Ireland has made welcome progress on lifelong learning rates in recent years. Although our participation rate has been slowly improving (reaching 13% in 2019), those engaged in lifelong learning are still more likely to be professionals than those with lower skills. This trend is not confined to Ireland, Europe as a whole has faced challenges in improving lifelong learning participation rates for adults with lower skills.
High quality education and training accessible for all is one of the best investments a society can make but it does not come for free. Achieving good educational outcomes requires appropriate spending. Lifelong learning is essential to ensure Ireland can meet the challenges that automation and adaptation pose to the future of work. A report from the European Commission found that the transition from education and training to work and then from one job to another is crucial and requires continuous upskilling and reskilling of the adult population. Comprehensive investment strategies in education and training, which cover all stages of life, bring the highest social and economic returns.
The pandemic has had a major impact on the delivery of education and training, particularly in the area of apprenticeships and vocational training. Although there may be a temptation to focus on the online delivery of lifelong learning and education and training due to the impact of the pandemic, this would be detrimental to achieving our education and training ambitions. The crisis provided a powerful test of the potential of online learning, and it also revealed its key limitations, including the prerequisite of adequate digital skills, computer equipment and internet connection to undertake training online, the difficulty of delivering traditional work-based learning online, and the struggle of teachers used to classroom instruction. An OECD study found that in addition to basic digital skills, online learning requires autonomy and self-motivation. Users of online learning are primarily highly educated adults with strong digital skills and some courses show completion rates as low as 10%. The study concludes that for or online learning to represent a valuable alternative to face-to-face instruction, it needs to tackle issues of inclusiveness to ensure all adults (including those with lower digital skills, limited access to IT and lower self motivation) can benefit. It also needs to provide high-quality reskilling and upskilling opportunities that can translate into sustainable employment opportunities for job seekers.
The results of the CSO survey into remote learning reflects the findings of these earlier reports. If Ireland is to meet lifelong learning targets, then a fully resourced programme, with the correct blend of remote and in-person learning is required. Policy must also ensure that people are not excluded due to digital or broadband issues when it comes to engaging in lifelong learning and skills development.