Naomi Sargant

Naomi Sargant compares Norway, the UK and Spain in terms of motivation for, and barriers to, participation in adult learning. The purpose of this MOBA transnational project was to survey current and recent participation by adults in education and training in three differing partner countries, with funding from the Leonardo da Vinci programme. The three partner countries, Norway, Spain and the UK, offer substantially different environments, both in respect of their labour markets and their education and training systems, as the framework for such a comparative study. Partners were particularly interested in comparing patterns of participation in adult learning and in identifying the role and significance of employer and work-place support for such learning. The leader of the project was Professor Einar Skaalvik of the NVI (Norwegian Institute of Adult Education), who had worked on previous studies, as had Naomi Sargant, the author of the report covering the UK on behalf of NIACE. The Spanish partner FOREM is a provider of trade union education. The article is a reprint from the journal “Adults Learning” May 2001, published by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) in the United Kingdom.

A North-South Divide among Adult Learners in Europe

Patterns of adult learning need to be understood in relation both to the motivation of individual adults to learn and to the context of the society in which adults live and work. A sketch of respondents in the three ­countries, in relation to educational characteristics and labour market structures, shows adults in Norway with far higher levels of educational qualifications than in the UK or Spain. Effectively everyone in ­Norway has a school-level qualification, compared with 17% in Spain and 32% in the UK who do not have a qualification. At university level, 28% in Norway have a qualification compared with 24% in the UK and 12% in Spain.

The employment situation is also most favourable in Norway, with 65% of respondents in full- or part-time employment for 10 hours or more a week, compared with 55% in the UK and 34% in Spain. Spain records the highest proportion of self-employed people (10%) compared with 6% in the UK and 5% in Norway. The proportion describing themselves as ‘not seeking work’ is also highest in Spain, followed by the UK (14%) with Norway much lower, at 3%. Norway’s retirement age, 67, is higher than in the UK, but the proportion who describe themselves as ­retired is similar in all three countries. Spain and Norway appear to have far more adults (i.e. people over 18) studying full-time than the UK, mainly due to the fact that their formal schooling continues for longer than in the UK.

The most important work-related reason to study in Norway was ‘to get a qualifi­cation’. The most important work-related reason in Great Britain was to ‘perform my work better’, whereas the most important work-related reason in Spain was ‘to get a job’


A similar sketch of the framework of social, working and family life, not to mention the climate, shows their indirect impact on learning in the three countries. To take just two examples: in Spain the timing of the working day is affected by the climate. The pattern is a longer break at lunch-time, but then working hours continue later in the evening. This means that the option, popular in the UK, of the provision of classes in the evening after work is less feasible. In Norway, formal courses are complemented by study circles near people’s homes. Spain contends with heat and an extended working day, while Norway contends with extreme cold, shorter working days and long winters.

These differences give an idea of some of the difficulties involved in making comparisons in a transnational study. These headline ­comparisons should whet the reader’s appetite for the national and transnational reports.

The study is limited to adults (18 and over) participating in ‘courses’ and does not include informal or self-taught learning. This means that pupils and students of 18 and over who are still involved in initial education are also regarded as participants in adult learning. ­‘Participants’ are those who are currently studying or have taken a course in the last three years.

Rates of Participation in Adult Learning

Current and recent participation in learning, taken together, is highest in Norway (70%), followed by the UK (45%) and Spain (33%). Norway not only has a much higher participation rate, but more Norwegians study more courses, though more of these are shorter. Norway records 20% studying six or more courses in three years, over 50% of them lasting for less than one month. However, more people study longer courses (1 year or more) in the UK (31%) and in Spain (26%) than in Norway (19%). More learners in Norway are also likely to be studying full-time: 35% of people studying in Norway are studying for 26 hours a week compared with 26% in the UK and 24% in Spain. Over 70% of participants in Spain have only taken one course in the three years compared with 34% in the UK and 29% in Norway.

In all three countries participation declines with age, but drops at an earlier age in Spain than in Norway, where 73% of 46-59 year olds are still participants compared with 45% in the UK and 18% in Spain. Participation is similarly heavily related to the highest educational qualification held and also to employment status. 81% of those employed in Norway are participants compared with 58% in the UK and 41% in Spain.

Types of Courses Taken

Vocationally related courses are typically shorter than academic/general courses, so that it is not surprising that 60% of all respondents in Norway have taken a vocational/work-related course, compared with 29% in the UK and 14% in Spain. In all three countries more men than women study work-related courses and more women than men study both academic and recreational courses. Far more people in Spain take ­academic or general courses than work-related courses.

In all three countries, more men take shorter courses and more women take longer courses, though the overall proportions vary widely. ­Encouragingly, longer courses are taken more by those groups who have lower levels of initial education and fewer higher educational qualifications, particularly women.

Who Provides the Courses?

The importance of work-related learning in the UK is reinforced by the high proportion of courses arranged by employers, 36%, compared with 30% in Norway and 15% in Spain. For employed people, the ­proportion provided by employers ­increases to 47% in the UK, 35% in Norway and 28% in Spain.

However, the largest group of providers both in the UK (39%) and Spain (33%) is educational institutions. Interestingly, Spain and Norway both have three times as many courses arranged by private providers (21%) as the UK (7%). Spain and Norway also have sizeable proportions, 7% and 6%, arranged by social/voluntary organisations and ­local government. Private providers and social/voluntary organisations are much more important as providers of recreational and leisure courses both in Norway and Spain than they are in the UK, where colleges, universities and adult education centres predominate.

The Importance of Qualifications

Increasing emphasis is now placed on qualifications and the achievement of education and training targets. While many people may take potentially vocational courses, they may be studying for personal development or interest and qualifications may not be relevant to them. The study distinguishes between whether or not a course ­offers a qualification and whether or not the learner is aiming for a qualification. The proportion not aiming for a qualification is heavily ­age-related, particularly in Norway.

In Spain 82% are taking a course which offers a qualification, compared with 71% in the UK and 50% in Norway. However, more participants in the UK are aiming for a qualification (70%) compared with 55% in both Norway and Spain. Very few people in Norway are aiming for the lower-level qualifications: they already possess them. The UK and Spain both record about 20% aiming for qualifications below university level, compared with only 5% in Norway. Similar proportions in all three countries are aiming for ‘higher education’ qualifications, between 16% and 18%. Norway and the UK both have around one-third aiming for ‘other’ qualifications which (from this survey) cannot be ranked against the conventional set of educational levels.

Reasons for Studying

Spain’s high level of employment shows its impact in the high proportion (one-third) who are studying to get a job, a reason only given by one in ten learners in both Norway and the UK. The most important ‘main’ reason in Norway, again given by one-third, is to gain a recognised qualification (34%), while in the UK it is, interestingly, ‘to perform my work better’ (26%). More light is shed on this by the factor analysis of underlying motivation carried out by the Norwegian team which is summarised here and described in detail in their report.

Barriers to Access for Learners

Barriers to access still pose a challenge for some. Time is a major factor, particularly in Spain with its extended working day: 41% of respondents in Spain say they do not have time, followed by 25% in the UK and only 14% in Norway. Finance does not rate high in comparison. The significant cluster is made up of the ‘dispositional’ factors: “feeling too old”, “not interested”, “no need to learn”. These ­together account for 44% of respondents in the UK, 42% in Norway and 26% in Spain. The UK shows the largest ‘complacent’ group, with 13% saying they feel “no need to learn any more”. Norway, even with its generous provision, records as many as 12% saying there is no suitable course. Or maybe Norwegian learners, with their additional experience, are more demanding. The factor analysis confirms the importance of the main barriers, but shows, crucially, that the three main barrier factors (lack of energy, lack of time and lack of motivation), which together ­cover 70%–80% of all non-participants in the three countries, are ­almost zero-­correlated, i.e. they are independent obstacles, and ­reduction of one of the factors will have little significance on the other two.

Self-confidence, Motivation and Perceived Value of Learning

Research into motivation has shown that cognitive and emotional processes are significant both for people’s choice of activities and for their confidence and commitment in carrying them out. Few such studies have, however, been carried out in Europe. An important element of this research was to try to identify general psychological variables relevant to participation in adult learning. Three main areas were looked at in detail: self-confidence and self-perception, intrinsic interest in learning, and the extrinsic utility or value of learning.

All the respondents were asked to respond, using a five-point scale, to a range of general statements about themselves and about learning but not related to any particular course in which they had participated. The answers were then subjected to factor analysis. The factor analysis was designed to identify whether three anticipated factors could be identified, whether they diverged clearly from each other and whether they could usefully be used as a further tool.

Eight of the statements related to the three identifiable factors: self-­confidence, intrinsic interest in learning, and the extrinsic utility of learning. Statements designed to measure general self-worth and self-confidence could not be separated and have been kept together as ‘self-confidence’. Intrinsic interest consists of people’s general desire to learn and a view that learning is interesting or fun, and the extrinsic value is connected to expectations of utility, e.g. gaining a job or earning more money. Relatively speaking, the Norwegian respondents have somewhat higher scores on self-confidence than the British and Spanish respondents, and the Spanish respondent have lower scores on both intrinsic interest and extrinsic utility than the British and Norwegian respondents.

The study shows that in Norway, where participation is highest, the perceived areas of benefit are lowest, while in Spain, where participation is lowest, the perceived benefit is highest, with a broad range of perceived benefits

Looking at participants’ responses to these factors again shows differences between countries. Self-confidence is not systematically ­related to participation in adult learning in the UK, and is only weakly related to participation in Norway. There is however, a strong relationship ­between participation and self-confidence in Spain, where 42% of ­respondents have high self-confidence compared with 25% of ­respondents with low self-confidence. Intrinsic interest is strongly ­related to participation in both the UK and Spain, where participation increases strongly with increased intrinsic interest. Extrinsic utility is strongly related to participation in all three countries. It is particularly strong in the UK, where the participation rate for those with high scores on extrinsic utility is six times the rate for those with low scores. The Norwegian report notes that these tendencies are found irrespective of gender, age and level of education.

Norwegian colleagues suggest ‘that we can safely conclude that ­psychological variables, particularly the extrinsic utility value, are very important determinants for adult learning’. In speculating about the ­differences between the countries, they suggest that the differences may be due to the levels of education in the three countries. A large majority in Spain lack any educational experience after primary school, which may explain their low level of self-confidence. By comparison, they note that the impact of the psychological variables is smaller in the Norwegian sample than in the other two countries. They suggest that the scale of participation is already very high in Norway, as is the level of education, and that a large majority of the courses are work-related and take place during working hours. These high levels may mean that the importance of continuing education is taken for granted, and this may overshadow the psychological variables.

Reasons for Studying and Benefits of Study

Six main reasons stand out as mentioned by 10% or more of respondents in at least one country. These reasons are: “to get a recognised qualification”, “to perform my work better”, “I am interested in the subject or topic”, “to get a job”, “to develop myself as a person”, and “I had no choice, my employer decided”. These are reflected in the three main groups of reasons found in other NIACE participation surveys: work-related reasons, personal development, and reasons related to education/progression. Employing the same factor-analys techniques on reasons for participation in learning shows that ten of the reasons form three identifiable groups of factors: personal development/improve my self-confidence/intrinsic interest; new work situation/get a job/change type of work/ be promoted; and carry out one’s work better/get a qualification. These three motivation factors are relatively independent of each other. The most important reason in Norway, which is also perceived as a work-related reason, is ‘to get a qualification’. The most important work-related reason in the UK is ‘to ­perform my work better’, whereas the most important work-related reason in Spain is ‘to get a job’. In the factor analysis ‘getting a recognised qualification’ is associated with ‘performing my work better’ both in Spain and Norway, but not in the UK, where, in previous NIACE ­surveys, it has usually been associated with access and academic ­progression, and with changing one’s work situation. Work-related ­reasons are important motives for participation in all countries, but the detail of the motives differs.

A similar analysis of learners’ views of the usefulness of their course produces similar benefit factors: “personal development”, “a new work situation”, “performing one’s work better” and “other benefits”. Judgement of benefits shows major differences between the countries. Only three types of benefit were judged ‘very useful’ or ‘useful’ by more than 60% of participants in Norway, four types of benefit were so judged in the UK, whereas nine types of benefit were judged positively by more than 60% of participants in Spain. Taken literally, these results are ‘thought-provoking’. They mean that in Norway, where participation is highest, the perceived benefit is lowest, while in Spain, where participation is lowest, the perceived benefit is highest, with a broad range of perceived outcomes. It is tempting to suggest that since provision and participation in Norway are taken for granted, their benefits are also taken for granted and therefore potentially ignored.

More positively, it could be argued that this confirms that the Norwegian and indeed the Scandinavian tradition of the importance of initial ­education for all has gone a long way towards ensuring that access to lifelong learning in Norway is also taken for granted as a reality. The challenge is there for other European countries to follow.


Skaalvik EM, Finbak, L, (2001), Adult Education in Great Britain, Norway and Spain: comparative study of participation motivation and barriers. Report of the Leonardo da Vinci supported MOBA project. Trondheim, VOX

Sargant, Naomi (2000), Motivation for and barriers against participation in adult education: national report on Great Britain for the Leonardo da Vinci supported MOBA project. Leicester, NIACE

Sargant, Naomi (2000), The Learning Divide Revisited, Leicester, NIACE

Sargant, Naomi et al (1997), The Learning Divide, Leicester, NIACE

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