Two thirds of adults gain new qualifications, study finds

15 March 2013

Over two thirds of people gain qualifications in adult life – often to enhance their career prospects, new evidence suggests.

The study from the Institute of Education, University of London, shows that 71 per cent of people in England, Scotland and Wales achieved at least one qualification between the ages of 23 and 50, and more than half (53 per cent) did so between the ages of 33 and 50.

The research was conducted by Dr Andrew Jenkins, who looked at the qualifications of nearly 9,000 50-year-olds being followed by the long-running National Child Development Study, which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

“The majority of qualifications obtained by adults were vocational, suggesting that career development was the main reason for further study,” says Dr Jenkins. “Almost 30 per cent of adults gained a vocational qualification between the ages of 42 and 50, compared to just 5 per cent who gained an academic qualification at this age.”

Many people upgraded to higher levels of qualifications in adulthood than they previously held. At age 23, for example, just 21 per cent of those included in the study had a qualification equivalent to NVQ level 4 or above (such as an undergraduate degree or Higher Education Diploma), but 37 per cent had a qualification at this level by age 50. Less than six per cent of people in the study had no qualifications at all at 50.

Dr Jenkins notes that this new evidence suggests adults have gained more qualifications in recent decades – and at a higher level – than previous research has indicated.

“There has long been a perception that the UK workforce is less skilled than many of its competitors, and findings from this study indicate that qualifications have become increasingly necessary for workers to prove their skills,” he says. “But with the planned 25 per cent reduction in the further education budget by 2014–2015 there is a risk that fewer adults will be able to get the qualifications they need in future.”

The study found that women were more likely than men to gain qualifications in adult life. Fifty-seven per cent of women obtained a qualification between the ages of 33 and 50, compared to less than half (48 per cent) of men. Those who had children at an early age were most likely to return to education in later life.

“Over two thirds of men gained at least one qualification between the ages of 17 and 22, compared to just over half of women,” says Dr Jenkins. “Women with family care responsibilities were particularly unlikely to obtain qualifications in their 20s but this evidence suggests that they took the opportunity to catch up in their 30s and 40s.”

Between the ages of 33 and 50, women were almost twice as likely as men to gain a qualification two or more levels higher than they previously held, or to obtain a degree-level qualification.

Learning and the lifecourse: the acquisition of qualifications in adulthood’, by Dr Andrew Jenkins is the latest working paper to be published by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS). It will be downloadable from the CLS website from 9am on March 15, 2013. CLS is an Economic and Social Research Council resource centre.

Further information from:

Claire Battye
020 7612 6516

Meghan Rainsberry
020 7612 6530

Notes for editors:

  1. The National Child Development Study (NCDS) began as a cross-sectional perinatal mortality survey of more than 17,000 infants born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week in 1958. Cohort members were subsequently followed up at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46 and 50. The age 55 survey will be conducted this year. NCDS provides a wide range of information on cohort members’ life-course trajectories and circumstances, such as physical and mental health, education, employment, and housing.
  2. The NCDS is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), which is based at the Department for Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London. CLS is responsible for running two of Britain’s other major birth cohort studies: the 1970 British Cohort Study and the Millennium Cohort Study. Further information available at
  3. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 12 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities. More at
  4. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012-13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at

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