An important goal of Ontario’s postsecondary education system is to provide the appropriate level of educational attainment to meet the current and future human capital needs of the province (HEQCO, 2009: 19). This purpose reflects the recognition that education and training contribute to the human capital of individuals and make them more productive workers and better informed citizens. Attainment of further education not only provides for individual returns such as higher earnings and lower levels of unemployment , improved health and longevity, and greater satisfaction with life, but it is also strongly linked to social returns such as safer communities, healthy citizens, greater civic participation, stronger social cohesion and improved equity and social justice (Riddell, 2006). In order for the province to maintain and enhance its economic standing in the changing global economy, and to provide its citizens with the social benefits that higher education affords, it must ensure that the human capital needs of its society are met.
In pursuit of this objective, the Ontario government, most recently through its “Open Ontario Plan,” aims to raise the postsecondary attainment rate of those aged 25 to 64 to 70 per cent and to provide a place for every qualified Ontarian who desires to pursue a college or university education (Government of Ontario, 2010). The future “stock” of human capital required to achieve this attainment rate will need to come from three sources: Ontarians entering the labour force for the first time who may already have postsecondary credentials or may be in the process of acquiring them; new interprovincial and international migrants; and finally, through additions to postsecondary credentials by those who have already entered the labour force (HEQCO, 2009: 25). It is this latter population of individuals, often referred to as adult learners, with which this @Issue paper is concerned.
If it is acknowledged that adult learners must be one of the sources of the stock of human capital required for Ontario to achieve an attainment rate of 70 per cent, then an understanding of adult learners, the issues that they face and how those issues can best be addressed is vital. Government targets aside, it is becoming increasingly recognized that in the current knowledge-based economy, with its advancements in technology and rapidly changing skill requirements, learning must take place throughout the lifetime of an individual. The traditional concentration of education in earlier stages of life will no longer necessarily support individuals throughout their working lives. Initial education plays a large part in developing the potential of an
individual, but it is becoming increasingly important for adults to pursue the development of new skills and competencies and the upgrading of existing ones.
This @Issue Paper will attempt to explore the status of adult learners in Ontario’s postsecondary education system through:
• an examination of the demand for adult education in Ontario;
• an overview of how colleges and universities are meeting the demand for adult education;
• an evaluation of factors affecting adult learners in postsecondary accessibility and success; and
• potential policy implications to promote and improve the participation of adult learners in postsecondary education.
Examples of programs and services from Ontario institutions will be used to illustrate the state of the field in adult education, but the paper is not intended to provide a comprehensive inventory of offerings.