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Published: 9-01-2012, 11:47

Barriers to Participation in Adult Education


A quick review of international policy documents reveals the importance of adult learning in supporting the wellbeing of nations and individuals. Success in realizing lifelong learning is seen as vital in promoting employment, economic development, democracy, and social cohesion. This has resulted in an urgency to develop a better understanding of why some adults participate in lifelong learning and others do not. There are two closely integrated bodies of knowledge focusing on this question, research on determinants of participation and studies of barriers to participation, that is being addressed in this article.

This article is organized into three sections staring with a brief discussion of conceptual and methodological issues. This is followed by a presentation of empirical findings, and then finally a review of theoretical.

Conceptual and Methodological Issues

Attempts to assess barriers to lifelong learning have traditionally used a classification developed by Cross (1981: 98), who sorts obstacles to participation under three headings: 

  • situational barriers (those arising from one’s situation in life e.g., lack of time because of work, family responsibility, etc.);
  • institutional barriers (practices and procedures that hinder participation e.g., fees, lack of evening courses, entrance requirements, limited course offerings, etc.); and
  • dispositional barriers (attitudes and dispositions toward learning). 

A fourth category has recently been added to the list. Informational barriers refer to a lack of information on education and learning offers and benefits (OECD, 2005).

While most surveys employ some version of Cross’ classification, there are fundamental differences in how barriers are conceptualized, affecting who is being asked questions on barriers. One common view is that barriers are obstacles that prevent certain groups from participating. If these deterrents could be overcome, these people would participate in lifelong learning. According to this view, questions about barriers would only be addressed to nonparticipants. A different conceptualization is that barriers are factors that lower the extent of participation but may not entirely prohibit participation. By accepting this position, it is of interest to ask participants about possible barriers that may have caused them to lower the extent of their learning activities.

Another related issue concerns whether or not those who have indicated no interest in participating should be asked about barriers to participation. Large-scale national or international surveys like the US National Higher Education Survey (NHES), the Canadian Adult Education andTraining Survey, or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)-led International Adult Literacy Survey pose a battery of questions on barriers only to persons who indicate that they failed to take courses/programs they wanted to take and/or had felt a need for. The logic is that barriers come into existence only when an expressed wish to participate is thwarted; the role of research then is to discover the impediment. It seems irrelevant to ask individuals not interested in participating about barriers, because without an expressed interest there can be no barriers. Consequently, surveys using this approach tend to concentrate almost exclusively on situational and institutional barriers and pay little attention to psychological impediments.

As revealed in longitudinal research on participation, there are problems with using expressed interest to decide who should answer questions on barriers. In fact, large numbers of those who at one time had indicated no interest actually came to participate while a substantial number of people who stated that they were interested never showed up. This finding reflects the broader changes that have occurred in the labor market, which among other things, forces people to participate because they are ordered to or feel pressured to undergo some form of adult education and training linked to their work. Thus, contrary to a commonly held position in research on participation and barriers, participation is not always a voluntary act.

The other major approach in large-scale surveys of barriers, found, for example, in national adult-education surveys in the Nordic countries, the UK, and in the European Union (EU) barometer on lifelong learning, treats the lack of interest as part of the cluster of barriers. Following this approach, the questions are asked by three groups of respondents: persons who have not participated, those who have considered but not participated, and those who have participated. This assures that more interest is given to dispositional barriers. Thus, in the 2001 UK National Adult Learning Survey (Fitzgerald et al., 2002) respondents were asked to sort a deck of cards describing barriers containing the following dispositional impediments:

  • I prefer to spend my free time doing things other than learning.
  • I do not need to do any learning for the sort of work I do.
  • I am not interested in doing any learning, training, or education.
  • I have difficulties reading and or/writing.
  • I would be worried about keeping up with other people.
  • I feel I am too old to learn.
  • I do not see a point in learning or education.
  • I would be nervous about going back to school. 

Similar lists of dispositional-oriented reasons for not participating can be found in Swedish and Norwegian national surveys.

Either approach raises ethical dilemmas. In arguing that everyone should be asked about barriers – including those without a declared interest in participating – one runs the risk of turning participation into a moral issue where it is seen as bad not to want to participate. In fact, it may be highly rational from a personal point of view not to want to engage in organized forms of adult learning. While this line of reasoning has many advocates, others would claim that it is not that straightforward. The counter argument is that if the system of adult education too strongly assumes that the adult is a conscious, selfdirected individual who possesses the instruments necessary to make use of available adult education possibilities, it will rely on self-selection to recruit participants. This will, by necessity, widen rather than narrow the educational and cultural gaps in society.

In this respect, the design issue around barriers raises crucial questions about the relationship between the state and its citizens, and what understanding should inform national surveys into barriers. In this context, Sen’s (1982) concept of basic capability equality: the need to take into account, among other things, differences in those abilities that are crucial for citizens to function in society, is informative. Thus, as Nussbaum (1990) discusses, people living under difficult conditions tend to accept their fate because they cannot imagine any reasonable alternative. Consequently, it would be important to recognize that some citizens may not be sufficiently able to judge the value of and conditions for participation in adult education.


The overwhelming amount of information stems from large-scale surveys but there are also some in-depth qualitative studies that provide valuable insights into the reasoning of nonparticipants.

Findings from Large-Scale Surveys

Findings may vary between studies because of differences in methodology, target group, list of barriers, and so on, but nonetheless, some groups of barriers are consistently found to be of crucial importance. Looking across various surveys, situational and institutional barriers strongly dominate. In many countries, the main reason for not participating is commonly a lack of time. According to the International Literacy Survey (OECD, 2000), around 60%identified this as the major reason for not having started a non-workrelated education one had needed or wanted to take. The EU-barometer on lifelong learning, looking at situational constrains across the 15EU states, found that family-related obstacles like ‘‘my family commitments take up too much energy’’ were mentioned somewhat more frequently than job-related hindrances but the pattern differed from country to country (CEDEFOB, 2003). Not surprisingly, women are more prone to refer to family responsibilities than men.

Institutional barriers are also of major importance although to a somewhat lesser degree than situational barriers. In the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), on the average, around 45% of the adult population mentioned at least one institutional constraint that prevented participation in some form of work-related studies. The figure was lower for nonwork-related studies, around 30% (OECD, 2000). Generally, among institutional barriers, financial reasons (too expensive/no money) are by far the most prevalent hindrance, particularly in North America. However, as evident from the Euro-barometer on lifelong learning, cost is also a major restraining factor in Europe. Only between 12% and 21%, depending on purpose, were willing to pay for the full cost of studying, while close to 50% would pay none of the cost (CEDEFOB, 2003: 86). Another institutional barrier that is frequently identified is a lack of appropriate courses and the scheduling of them.

It is problematic to interpret the implications of the findings on situational and institutional barriers for policy. Time is not an endless resource and people have to make choices regarding how they want to spend their spare time. This is not to deny that some, because of work and family, may have very little time left over which they can freely decide to spend. For many, mentioning lack of time is as much a statement of the value they ascribe to education and training as to the expected outcome of such an activity. Thus, it is of interest to note that several studies have shown that participants mention situational barriers to the same extent, and in some studies, even more often than nonparticipants. This is also the case with institutional barriers where in fact there is a tendency for participants to report this slightly more often as the reason for not having taken other courses they were interested in. Similarly, Jonsson and Ga¨hler (1996) found that there were as many people with objective barriers in terms of handicaps, young children, working hours, etc., that participated in adult education as did not participate. Based on this finding, the authors conclude (p.38): ‘‘Instead of barriers, that might have to do with cost, lack of time, it is probably differences in expected rewards that can explain why some choose to participate while others remain outside.’’

While many would agree with Jonsson and Ga¨hler’s interpretation of situational- and institutional-barrier data, it is important not to deny that some people face major hindrances like childcare and cost that makes it very hard for them to participate. So, for example, the fact that fewer people in upper-income brackets mentioned financial reasons is an indication that the answers not only reflect the willingness to pay but also the ability to do so.

The general findings on institutional and situational barriers are more or less the same regardless of survey approach. This is not the situation with dispositional barriers. Naturally, studies that approached only those who indicated an interest in participating pay rather scant attention to psychologically oriented barriers. Consequently, it is primarily surveys that have also approached those who indicated no interest that are of interest here. Findings from studies that have employed this strategy reveal two things. First, in almost all countries, a substantial share of the population refers to dispositional barriers. In the 11 European countries that took part in the EU-barometer the percentage raising psychological barriers varied from a low of 14% in Denmark to a high of 31% in the UK (CEDEFOB, 2003). Similarly, Livingstone (1999) found that psychological factors have a major impact on Canadians’ readiness to enrol in organized learning activities. Thirty-five percent stated that they did not need more education and one in five saw studying as boring. These dispositional barriers refer to perceptions like, little to gain by participating, concerns about own ability to succeed, belief that one is too old to go back to study, and in some cases bad previous experiences of schooling.

Second, comparing participants with nonparticipants, several studies indicate that the negative attitudes and dispositions toward organized adult education and training (dispositional barriers) are by far the most deterring factor (Rubenson, 2007). This would suggest that the main obstacle to participation is not situational or institutional but rather a lack of interest.

Results from Qualitative Studies

The few existing qualitative studies of barriers tend to concentrate on indifference to participating and are commonly conducted with a small group of nonparticipants. The research provides an in-depth insight into the subjective rationale for actively declining to engage in organized forms of adult education. The overall finding is that the lack of interest often reflects a subjective rationality that is constructed around the person’s life context. Several studies have pointed to how a lack of stimulating employment opportunities – either in the form of unemployment with small opportunities to become employed and/or a monotonous job – discourages participation (Paldanius, 2007). For this group, nonparticipation becomes a highly rational act. It is first when participation in adult education results in better and higher paying work that it is meaningful. The following quotes from Paldanius interviews with a group of nonparticipants can exemplify the subjective rationality of this group.

Learning for the sake of learning never, I have much more important stuff to do, for instance I can plant onions and then know that it will take so and so long time until I see the results of my actions, I have actually made something, manufactured something (Paldanius, 2007: 472).

Carlén (1999) found that automobile workers viewed work and education as separate praxis related to class identity. As wage earners, they should produce and not enter into other spheres. Forms of adult education that were unrelated to their work challenged their routine and were perceived to encompass a threat of change. Similarly Paldanius (2007) reports that a dominant view among the nonparticipants was that education was something that had to be done while waiting for the real life that begins in adulthood. By not participating in adult education, a person can avoid boredom. Further, unemployment did not seem to stimulate an interest in participating in adult education, but instead it seemed to inhibit their readiness for action.

Theoretical Perspectives

Large-scale national surveys on participation and barriers are rarely constructed on the basis of theory but are mostly descriptive. However, there are economic as well as adult-education frameworks that could guide questionnaire construction.

Economic Theories

The human-capital perspective is prominent in education and training literature, although mostly absent in adulteducation- participation frameworks. The underlying assumption is that individuals maximize welfare as they conceive it. Human capital analysis has, as a starting point, that individuals decide on their education by weighing the benefits and costs of this investment (Becker, 1964, 1993). Every action has a price tag in the market and every human act can be reduced to some kind of rational economic calculus of cost and benefit. The probability of participation increases as a function of the benefit/cost ratio. Common cost variables include: tuition, materials, and transportation as well as the less-tangible value of the time invested in studying. Benefits mostly focus on future monetary gains in the form of higher salaries but might also address job security, work conditions, and in some rare cases, cultural and other nonmonetary gains (US Department of Education, 1998: 13). As evident in the findings section above, some of the results can be interpreted in the context of a human-capital perspective. Although beyond the scope of this article, it should be noted that the homo-economicus framework has been severely criticized for its strong assumption of rationality. As Dow (1998: 13) states: if we see social structures as being organic and evolutionary, with creative, nondeterministic behaviors alongside behavior conditioned by habits and institutions, then individuals cannot be modeled according to deterministic rational principles.

An interesting variation on the cost–benefit framework is case-based decision theory (Gilboa and Schmeidler, 1995; cited in US Department of Education, 1998: 14). The idea is that people remember past problems, how they resolved them, and the outcome of action. When they meet a new problem, past experiences of similar problems direct their decisions. The framework does not assume that individuals have beliefs in the absence of data (recalled cases) and therefore does not list all possible costs and benefits, as only those in the memory can be used in reaching the decision.

It is worth noting that most large-scale surveys on participation and barriers already collect many demographic and social-background variables of interest to economic cost-benefit or expected-utility frameworks (US Department of Education, 1998: 66). However, they lack measures of relative expected utility and they are relatively meager on social psychological variables like intentionality and normativity with regard to adult education. Further, they are weak on external context, for example, the situation at work or in civil society, and mainly ignore key past experiences.

Adult Education

In adult education, it is mostly theories on participation, particularly motivation for engaging in adult education, that provide the framework for understanding barriers. Cross (1980: 122–124) found many common elements in existing adult education theories on participation and barriers. According to Cross, all:

  • are interactions,
  • build on Kurt Lewin’s field-force analysis,
  • are cognitivist,
  • refer to reference-group theory,
  • apply the concepts of incongruence and dissonance, and
  • directly or indirectly build on Maslow’s model of needs hierarchy. 

On the basis of her review, Cross presents the so-called chain-response modelwhich incorporateswork on learning orientations, need press theory, and expectancy-valence theory. The model takes the individual as the starting point and begins by identifying two main constructs: self-evaluation and attitude toward education. These internal factors are seen to influence the value of goals and the expectation that participation will meet goals. Valence and expectations are also affected by life transition and development tasks that confront the individual in various life-cycle phases. Opportunities and barriers and available information will then modify whether or not an individual will come to participate. This model, like almost all others reviewed by Cross, employs psychological concepts to develop an explanation of why some adults participate while others do not. Cross (1981) argues that this does not mean that societal aspects are ignored; on the contrary, all theories are interactionist, that is, they understand participation in terms of interaction between an individual and his or her environment. However, theories tend to neglect the individual’s life history. Further, they do not directly address how the main constructs in the model are related to and interact with the broader structural and cultural context. However, comparative data on participation reveal some interesting national differences that bring into question the usefulness of trying to understand barriers by focusing solely on how the individual interprets the world, which most theories on barriers and participation tend to do. First, the participation research shows that there are substantial differences in participation between countries at comparable stages in the modernization process and with quite similar economies (Desjardins et al., 2006). Second, it reveals that while age, family background, educational attainment, and work-related factors are linked to inequality in participation in all countries, the level of inequality varies substantially between countries (OECD, 2000). Third, the findings suggest that patterns of inequality in adult learning mirror broader structural inequalities in society, like inequalities in income. Participation patterns in a country thus seem to reflect its particular welfare-state regime. These empirical findings suggest that we have to consider broader structural conditions and targeted policy measures, and analyze the interaction between these and the individual’s conceptual apparatus. Based on these observations Rubenson and Desjardins (2009) developed, the so-called bounded-agency model that aims to take account of the interaction between structurally and individually based barriers to participation.

The Bounded-Agency Model

The bounded-agency model is premised on the assumption that the nature of welfare-state regimes can affect a person’s capability to participate. In particular, the state can foster broad structural conditions relevant to participation and construct targeted policy measures that are aimed at overcoming both structurally and individually based barriers. Structural conditions play a substantial role in forming the circumstances faced by individuals and limit the feasible alternatives to choose from, and therefore they can bound individual agency. According to the model, a particular welfare-state regime can be found not only to be implicated in social structures, adult-education systems, and life chances, but also in individual consciousness. This assumption builds on Sen’s (1999) concept of human capability and functioning, which stresses the importance not only of having resources available – internal (i.e., knowledge or skills such as literacy) or external (i.e., money) – but also in terms of individuals knowing about the range of possibilities of how these resources can be employed to realize things that matter to them, and knowing how to do so. In this sense, dispositional barriers can be seen as factors that restrict a person’s capability and hence freedom to participate. Further, dispositional barriers can be affected and even caused by structural barriers, such as institutional and situational ones.

To illustrate this point, the authors analyze the barrier section in the EU-barometer, which suggests that adults in Nordic and non-Nordic countries experience similar barriers to participation and nearly to the same extent. With regard to the bounded-agency model, the key question becomes the extent to which structural conditions and individual dispositions afford the individual the capability and freedom necessary to overcome barriers. In nearly all cases, adults from Nordic countries were more likely to participate in adult education even though they may perceive the same barriers as their counterparts in other countries. However, as reflected in high participation rates and relatively lower levels of inequality, the Nordic welfare state seems to be comparatively effective at resolving barriers. The Nordic welfare states feature structural conditions under which a larger group of adults, as compared to non-Nordic countries, seem to value participation and hence see an expected reward. These conditions include a labor market structured around a high-skill strategy and a civil society that fosters learning for both social and personal development. In the bounded-agency model, the impact of these conditions on a person’s capabilities and consciousness with regard to the beginning of adult education is referred to as the ‘conditioning of values and perspective on opportunity structure’.


Three findings stand out in the review of barriers. First, while the policy community’s concern for adult learning has resulted in the development of major national and supranational policy-driven surveys, there does not seem to be much of an interest in the scholarly community to engage with barriers. This is in sharp contrast to the 1970s and first half of the 1980s, when a considerable body of conceptually oriented work on participation was produced. However, at that time it wasmore an unease regarding a lack of scholarly progress in adult education than efforts to contribute to evidence-informed policy that drove the interest. Second, the findings from national and international surveys as well a reviewof the scholarly literature point to some limitations in the present design of the major comparative surveys that are informing the policy discourse on barriers and suggest that the existing design might result in too simplistic an account of the factors behind barriers. A main limitation with many of the present surveys is that they concentrate almost exclusively on situational and institutional barriers. Therefore, consideration needs to be given to how to strengthen assessment of dispositional barriers. To address the lack of attention to dispositional barriers and questions on future interest, some existing conceptual frameworks can provide a fruitful starting point for getting better measures on general attitude aswell as intrinsic and extrinsic values of learning. The data suggest that it would be particularly important to construct better measures of factors related to the work context and link these to expected utility and intentionality. Third, there is a serious lack of comprehensive qualitative studies. It would be particularly useful for the development of evidence-informed policy as well theory generation to have access to comparative qualitative data. This would allow researchers an in-depth insight into the subjective rational for citizens reasons to decline to engage in organized forms of adult education and also to explore how individual dispositions are directly and indirectly affected by broader structures and specific adultlearning policies.

See also: Participation in Adult Learning.

K Rubenson, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

© 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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