There is often an assumption that adult learning can be all things to all people, that it can play a role that encompasses skills development for employment, re-skilling to face changing economic contexts, and enhancing social inclusion. The Council of the European Union’s Resolution on a renewed European agenda for adult learning covers all these aspects in noting that:
“Adult learning provides a means of up-skilling or reskilling those affected by unemployment, restructuring and career transitions, as well as makes an important contribution to social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development.”
Can adult learning be all things to all people?
While adult learning can do all of these things, it is arguably more accurate to accept that the goals of learning for employment, learning for re-skilling, and learning to promote social inclusion often require very different approaches. These objectives or ‘hopes’ for adult learning can also sometimes be contradictory. This raises an age old source of debate: what is adult learning for, or perhaps, what should adult learning be for?
Employability or social inclusion? Or both?
This debate on the purpose and focus of adult learning is particularly crucial where promoting social inclusion is concerned. While it maybe good for the economy, adopting a policy approach focused on using adult learning to promote employability and economic competitiveness does not necessarily support social inclusion. Certainly, such an approach can help inclusion through promoting employment as a route out of poverty.
However, it equally has the potential to squeeze learning as a driver for promoting social inclusion in a wider sense to the margins, particularly in terms of the most disadvantaged groups. Not all learners, particularly those facing severe exclusion, marginalisation and disadvantage, are ready for job-related training. For some, engaging in learning is a significant step as well as a daunting challenge. Nonetheless, such involvement can play a vital role in ‘re-connecting’ individuals through social and community engagement, hence reducing exclusion and isolation. It thus has a clear value whether or not this leads to formal qualifications or, for example, progression towards work.
Maintaining a balanced focus
It seems important to acknowledge that, while adult learning can support both economic / employment and social inclusion objectives, depending on its focus it may not always achieve these twin goals. There is arguably a need to ensure that learning simply as a route into interacting with other people, or playing a more active role in communities, is not lost in times of austerity and economic challenge. Doing so may not be easy, but there are ways of promoting such wider objectives, along with ensuring accessibility for all groups no matter what their motivations for participating are.
Funding community-based learning approaches and networks is one such option in the context of limited resources, providing that policy backing, political will and at least some start-up and ongoing financial support is available. Promising examples of such approaches include the ‘Community Learning Trusts’ recently launched in the UK, with early evidence suggesting that the approach can be successful in meeting the needs of adult learners, particularly those facing disadvantage.
Innovative and novel approaches are doubtless being taken forward elsewhere and it would be great to hear about these. For now though, it seems enough to reflect that, while the goals of adult learning can vary, policy makers and funders need to avoid only focussing on one set of objectives to the exclusion of others.
Ian Atkinson is Associate Director at Ecorys UK, where he leads on employment and labour markets policy and research work. His research background and interests include employability interventions, social inclusion and results-based payment mechanisms.