Breaking down barriers to lifelong learning can help address UK skills emergency, says new report

Press release

London, 9 November 2022 – Today the RSA (royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) and Ufi VocTech Trust (Ufi) have published new research on the lifelong learning landscape. It explains how we can address the skills crisis in the UK and build a society that enables, recognises and values learning for everyone.

The UK has one of the highest shares of under-qualified workers among OECD countries, and workers most impacted by forces of automation and the pandemic are often those furthest away from accessing lifelong learning opportunities.

Andy Haldane, Chief Executive of the RSA said, "The UK faces a skills emergency - we do not have enough people with the digital, environmental or social care skills to meet the industrial challenges of today, let alone future.

“However, when we only consider the economic or industrial need for skills, we divorce the notion of skills from the people learning them. This report is our attempt to rebalance this ‘skills for jobs’ narrative from the needs of industry towards the needs of learners.”

Our survey revealed that personal interest and personal development was twice as important to respondents as employment or professional development. 

Rebecca Garrod-Waters, Chief Executive of Ufi VocTech Trust added “Our report shows how we need to shift the debate away from specific industrial skill needs towards a wider understanding of adult learning that is more inclusive and speaks to the real motivations of adults who have not, up to now, engaged in formal learning.

“It also demonstrates that by addressing foundational access to technology and digital skills, by improving learning confidence and by speaking to people’s real motivations to learn, we have the capacity to address the UK skills crisis.”

Our report outlines some of the fundamental barriers that prevent adults from engaging in learning opportunities. These include situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers, as well as technological ones. Key findings include:

  • Digital access and digital skills are foundational needs for learners. Over 50 percent of survey respondents identified access to broadband and digital devices as vital access to learning.
  • Confidence and learner identity that stem from learning experiences are another significant barrier for many. One quarter of adults do not identify as confident learning new things and 17 percent of survey respondents identified a ‘lack of interest in learning’ as a barrier.
  • Situational barriers were found to disproportionately affect women who are more likely to have their learning efforts disrupted by caring responsibilities or competing time demands.

The report also identified the core motivations that help learners to overcome these barriers.

The most effective triggers to participation in adult learning were socially driven. Around one third of survey respondents identified a ‘recommendation from a friend’ as a key trigger to learning.

Tom Kenyon, Head of Enterprise Design at the RSA andauthor of the report, added “These barriers to learning exist for everyone, however, it is the most disadvantaged learners who are most likely to encounter them. The very people who have the most to gain from adult learning are the least likely to participate.”

The report makes several practical recommendations on how we can encourage more people to engage in adult learning which will in turn help us to meet societal skills needs:

  • Build foundational skills by providing access to hubs within community settings.

Improve access to digital learning by implementing a ‘minimum digital living standard’.

  • Build learner identity with quality assured validation to recognise non-accredited learning.
  • Provide social supports and triggers by ensuring in-person support for people accessing or transitioning between learning.
  • Support blended, flexible and non-linear learning by funding ‘hybrid by default’ adult learning provision.

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