Job loss worries are driving adults back into education

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The bleak economic climate is prompting thousands of adults to return to the classroom to learn new skills, according to research published today.

Record numbers of adults who are either on benefits or in poorly paid unskilled jobs are taking college courses. The rise among those in the most disadvantaged groups is unprecedented – up six percentage points to 30 per cent.

This is the highest figure since the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE) launched its annual survey 20 years ago. The rise among the middle classes is less marked but is still heading upwards by three or four points to 56 per cent for ABs, 51 per cent for C1s and 37 per cent for C2s.

Engagement in learning is at its highest level among these groups for a decade, despite years of cuts to courses and increased fees for adult education.

Education experts said the rise could be explained by people's fear of unemployment as a result of the economic uncertainty or the threat of having their benefits taken away as a result of public spending cuts.

Alan Tuckett, chief executive of NIACE, said: "I am sure some of the changes in welfare to work policies have had an impact."

During the election campaign, the Conservatives stressed that unemployed people could see their benefits cut if they turned down work. Mr Tuckett added: "This survey shows something of a sea change in adults' engagement in learning."

The number of adults returning to learn has risen regardless of whether they are in work or not, suggesting that many of those still with a job believe they must hedge their bets and improve their qualifications in case they lose their jobs.

Mr Tuckett said: "This year's increases can be just a beginning." He urged a note of caution over the prospect of public spending cuts, warning that it was "just as important to help these people as it was to bail out the bankers" for the future of the economy.