Adult education has often been associated with evening classes for older people, such as the wonderful non-formal educational opportunities provided by organisations like the University of the Third Age.
Nevertheless, there is huge value in learning at all stages of life, including for those in their 20s and 30s – for work, self-development, health, happiness and participation in wider community life.
Colleges and universities provide opportunities that include short courses, evening classes, fully online distance-programmes and work-based learning. Adults can study for pleasure, to gain a professional development certificate, or to complete a full undergraduate or postgraduate degree, or even a PhD.
Research has demonstrated the positive impact of lifelong learning. Its transformative effects include developing critical and reflective skills, fostering a better understanding of our place in the world and our relationship with others, and developing a more secure and fulfilled sense of wellbeing.
Despite these benefits, the collapse in further education funding and the introduction of higher university tuition fees has made adult education a noteworthy casualty of austerity. There has been a dramatic decline in the number of adults studying in colleges and universities. Part-time mature student participation decreased by 57% between 2010-11 and 2019-20.
However, there has been a policy shift in the last few years. The UK government recently launched a consultation into the provision of a lifelong loan entitlement, which would provide funding for education to be used over the course of a lifetime.
The expansion of online learning also means there are now considerably more opportunities to get back into study as an adult, especially for those looking to enhance their skills or change career trajectories.
Here are four reasons to think about studying something new – even if you’re at the beginning of your career.
1. The idea of a career has changed
Many of the jobs advertised today would not even have existed when today’s 30-year-olds were in school. While the idea of a “career for life” has not disappeared entirely, the rapid pace and scale of change means that we are more and more likely to move around considerably during our working lifetime. We will take more career breaks, seek more promotional opportunities, or jump ship and start entirely afresh – often on a number of occasions across our working lives.
While we used to think of careers in terms of stability, predictability and incremental progression, we now understand that they can be fractured, complex, messy and unpredictable.
Lifelong learning provides a wide variety of in-work and out-of-work opportunities for people to develop their skills or learn new ones. It provides varied opportunities for adults who didn’t gain qualifications at school to re-enter formal education and qualify for graduate level employment.
2. There are financial incentives
The government’s plan to introduce a lifelong loan entitlement is just one way that future learners may be able to fund their study. Other options are already available, such as degree apprenticeships, which allow learners to study while employed.
These relatively new courses with a salary, no course fees to pay and blocks of learning related to employment are proving understandably popular – especially in digital technologies, leadership, social work and engineering.
3. Lifelong learning has become much more flexible
The last few years have seen an increased emphasis on flexibility, enabling adult learners to fit study around their work and family commitments. The 2019 Augar Review into post-18 education in England encouraged colleges and universities to develop provision that enables learners to “step on” and “step off” their learning journeys – to study when and where it suits.
The pandemic has driven a rapid increase in the quality and quantity of wholly online courses. There is now a vast array of opportunities to study from home, either through a traditional university or via a specialist online organisation like FutureLearn or Coursera.
Another avenue is to opt for microcredentials, which allow learners to complete short, specific, work-based courses online or in person – without the commitment of enrolling on a full three-year programme. Moreover, the credits achieved can normally count towards a degree for those that want to carry on studying.
4. It’s good for your wellbeing
Adult learners bring life experiences and established perspectives with them when they start a course. Active, participatory and discursive learning environments enable them to draw on these experiences, contextualise and interrogate them, and learn from one another.
Educational research has shown us that such “transformational learning” results in happier, healthier individuals, who have stronger social networks and enhanced family life. These positive individual outcomes ripple throughout their families and friendship groups, and across wider communities and society.