University is Not Just for Young People
Working Adults’ Perceptions of, and Orientation to, Higher Education
Pollard E, Bates P, Hunt W, Bellis A
Research Report 0806, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, April 2008
a study commissioned by the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills (DIUS)
This study explores the attitudes and intentions towards higher education (HE) amongst working adults in England. The research involved 1,401 individuals in a 20 minute telephone survey during early summer 2007, and was restricted to those aged between 22 and 55 (inclusive) with no university level (level 4) qualification. A series of non-interlocking quotas were set using the Labour Force Survey covering age, gender, ethnic origin and region, to ensure the responding sample broadly represented the adult working population and to provide a good indicative base for perceptions about HE of all working adults.
- Working adults see university as open to all since over 80 per cent of all responding adults agreed that ‘people like me do go to university’ and that ‘university is not just for young people’.
- University is seen as something adults would or could consider for the future. Six per cent are already considering it, 24 per cent would consider applying in the future, and a further 55 per cent could be encouraged to apply. Only 15 per cent are not in the least interested and cannot be encouraged to consider university as an option.
- Adults feel they know what HE has to offer but are less sure of how to access it and the costs involved. Fifty-eight per cent of respondents feel very or fairly well informed about the opportunities available in HE, but adults are less confident about their knowledge of entry requirements, the costs of study and the financial support available.
- Adults feel that going to university improves employability and career prospects and aids personal development and these are key motivators to consider applying to university.
- Adults want a different type of HE experience than the traditional model, preferring to study part-time, in evenings and weekends and at a university or college close to home, and the availability of this type of study experience would overcome adults’ reluctance to consider HE and overcome difficulties in balancing work and family commitments with study.
- Employer encouragement and support is also important in overcoming reluctance to consider HE. Of those not considering applying to university in the future (70 per cent of all respondents), 56 per cent would be willing to think about HE if they were given encouragement from their employer, and 69 per cent of employees would do so if they were given paid time off to study.
- Despite positive attitudes to learning, a lack of interest and a perceived lack of the value in the HE experience are the main reasons why adults do not consider HE, and 15 per cent of all responding adults do not see HE as an option for them – they are not in the least interested and cannot be encouraged to consider applying in the future.
- HE is seen as costly and concerns about the costs of study and the potential to run up debt act as a barrier to HE entry, however the availability of funding support would encourage individuals to consider HE.
Implications for policy
There is an interest in HE amongst working adults. In general, adults have positive attitudes to HE and many are considering HE or could be encouraged to consider HE in the future.
Who would consider going into HE?
There are three groups of adults who are more likely to consider HE.
- Traditional mould – adults who have considered HE in the past and are consequently more likely to consider it as an option for the future. They have similar characteristics to traditional HE entrants, in that they are:
- younger (22 to 30 years old)
- in social networks where HE is the norm (those with family and peer group experience of HE)
- those with higher level qualifications
- those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
- Second-chancers – those for whom HE can be a second chance or way out of disadvantage. They may not have considered HE in the past but, along with group one, are also more likely to be considering HE for the future. These are more likely to be currently unemployed, to be disabled, have had negative experiences of school, be living in social housing, or reporting financial difficulties.
- Waiverers – those who may need a little more convincing to consider HE. They have a lower tendency to consider HE for the future but could be encouraged to apply. These include: adults from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those in mid-career.
However it must be acknowledged that HE is not right for everyone and that there are a group of adults who will never be convinced about HE and for whom HE is an irrelevance.
Six steps to encourage adult participation
To engage working adults and encourage them to consider applying to university there is a need to:
- firstly overcome attitudinal and motivational barriers to get adults to consider HE – overcome a lack of interest and perceived lack of value or usefulness in HE study
- then remove structural obstacles to convert thought into action – addressing concerns about the costs of study and running up debt, availability of financial support, and the ability to balance work and family commitments with study.
The research indicates six ways to encourage and support participation.
- Promoting HE as an option early on (whilst at school) so that individuals understand what HE is and know that it can be accessed at any point in their working lives (or beyond), perhaps when they are more decided about what they want to do. Those who consider HE early on are more likely to continue to consider HE in the future.
- Promoting the value of HE so that individuals appreciate and understand the benefits both in terms of career benefits and also wider personal development benefits. These are key motivators to consider HE.
- Providing clear information about the full range of options HE has to offer and particularly about the real costs of HE study and the financial support available. These are areas where adults lack understanding and confidence. The internet and colleges and universities appear to be the most appropriate channels for spreading these messages.
- Providing the right HE offer: courses that meet adults’ preferences for location and mode of study. Adults want local part-time study options delivered in the evenings and at weekends as this allows individuals to balance study with family commitments and allows them to continue working so that they can fund their studies.
- Providing financial support that is tailored to adults’ preferred mode of study – part-time study. Concerns over the costs of study and running up debt and the need to earn money act as a deterrent to considering HE and a barrier to HE entry.
- Continuing to engage employers as they have an important role in overcoming attitudinal and motivational barriers to participation through providing encouragement to study and more concrete support such as paid time off for study.
Further messages from the research
HE is open to all, relevant and accessible
HE is regarded positively, and is perceived as something available to all ages (not just for young people) and all types of individuals, and on the whole it is regarded as something everyone should consider. It is recognised as costly: 72 per cent of all respondents feel people who go to university end up with heavy debts, but 68 per cent feel it is worth the costs. There are mixed feelings about how difficult it is to get in and those from lower socio-economic groups (routine/manual work roles), with limited experience of HE and with lower level qualifications are the most concerned about the accessibility of HE.
In general, going to university is not felt to be necessary to gain quality employment (56 per cent of adults feel that the best jobs do not go to those who have been to university) but can be something to consider when in employment.
Adults feel they are informed about the opportunities available in HE even though they generally have not looked for information about HE (either for themselves or for someone else). This could suggest that adults may not know about all the options available such as studying in FE, studying in the workplace and distance learning.
30 per cent would take the plunge
Eighteen per cent had considered applying to university when they left full-time education and 24 per cent had seriously considered HE at some point since leaving school. Those most likely to have considered HE in the past were younger, from higher socio-economic backgrounds (managerial/professional occupations), with family and peer group experience of HE, those that did well at school (in terms of the qualifications achieved and their own subjective assessment of performance) and those working in the high value service sector and public sector.
Thirty per cent would consider applying in the future and tend to feel confident that they would get in. Socio-economic background had an influence on past consideration of HE but is not linked to future consideration. Experience at school continues to have an influence on intentions but whereas a negative experience deters individuals from considering HE during their early careers, it makes them more likely to consider HE in the future. Generally, past consideration of HE is linked to future consideration, as are positive attitudes to HE.
HE improves career prospects not jobs
HE is seen as a way to develop your career, enable you to change the work you do and earn more money, and adults are most likely to consider HE for career and employability reasons. Forty-eight per cent of those considering going to university say this is their main reason for doing so and few think that it will not improve their job prospects, and 52 per cent of those not considering HE still recognise it as a benefit. Thus over half of all respondents (51 per cent) saw career benefits to participating in HE.
Another key motivator is personal development with 34 per cent of adults giving this as their main reason for considering going to university, and 26 per cent of those not considering HE recognising this as a benefit of HE. Together this represents almost one-third (29 per cent) of responding adults who see this particular benefit to HE. Personal development is particularly a key driver for older adults and those from managerial/professional backgrounds.
HE appears to be less about improving your current job (in terms of job skills, pay, promotion or satisfaction) than your longer-term career, as a quarter (25 per cent) of adults recognise this particular benefit (22 per cent give this as their main reason for considering HE, and 26 per cent of those not considering HE recognise this as a benefit of going to university). This may be an issue when trying to get employers to engage with HE, as working adults and employers appear to have differing motivations for involvement. For employers, engagement with HE is about up-skilling their workforce, but for individuals it is about moving on. The findings also indicate that HE is viewed differently from other types of learning, which does tend to be undertaken for reasons relating to an individual’s current job.
Some lingering concerns
Of those considering going to university in the future (30 per cent of all respondents), almost all (96 per cent) have concerns about the HE experience. Key concerns reflect reasons for past non-participation and centre around:
- finance – the availability of financial support (80 per cent) and running up debts (69 per cent)
- being able to balance study with other commitments (75 per cent)
- being able to cope with the workload and getting back into study (59 per cent and 51 per cent respectively).
However working adults are not really worried about fitting in, reflecting their general perception that the university experience is open to all.
What kind of HE do adults want?
Adults have a preference for local provision and for part-time study in evenings and weekends, especially those adults with family commitments, from lower socio-economic backgrounds and from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. This preference reflects worries about being able to balance work and family commitments with study, and also allows adults to combine work with study.
Working adults also have a preference for face-to-face provision rather than distance learning or work-based learning. Although adults tend to think they do know about the opportunities, this may reflect a limited understanding of the range of ways HE can be delivered or what is available locally.
Working adults are generally decided about the area they would like to study (more sure than they are about how and where they want to study) and there is a preference for vocational study especially amongst those who are motivated to consider HE for career reasons. Those motivated by personal development reasons are more likely to want academic courses.
Changing hearts and minds
Seventy per cent would not consider HE in the future despite a high incidence of learning since school and generally positive attitudes towards learning (seeing it as enjoyable and an investment, and recognising the importance of qualifications). These individuals tended to:
- be older
- have no family or peer group experience of HE
- be ambivalent about their time at school and/or felt they were average at school
- have lower level qualifications (or no formal qualifications)
- be living with a partner
- consider themselves to be living comfortably
- own their own homes
- be less likely to have considered HE as an option in the past.
Perceptions about the costs and accessibility of HE are not linked with future intentions and adults who feel HE is costly or difficult to get into are no more likely to be deterred from considering HE in the future.
Key barriers to HE, both in the past and in terms of future consideration, for those who do not intend to go to university (representing 70 per cent of all respondents) are:
- A lack of interest and perceived lack of value. Twenty four per cent would not consider HE in the future because they cannot see the usefulness of HE and 23 per cent would not consider HE out of a lack of interest. Yet career and employability reasons are key drivers for adult engagement in HE – so some individuals do see the value in HE.
- Finance (15 per cent consider this a barrier to future participation), a lack of time due to other commitments (20 per cent) and age (18 per cent), although this was not a barrier to past consideration of HE. Age becomes a barrier when considering HE as a future option despite the general perception that HE is not just for young people. Eighteen per cent would not consider HE in the future because of reasons relating to their age but this increases to 35 per cent amongst older adults (45-55).
Non-participation is not really about concerns over fitting in, feeling a lack of necessary qualifications, worries about coping with HE study or a lack of information.
Although 70 per cent would not consider HE as a future option, almost all recognised that HE can bring benefits to adults and the majority felt they could be encouraged to apply, particularly if HE was made more convenient (ie they were able to study from home/work, if there were a suitable course close to home, and they could study during evening and weekends), if they were encouraged by employers or their family and friends, and if they were given financial support. A change in circumstance could also encourage them to consider HE.
The role of finance
There is a general perception that HE is costly but the 30 per cent of adults considering going to university feel ill-informed about the costs (57 per cent feel they are not very/not at all well informed) and particularly the financial support available in HE (72 per cent not very/not at all well informed).
Concerns over finance can act as a barrier to HE and can deter participation, however it appears to be less of a barrier to future participation than to past consideration (as other barriers become more prominent). The financial aspects of HE participation only appear to be an issue for those seriously considering HE, and impact upon some groups more than others:
- younger adults (aged 22 to 30)
- those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds
- those reporting financial difficulties.
It is not, however, linked to attitudes to debt and those with negative attitudes to debt are no more likely to be deterred from HE by financial concerns than others.
Providing financial support would encourage working adults to apply to HE and the availability of this form of support is particularly influential to those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and those concerned about costs of study (citing it as a reason for not thinking of HE in the future). Paid time off to study is also a key encouraging factor particularly for full-time employees, men, younger adults and those with higher level qualifications.
Availability of financial support was a key concern for the 30 per cent of respondents who would consider going to HE in the future, and 67 per cent of this group believed they could help finance their studies through a government grant or university bursary. Overall, there was a general feeling that the government should contribute to the costs of adult study. However there was an acknowledgement that an individual should contribute towards their own HE study costs and the key ways to fund HE are to undertake paid work and use savings. There was also an expectation that employers would contribute towards adult study and 59 per cent of those considering going to HE expected some form of employer support or sponsorship.
University is Not Just for Young People: Working Adults’ Perceptions of, and Orientation to, Higher Education, Pollard E, Bates P, Hunt W, Bellis A. Research Report 0806, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, 2008.
ISBN: 978-1-84478-994-8. Bound copy: £free