Non-Formal Adult Learning Programs at Canadian Post-Secondary Institutions: Trends, Issues, and Practices

  • Dale Kirby
  • Vernon Curran
  • Ann Hollett


A number of recent policy reports have suggested that Canadian universities and community colleges should play a more significant role in response to the adult education and training needs of Canada’s workforce. This article discusses the results of a study that examined investment trends and the characteristics of non-formal adult learner programming at Canadian postsecondary institutions. Public universities and community colleges were surveyed, and a purposive sample of key informants, representing the broad spectrum of postsecondary education in Canada, was interviewed. The results indicated that institutional investments in non-formal programs for adult learners have trended upward over the past decade. Colleges reported larger average annual institutional expenditures on and larger enrolments in non-formal adult learner programs. However, adult learners comprise only a small minority of the overall student population at post-secondary institutions. Financial barriers at both the institutional and individual levels were identified as key barriers to increasing access and participation. Limited operational funding at the institutional level has influenced the nature and scope of offerings and, for many institutions, has resulted in program offerings that do not necessarily target the needs of nontraditional and disadvantaged adult learner groups. The study findings have important public-policy implications for improving access and participation in non-formal adult learning, including the need for greater incentives for individuals (e.g., tax incentives) and increased support for disadvantaged learners to enhance basic-skills training.

Author Biographies

Dale Kirby
Dr. Dale Kirby is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is a co-investigator on a five year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) study of student transition to post-secondary education and the workforce.
Vernon Curran
Dr. Vernon Curran is the director of Academic Research and Development and an associate professor of Medical Education in the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He holds a cross-appointment with the Faculty of Education at Memorial and teaches in Adult Education, Post-Secondary Studies, and Health Professional Education programs.
Ann Hollett
Ann Hollett is the research coordinator for the Centre for Collaborative Health Professional Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Ann is responsible for the evaluation of inter-professional health education curricula and research projects and has coordinated research in support of primary health-care providers to develop competencies for inter-professional health-care collaboration.