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Adult education: the past, present and future

Briefing note

In the last decade, there have been significant cuts to spending on adult education and large falls in the numbers of adult learners, particularly amongst those taking low-level qualifications. The government is planning to partially reverse these cuts as part of wider plans to improve technical education and level up poorer areas of the country. As part of these plans, the government has also pledged to introduce a Lifelong Loan Entitlement to provide all adults with an entitlement to higher education style loan funding for four years of post-18 education, which can be used flexibly across time and different types of courses. This briefing note seeks to provide context to these reforms and what we know already about their potential impact.

Key findings

  1. There have been large falls in the numbers of adult learners and spending on adult education over the last decade. Total spending on adult education and apprenticeships fell by 38% between 2010–11 and 2020–21, with a 50% fall in spending on classroom-based adult education. The numbers of adult learners also fell significantly, particularly those taking low-level qualifications, with a 50% fall in numbers taking qualifications at Level 2 and below, and a 33% fall in the number of adults taking Level 3 qualifications.

  2. Partial reverse of past cuts. The cuts to adult education will be partially reversed by an additional £900 million in extra spending in 2024–25, which includes money for a restoration of public funding for adults’ first full Level 3 qualifications. However, total spending on adult education and apprenticeships will still be 25% lower in 2024–25 compared with 2010–11.

  3. Full-time participation at degree level has expanded. The number of full-time undergraduates has increased by nearly 25% since 2010. This has been facilitated by the student loan system covering tuition and maintenance costs. The number of full-time postgraduates grew by 60% after postgraduate loans were introduced in 2016.

  4. Other forms of higher education have seen falling numbers. The number of (mostly mature) students on part-time undergraduate degrees has plummeted by almost 50% since 2010 and there was a 28% decline in the number of students taking sub-degree courses at Level 4 or 5 between 2015 and 2018. These are both groups that receive comparatively lower levels of support in the student loan system.

  5. Apprenticeships more focused at advanced and higher levels. After 2010, the number of adult (19+) apprenticeship starts initially increased to about 350,000–400,000 per year. However, apprenticeship starts have dropped off to about 250,000 per year since the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017. At the same time, there has been a shift in the type of apprenticeships taken by adults. In 2020, fewer than 50,000 adults began the lowest level of apprenticeships (intermediate apprenticeships) compared to 200,000 a decade earlier. The number of higher apprenticeships has rocketed from a few hundred starts in 2010 to almost 100,000 starts in 2020.

  6. ‘New’ Lifelong Loan Entitlement. The government has pledged to create a new Lifelong Loan Entitlement to provide all adults with loans to cover four years of post-18 education. For nearly all post-18 education routes, the loan entitlement is already at this or a more generous level; the ‘new’ entitlement is thus mostly an attempt to make the existing system more transparent. The reform will encompass some substantive changes that are sensible: it will extend full living cost support to Higher Technical Qualifications that would not otherwise qualify, and will likely relax loan eligibility rules for those studying for a qualification at the same or a lower level than one they already hold. However, restricting funding to four years of post-18 study will reduce entitlements for students on some post-18 routes unless exemptions are introduced, particularly for longer courses or those with a foundation year.

  7. Greater support needed for those leaving school with few qualifications. Considered together, the plans will likely provide extra help to those who left schools with good GCSEs or equivalent qualifications. The main plans for helping adults with few qualifications are through skills bootcamps and the new ‘Multiply’ programme, which are relatively untested and are unlikely to lead to formal qualifications. Providing effective support and training for this group is a significant challenge, but it will also be key to levelling up poorer areas of the country.

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