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Marc O'Sullivan

Opinion If we really want a more equal society, we need greater investment in adult learning

If we want adult learners to make it, we must support them all the way, writes Dearbháil Lawless of AONTAS.

EDUCATION IS THE great leveller. The higher the level of a person’s education, the stronger their prospects in quality of life, health and employment. If Ireland really wants to lead the way in education, if we really want a more equal society, we need greater investment in adult learning.

Research shows that people who go back to education through Further Education and Training (FET) are more likely to have been exposed to societal inequalities and are more likely to be living in poverty.

The Widening Participation data from SOLAS, published in 2022, shows the diversity of FET learners. The group includes 1,319 members of the Traveller community; 49,000 people aged over 50; 12,000 people with a disability; and 3,000 refugees. More than 60% of FET learners are women. These people often come from lower-income families and under-resourced communities, and often face higher levels of discrimination.

Pull out of poverty 

There can be an assumption that people who are living in poverty are not willing to improve their living conditions. However, the reality is that it is very difficult to break free from the cycle of financial insecurity. The current cost-of-living crisis is affecting everyone in Ireland, exacerbated by the housing and accommodation crisis. Adult education offers one clear method of working towards solutions to these social and political challenges.

To address inequalities in Ireland, we must invest more in people born into life with less. Otherwise, the poverty cycle continues. Everyone should have a meaningful opportunity to learn, grow and be their best self. It will not only improve their circumstances but the future opportunities of their children and the people around them. Yet the financial support available to them does not match that available to students in Higher Education.

For people in FET, existing financial supports come up short: they are below the poverty line by €86. This means that people in FET may not have the basic means to support their everyday needs.

Through our research and advocacy at AONTAS, where I am CEO, we have come into contact with learners sleeping in their cars due to petrol and rent costs. We have met lone parents struggling to manage childcare, work full-time and attend their courses. And while there has been a significant increase recently in support for apprenticeships in Ireland, our research has found that apprentices are being asked to travel around the country to do work placements, creating extreme financial strain. One apprentice told us that “the money we’re getting just does not cover the cost of that travel. The wages are below minimum wage.”

Meal allowances are currently 80 cent per day. Where could you buy a cup of tea with this, let alone a sandwich? How can someone concentrate in class when they’re studying full-time and also working full-time to make ends meet? At our recent ‘Who Does It Cost?’ discussion on Monday 4 March, organised as part of the annual AONTAS Adult Learners’ Festival, a FET learner in this situation told us their typical day involves staying up until 3am doing assignments, then getting up for work only a few hours later to do it all over again. This is not a sustainable or fair model of education.

‘Extreme stress’

When I share stories like this, people often say, “Well I worked and studied, and I managed to get through.” But accessing education shouldn’t mean you have to struggle through a period of extreme stress or be exceptional. Education should be accessible for everyone, regardless of their circumstances.

It is also undeniable that it is far more expensive to rent or buy accommodation today than 10 or 15 years ago. The costs of food and bills have soared. These and other pressures, such as the recent pandemic, mean that 1 in 3 adult learners have told us that mental health problems affect their ability to learn or study.

We need more qualified construction workers to build houses. We need more teachers for our schools. We need nurses for our hospitals. FET offers options to train in this to a greater number of people, especially people who come from working-class communities. Education is a personal and public good. But Ireland is not currently protecting people who are willing to step up and take on these important roles in our society – as we witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic – by providing them with adequate financial resources.

This year, we at AONTAS are leading a national financial campaign, in partnership with our members from the adult and community education sector across the island of Ireland. We are calling on the Government to increase investment in adult learners through training allowances, supplementary allowances and social welfare payments. We are doing this because people who are living in poverty have come to believe that education isn’t for them. But education should be for everyone, and our society would be better for it.


Dearbháil Lawless is the CEO of AONTAS, the National Adult Learning Organisation. She is co-chair of Coalition 2030, vice-president of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), and is on the Board of Directors at Dublin 8 Community Education Centre. The Adult Learners’ Festival is now underway.

Dearbháil Lawless
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