Qualifications, adults and social change : a theoretical and empirical examination of the growth of qualifications taken by adults in the last 20+ years
This thesis examines the growth in adults' take up of qualifications over the last 20+ years. The thesis asks who the participants are in terms of their social characteristics, and coins the term 'new adult qualifiers' to refer to this expanding student population. It aims to (I) locate the expansion in its wider social/historical context; (II) examine theories which might explain the increases, and (III) draw on a number of in-depth interviews with new adult qualifiers to explore the relevance of Giddens' concept of reflexive modernisation (RM). Part One of the thesis provides a statistical picture of trends in adults' participation in qualifying and non-qualifying courses in the UK since 1970. This shows that there have been substantial increases in the numbers of adults (21 +) and, particularly, older adults (25+) who pursue qualifications in the FE and HE sectors. The statistical account identifies the social, economic and educational diversity of this older mature student population. Part Two of the thesis discusses existing explanations for the expansiOn of qualifications in industrial societies (Dore 1976, Collins 1979), and identifies why they are of limited use in explaining the rise in adults' take up over the past two decades. It goes onto suggest that the RM thesis (Beck 1992, 1994; Giddens 1990, 1991, 1994), which is a general theory of social change as well as an evocative description of contemporary society, may provide the basis for an alternative explanation. The RM thesis provides a way of understanding how social and economic conditions, characterised by uncertainty and opportunity, have been produced. I hypothesise that it is these conditions that underlie the rising take up of qualifications by adults. This perspective is explored via a study of ten men and women who, in mid-life, have recently pursued first degrees at a university in England (Part Three). In the final chapter, I identify the strengths and weaknesses ofusing the RM thesis to help explain adults' changing relationship to qualifications. I conclude that the gap between the general social theory and the specific case of qualifications makes it unwise to claim that the perspective can fully explain the growth of qualifications for all adult groups.