New research on adult learners in European higher education

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New research on adult learners in European higher education

A new report on adult learners in higher education shows that courses offered at a distance are liberating and a crucial route to new qualifications. It also shows that higher education institutions need to be aware of learners' needs and to meet them through support. Institutions should work harder to recognize prior and informal learning, and better communicate information on available financial support, argue the authors.

The research comes from a project led by ICDE which surveyed over 1,700 students. The IDEAL project seeks to gain a better understanding of the distance education offered by higher education institutions, and to examine how higher education institutions can contribute to adult learning through distance education.

The variety of age, life and work situations demonstrate the importance of distance education for adult learners.The findings of this report include:

  1. A high number of students enrolled in degree programmes have a previous higher education degree.

  2. It is important that institutions understand learners’ needsand adapt the offer to the demand.

  3. New learners, particularly non-degree holders should be targeted more effectively by institutions.

  4. Institutions must promote the recognition of prior and informal learning.

  5. Funding opportunities and eligibility criteria need to be better communicated.

  6. External motivating factors (e.g. time restrictions, need for flexibility) are still more important than internal ones (e.g. interest in a particular programme).

  7. An adequate policy framework and support from institutional management need to be secured.

  8. Adult learners have a strong need for support and guidance.

  9. More weight should be given to the learners' voice and feedback on programmes.

Download the report (57 pages)

A previous report (97 pages) examined the distance education offer of European higher education institutions and identified the intended target groups, in particular adult learners.

A forthcoming report will investigate the potential of these new forms of learning.

About the IDEAL project

IDEAL stands for “Impact of Distance Education on Adult Learning“ and is a joint initiative of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) and StudyPortals, with financial support from the European Commission. You can find more information on the ‘Impact of Distance Education on Adult Learning’ at