TOTAL SPENDING ON ADULT EDUCATION and apprenticeships in England fell by 38 per cent in real-terms between 2010–11 and 2020–21, with a 50 per cent fall in spending on classroom-based adult education (these figures exclude higher education).

The UK Government’s 2021 Spending Review provided an additional £900 million in spending for 2024–25. However, total spending on adult education and apprenticeships will still be 25 per cent lower in 2024–25 as compared with 2010–11. This will make it harder to achieve the government’s ambitions to improve technical education and adult skills in order to level up poorer areas of the country.

This is the latest Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) analysis of spending on adult education in England. It was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and forms part of a larger programme of work examining trends and challenges in education spending.

Other key findings include:

  • Large drop in adult learners (age 19+) over the last decade. There was a 50 per cent fall in adults taking qualifications at Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and below, and a 33 per cent fall the number of adults taking Level 3 qualifications (A level equivalent). Such falls will partly reflect cuts in public funding for these courses under the coalition government.
  • Apprenticeships more focused at advanced and higher levels. After 2010, the number of adult apprenticeship starts initially increased to about 350-400,000 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 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 (which include degree apprenticeships) has rocketed from a few hundred starts in 2010 to almost 100,000 starts in 2020. Whilst increasing numbers of higher and advanced apprenticeships is welcome, the number of apprenticeship opportunities at lower levels has been drying up.
  • Additional spending will restore funding back to 2015 levels. The £900 million in extra spending for 2024-25 includes funding for a restoration of public funding for all adults taking their first full Level 3 qualification. Given the size of past cuts, however, this will only bring total spending on adult education and apprenticeships back to around 2015 levels.
  • Support for low skilled adults focused on very specific programmes. The main programmes aimed at helping low-skilled adults without GCSE-equivalent qualifications are skills bootcamps and a new ‘Multiply’ programme aimed at boosting basic skills. These might help with immediate job opportunities, but are currently untested and might not lead to formal educational qualifications.
  • ‘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.

Imran Tahir, IFS Research Economist and author said: “As part of efforts to level up poorer areas of the country, the government has announced an additional £900 million in extra spending on adult education by 2024-25.  However, due to significant cuts over the past decade, government spending will still be 25 per cent lower in 2024–25 than 2010–11.

“Taken together, the government’s adult education reform plans will provide extra help to those who left schools with good GCSEs or equivalent qualifications. Yet the main plans set out for helping adults with few qualifications – skills bootcamps and the new ‘Multiply’ programme –  are relatively untested and are unlikely to lead to formal qualifications. Providing effective support and training for this group is a significant challenge that will be key to levelling-up poorer areas of the country.”

Josh Hillman, Education Director at the Nuffield Foundation said: “Both the economic downturn and the changing nature of the labour market are likely to increase demand for adult education and apprenticeships. To ensure that adults from a wide range of backgrounds from across the UK are able to gain the skills required by employers, it is essential that the further education system is adequately funded.”

* Read Adult education: the past, present and future here.

* Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies