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Publications:Focus on: Are adults interested in learning?

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Why does adult education attract so few people?


"Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death"  Albert Einstein

In the 1980s, the film Educating Rita struck a chord with many who saw adult education as a major cultural divide. Focusing on a young, working class hairdresser's aspiration to "improve herself" through education, the film revealed in a realistic and often humorous way that academic success for people from such backgrounds doesn't come easily. The obstacles are not a lack of talent, intellectual capacity or motivation – quite the opposite in the case of Rita – but come rather from the social environment and expectations of friends and family. Indeed, the main barrier for Rita comes from her husband's resistance to her aspirations, and his insistence on traditional social and gender roles. But the 1980s were a long time ago, and things have surely progressed a lot since then, haven't they?


Well, according to Eurydice's latest report on adult education, maybe not. Educating Rita was set in 1983 but in 2015, there are plenty of contemporary equivalents to Rita. Around 25 % of adults in the EU have not completed any formal education beyond lower secondary education and 6.5 % of these have not progressed past primary education. However, the real challenge to societies is that these adults with the greatest education needs are the least likely to benefit from adult education. Why is this?


The European Adult Education Survey asked adults who did not participate in education and training to give reasons for their non-participation. More than 80 % – by far the most common response – cited lack of interest. However, this is not the whole story. The Eurydice report demonstrates that participation in lifelong learning is influenced by several factors, including education level, employment status, age and skills. More highly educated and better-employed staff are more likely to have opportunities to access education programmes. For less well-educated and low-income citizens, education is a more difficult proposition. When asked about the obstacles to their participation in lifelong learning, nearly 40 % of these respondents stated that they didn’t need it for their job. This indicates that many do not believe they have the opportunity to develop in their career, and also shows that they attach little value to the idea of learning for learning's sake. 22 % also stated that they did not have time for education because of family responsibilities, while a further 13 % considered provision to be unaffordable.


These findings leave several questions unanswered. Most importantly, should "lack of interest" be considered as an inevitable reality – an individual's state that has to be accepted? Or could it be taken up as a challenge to make adult education more appealing? And given the failure of lifelong learning provision to reach less well-educated citizens, are policies appropriately targeted to those most in need? For example is online information reaching – or missing – its intended audience (and does it have a specific audience in mind)? And in our communities, are we supporting family members and friends who show an interest in pursuing lifelong learning, particularly those people who have only attained the most basic education?


In an interesting remark on Educating Rita, the playwright Willy Russell said that "So many people, particularly women, have told me down the years that it was seeing this play that made them set about achieving their own education. I always say to them: You would have done it anyway". So maybe a strong will and determination are enough for some to succeed in education – whatever their circumstances. However, there remains a large number of people for whom collectively we still need to ask: what could we do differently to motivate them?


Authors: David Crosier and Orla Colclough