Online adult learning: new opportunities to understand what works

29 April 2020

An unprecedented and wide-ranging economic downturn is on the horizon due to Covid-19. The full economic impact will not be known for some time but it has already had a serious negative impact on the labour market with employment rates taking a significant hit and 1.4 million additional Universal Credit claims generated since the crisis began. What is clear from our own research and from that of others, is that the negative economic effects of this crisis are likely to disproportionately affect women, younger people and low earners. Even before the pandemic, the CBI predicted that 9 in 10 workers will need to acquire new skills or retrain by 2030 with issues such as automation and environmental challenges changing the nature of work. The ONS similarly predicted that 1.5 million jobs (7.4% of the total) were at risk of automation alone. When adult learning is at an all-time low, how do we best support people to retrain and learn new skills in uncertain times?

In 2018, the Department for Education launched the National Retraining Scheme (NRS). The programme targets people whose jobs are most at risk of automation and have not engaged actively in learning for some time. These include people over the age of 24 who are already in work, have not had access to degree level education and fall into medium or low pay categories. The goal is to engage people with training opportunities to increase their career adaptability in changing economic landscapes. Our work on the NRS Cost and Outreach Pilots and Decisions of Adult Learners projects has generated insights on the motivational barriers to learning that adults often face even when practical barriers – such as providing flexible online learning and offering low/no cost options – are removed. While motivation to learn new skills may be driven by the economic downturn, there is still work to do in identifying effective ways to engage adults in learning and developing skills for the labour market post Covid-19.

Learning and Work Institute today announces a partnership with Nesta supporting the evaluation of the CareerTech Challenge Fund. The £2.8 million fund presents an opportunity for innovation companies and learning providers to develop solutions to the challenge of engaging adults in learning online and support them to develop a range of career adaptability skills. L&W’s evaluation will generate evidence of what works – and for whom.

In recent years, automation has often been held up as the primary facilitator of major labour market change but, as recent events have shown, multiple factors will influence our future relationship with work. Rather than being stalled by the complexities of these developments, there is plenty of reasons to engage with them and move forward.


David Southgate, Economic Researcher

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