in those learning at college or university. This is the headline finding of a major new survey of learning and the over 50s published by NIACE on Monday 19 November.

While the proportion of people aged 50 and over who report that they are engaged in learning has not changed since the last survey in 2005, the numbers learning at college or university have halved, while the numbers learning independently and online have risen.

Other main findings of the report – Older People’s Learning in 2012 – which will be officially launched at a European Conference in Brussels later today, include:

  • A dramatic drop in the proportion of older people learning about ‘computing’, from over 40 per cent in 2005 to just 17 per cent in 2012.
  • A rise in people using computers for learning – 12 per cent of those aged 50 and over are ‘learning online’.
  • Older people are much less likely than younger people to be learning – only one in five over 50s are ‘learners’, compared to two in five of the adult population as a whole. The proportion falls to only 7 per cent of those aged 75 and over.
  • The numbers reporting learning independently have risen dramatically. 16 per cent of people aged 50 and over now report learning, ‘Independently on my own’, and a further 9 per cent ‘Independently with others’. The former figure rises to nearly 30 per cent of learners aged 75 and over (mainly better educated and with internet access), while the latter rises to 14per cent.
  • The proportion studying in further education colleges and universities has halved since 2005 (from 21 per cent to 9 per cent in colleges and from 14 per cent to 8 per cent in universities).
  • More than a quarter of older people say that learning has helped them to pass on skills and knowledge to others. ‘Getting involved in society’ and ‘improving my health’ were also frequently reported (14 per cent and 13 per cent). ‘Getting involved in the digital world’, was a benefit for 10 per cent of respondents, and significant numbers reported that it had helped them to manage caring roles and to cope with life crises.
  • Among the oldest learners (the over 75s) ‘To meet people’, and, ‘Because friends/family/colleagues are also learning’, were cited as the most important reasons for learning.
  • Two-thirds of those who have not learned in the last three years say that it is ‘very unlikely’ that they will do so in the future, and the proportion rises with age. When asked, two-thirds of these ‘non-learners’ said nothing would make learning more attractive.

The report’s author, Professor Stephen McNair, Senior Research Fellow at NIACE, said:

“There has been a transformation in older people’s learning over the last seven years. This survey shows, for the first time, how complex and important the benefits of learning are for older people. Learning, for them, is not just about pursuing interests. It helps them to stay involved in society, to maintain their health, to manage caring roles and to cope with life crises.”

“However, if older people’s learning continues to move out of public institutions and into people’s homes and independent groups, we will need to monitor how effective it remains in tackling inequalities in society. Finally, we have seen a major change in older people’s access to, and use of, computers. Compared to seven years ago, the over 50s are now much less likely to be learning about computers, and more likely to be using them for learning.”