Learning over a lifetime

The Government Office for Science has published another two papers in theirr series of evidence reviews, which examine important issues in relation to the ageing population. This time, they focus on learning throughout life.

Dr Martin Hyde and Professor Chris Phillipson look at how lifelong learning, including continuous training within the labour market, can be supported and who will pay for it.

They highlight the benefits of lifelong learning to individual health and the health of wider society, but point to a sharp decline in rates of participation in learning activities for all age groups over the period from 2005 to 2010. Most interestingly for this project, the rates are lowest and the fall is steepest for those aged 60 to 69 years1.

Graph showing the percentage of people who report doing some learning by age group. Rates rose for all between 1997 and 2005, but fell for all but the 16-19 group between 2005 and 2010.
Percentage of people who report doing some learning from 1997 to 2010 by age group in the UK


The authors point to the balance of spending on adult learning across the life course, with 86% of spending allocated to those under 25 2.

18–24 25–49 50–74 75+
Total expenditure (£m) £47,141 £6,057 £1,397 £285
Percentage of total expenditure 86.0% 11.0% 2.5% 0.5%
Expenditure per head of population £8,045 £283 £86 £60
Expenditure per learner £12,395 £633 £319 £542

Expenditure on formal and informal learning by age, 2008

If the current trends continue they imply a future where only limited groups of older people are engaged in learning activities.

Enhancing learning capacity

Dr Alexandra Withnall’s paper looks at the differences across the life course in learning processes, and how public policy might be able to enhance learning capacity.

She discusses the positive effects of education and social relationships on cognitive function, as well as the impact of brain ageing. She examines various trends to consider possible changes to learning capacity in 2025 and 2040. For example, potential for assistive and wearable technology to help people with visual, hearing or physical impairments participate in digital learning, and the growing popularity of informal community learning through groups such as U3A and Men’s Sheds.

Read the reports

We’d like to thank all the authors for contributing their time and expertise to the project.

Featured image by stevepb. Used under Creative Commons.

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  • 1. McNair, S. (2012) National Adult Learner Survey 2010. Research Paper Number 63. BIS: London.
  • 2. Williams, J., McNair, S. and Aldridge, F. (2010) Expenditure and Funding Models in Lifelong Learning. NIACE: Leicester.
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