UK risks falling behind post-Brexit as new survey shows number of adults improving their skills has fallen to record low

7 September 2019

Largest survey of its kind shows just one in three adults have taken part in learning in the last three years and widening inequalities in access to learning

The number of adults taking part in learning and training has fallen to a record low according to a new survey, raising concerns that the UK is set to fall behind other countries in skills after Brexit.

Lifelong learning has never been more important. Rapid advances in technology are transforming the world of work, with a third of jobs at high risk of automation. Being able to re-train and upskill throughout a career will be vital to enabling adults to adapt and succeed. Participation in lifelong learning is also linked to a range of social outcomes, from health and wellbeing to community cohesion. But significant and growing inequalities in access to learning risk leaving some adults and communities behind in post-Brexit Britain.

Learning and Work Institute’s adult participation in learning survey – the largest of its kind – has been tracking the number of adults taking part in education or training since 1996. The most recent data shows that just one in three adults (35%) have taken part in learning in the last three years, the lowest figure on record, and down from 37% in 2017. The survey showed the biggest regional gap in participation on record, with participation as low as 29% in the south west, and 30% in Yorkshire and the Humber and Northern Ireland.

The survey, which questioned 5,000 adults across the UK, identifies stark inequalities in access to learning, with participation being lowest among adults who could benefit most:

  • Age of leaving education – just 18% of adults who left education at 16 or under have taken part in learning in the last three years, compared to 45% of those who left education at 21 or older. This participation gap has widened in the last year;
  • Social class – 48% of adults in higher social grades (AB) have taken part in learning in the last three years, compared to 20% of adults in lower social grades (DE). This participation gap has widened by 3 percentage points in the last year;
  • Employment status – 40% of full time employees participated in learning in the last three years, compared to 17% of people out of work and not seeking employment;
  • Age – Older adults are far less likely to take part in learning; with each additional year of age the likelihood of an individual taking part in learning falls by 1.3%

The survey shows adults who have not recently taken part in learning are unlikely to say they would be likely to do so in the future. Among adults who have not engaged in learning since leaving full time education, just 16% said they would take part in learning in the future. Among adults currently taking part in education, 77% expect to do so again.

With participation at a record low, recent Learning and Work Institute analysis shows that progress in improving the skills and qualification levels of the workforce has stalled, and that the UK is at risk of falling behind in skills post-Brexit. By 2030 – out of 17 countries taking part in the international PIAAC survey – the UK is on course to fall from 10th to 14th for basic literacy, and from 11th to 14th for basic numeracy.

While the government recently announced a significant funding increase for 16-19 further education of £400m as part of the one year financial settlement, there was no additional funding for adult education. The adult education budget has fallen by half over the last decade, with participation in publicly funded adult learning also declining by half.

Stephen Evans, Learning and Work Institute’s chief executive, said:

Participation in lifelong learning has huge benefits for individuals and communities; for employers and the wider economy. If we are to adapt to transformative changes in the world of work, we need a real focus on adult skills, with opportunities to upskill and retrain throughout our careers.  

 “Lifelong learning has never been more important. So it should be a real cause for concern that participation has fallen to a record low, leaving the UK at risk of falling behind other countries.

“This survey should serve as a wake up call, encouraging us to redouble our efforts to make lifelong learning accessible for all, and to invest in adult education.”


For more information or interview opportunities, contact Rhian Short, marketing and communications manager, [email protected] 0116 204 4217 or 07880 724062

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