Adult learning is often seen as an important component of promoting an
adaptable and flexible workforce by enabling potential workers to stay in
the labor market or improve their position. As outlined in the introductory
chapter, globalization, demographic aging, and rapidly changing technology
have increased the need for individuals to take part in adult learning in order to
maintain or increase their human capital and remain competitive in the labor
market. While it is often argued that adult learning can be used by policymakers
and individuals to compensate for earlier educational disadvantages,
some research has found that educational disadvantages accumulate over
the life course since the most advantaged individuals are the most likely to
take part in adult learning (Pallas 2004; Dieckhoff, Jungblut and O’Connell
2007). Determining not only who participates in adult learning, but also
whether this participation pays off in terms of employment outcomes, is
important for understanding the role that adult learning plays in the ability
of modern societies to keep the skill levels of their labor forces up-to-date.
Australia is especially well-situated to be able to examine this association
since a substantial proportion of the population completed additional formal
education qualifications after spending some time in the labor force. Indeed,
the OECD finds that Australia has one of the highest rates of participation
in adult education among all OECD member countries (OECD 2010).
Furthermore, Australia’s institutional framework provides a unique context in
which adults are able to return to education due to a flexible higher-education
sector, a living allowance provided by the welfare state, and an interest-free
income-contingent student loans scheme that pays for educational fees.
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