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How to increase adult learning participation in VET

May 24, 2021

What is adult learning?

Adult learning includes formal, non-formal and informal education and learning that people from the school leaving age upwards undertake to help them successfully participate in the workforce and in their community[1]. After secondary schooling being generally well-defined and structured, many people find post-school learning options and opportunities confusing to navigate, especially when considering diverse learning needs. Adult learners may need formal qualifications, targeted assistance, have individual learning needs that need to be met and more. 

Adult learning also refers to lifelong learning, as many people find it valuable to re-engage with learning in a way that meets their needs throughout their lives, including seniors. With many industries adopting automation, encouraging continuous and lifelong learning for adults is integral for being future-ready and maintaining high levels of employment. 

Why is adult learning participation important?

High levels of adult learning participation is important because it allows people to sustainably increase their education and employment levels, improve their employment opportunities, and build their confidence, mental health and wellbeing.

Adult learning can also help with increasing digital literacy, which is important for increasing education and employment levels. However, it’s important to note that the digital divide affects over 2.5 million Australians, with many only having unaffordable mobile-device data access, or no access to the internet at all[2]. 

How training providers can support adult learning participation

Providing value

According to Adult Learning Australia[3], most adults want to understand the value the learning experience provides, including how it meets their needs, how it will help them achieve their goals, and how it’s relevant. Essentially, the learning needs to hold industry currency and provide relevant upskilling. 

Additionally, when real-life situations require new knowledge and skills, many realise they need to learn new skills so they can effectively deal with the situation. This requires learning opportunities that are goal-focused, timely and meaningful. Additionally, these life-centered learning experiences need to be practical and applicable to real life, and targeted to be the most useful to the situation. Many people are also motivated by benefits such as:

  • increased job satisfaction
  • increased salary
  • heightened self-esteem
  • better quality of life
  • personal growth and development

Treating adults like adults

Adults want to be seen and be respected as capable learners. Training providers offering training for adult learners should support them to use their capabilities to be self-motivated, make their own decisions and manage their own learning and goals. Adult learners may also have many years of diverse experience and existing knowledge, which if nurtured in training can add richness to the new learning experience for all. 

Types of adult learners and the training they may be looking for 

Adult Learning Australia has put adult learners into five categories[4]: 

1. Lifelong learners

This category represents adults who have had good experiences of learning and want to continually expand their skills, knowledge and interests. 

One type of training that lifelong learners may be interested in is microcredentials. We’re living in a time where skills need to be consistently updated and knowledge constantly refreshed to keep up with the needs of the current workforce. Microcredentials provide an opportunity to easily articulate and execute skills needed by employers, with more recognition for units of competency completed. Another big win gained from embracing microcredentials is reducing the digital skills gap through rapid development of in-demand technology and digital skills. With the evident trend towards online training, microcredentials will continue to play an important role in VET. 

Microcredentials can also be used for credit recognition or recognition of prior learning (RPL). Giving academic credit and precise RPL for microcredentials can boost enrolment numbers and completion of full programs due to higher student satisfaction levels. 

2. Reluctant learners

Reluctant learners are adults who have had bad experiences of school and learning who need a lot of encouragement to give learning another go in a formal environment. To get these types of learners interested and invested in learning, trainers should first make clear the compelling purpose and value the training will provide, and establish a welcoming and accepting learning environment. To support the learning content, trainers can make use of a variety of engaging learning mediums, which could include a combination of work-based learning, in-class practical sessions, online assessment with various question types and more. When reluctant learners feel valued, and can see the value in their learning, they will be more likely to gain confidence, give training another chance and engage with the learning.

Here is how you can create the educational environment you want, and here is how you can foster a supportive learning culture.  

3. Breaking barriers learners

These learners are adults who want to learn more but have barriers to taking part in adult learning such as lack of family support, isolation and or poverty. Government initiatives like JobTrainer may help with this, but the issue is a large and substantial one for many. Charities such as Learning Lifelines can also help these learners to access essential resources like laptops and the internet. 

4. Community builders

Community builder learners are people who want to learn with others so they can participate in their community and expand the quality of their relationships. These learners are highly engaged, and trainers should promote the practicality, purpose and value of the learning experience to apply to real life situations. 

5. Foundation learners

Foundation learners include adults who need to learn foundation skills, including reading, writing, speaking, listening, numeracy and English language skills. These learners may be looking for Language, Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Literacy (LLND) training in Australia. Training providers and trainers can support these low literacy learners by working with enthusiasm, patience and a range of practical learning tools and strategies. 

How has COVID-19 affected adult learning participation?

With the pandemic causing job losses, reduced work hours and other challenges, the labour market has become increasingly competitive. The increased competitiveness of the labour market means many people need to upskill or retrain, and some need more support to undertake this training. Supporting these learners will be integral for economic recovery and employability levels post COVID-19. 

What can policy makers in Australia do to support adult learning
OECD future-ready adult learning[5]


  1. Adult Learning Strategy – skills for work and life 2020-2023
  2. Measuring Australia's Digital Divide
  3. Adult learning principles
  4. Adult learning
  5. OECD Future Ready Adult Learning

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