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Anni Holopainen: Basic education for adults – A hybrid chameleon in liberal adult education

How basic education for adults as general education leading to a qualification and with the task of supporting integration is compatible with the spirit of liberal adult education.

The face of liberal adult education is diverse. As a rule, it is open to everyone, self-motivated and not qualification-oriented. The studies provide general knowledge and ability, improve civic skills, or they may be hobby-based, aimed at accumulating knowledge and skills related to personal interests. The objective is to promote people’s diverse development and wellbeing and strengthen the sense of community and participation. 

Anyone regardless of their background can participate in liberal adult education, such as courses organised by adult education centres and other modes of teaching that are open to everyone. In addition, liberal adult education plays an important role in the provision of education and training to people with a migrant background. Basic education for adults is one of the forms of education aimed at persons with a migrant background, and as education leading to a qualification, it is a clear exception to the principles of liberal adult education. What kind of challenges does this pose from the point of view of the premise of liberal adult education?

What is basic education for adults?

Even many of the experts working in the field of education are not so familiar with basic education for adults. It is not a new form of education, but it has been developed strongly in the latter half of the 2010s to meet the needs of adults with a migrant background. In my opinion, as a form of education, basic education for adults could be characterised as a kind of hybrid or chameleon. The characterisation as a hybrid is based on the National core curriculum for basic education for adults, which makes the education part of the general education system, part of the adult education system and part of the integration training system for adult immigrants. I compare it to a chameleon because the same education unavoidably adopts a slightly different form depending on the set of values and the operating principle of the general upper secondary school for adults, folk high school, adult education centre or some other educational institution organising it. Between 2019 and 2020, basic education for adults was offered by a total of 47 education providers.

Leena Saloheimo writes on the (link in Finnish) website that the education organised by liberal adult education has good capacities and the expertise required for supporting the integration process of persons with a migrant background. However, in this text I am asking how basic education for adults as general education leading to a qualification and with the task of supporting integration is compatible with the spirit of liberal adult education.

A strict education pathway or self-motivated lifelong learning?

In her blog in the Finnish Association of Adult Education Centres’ website (link in Finnish), Päivi Rosnell highlights the clash of the self-motivated aspect of studying and the student’s right to self-determination with the objectives of national integration and the requirements of the employment and economic development authorities. The authorities decide whether or not the student’s studies in basic education for adults are supported, and they may also interrupt the granted support in the middle of the studies. We may then ask how self-motivated the studies really are if students are obligated by the authorities to participate in the education.

Päivi Rosnell also notes that, in basic education for adults, students should achieve the same knowledge and skills in a short period of time that children and young people can take nine years to learn. Basic education for adults has a national core curriculum of its own (link in Finnish), which differs from the National core curriculum for basic education for children of compulsory education age. At the moment, however, there are still more similarities than differences between these two. It is therefore difficult to avoid comparison with children and young people who have been through the whole path of basic education in Finland.

I encountered the same conflicting comparison when I examined the National core curriculum for basic education for adults and interviewed the education providers, teachers and students for my master’s thesis (link in Finnish)According to the results of my study, students in basic education for adults were easily seen as deficient adults and somewhat like children because they lacked some of the knowledge and skills that our society assumes adults should have. Identifying and recognising the prior learning of an adult who comes from a different society and culture is challenging in basic education for adults. The person’s learning is therefore easily perceived as wrong and inadequate. When the objectives are strictly dictated from above, the studies leave very little room for self-motivation, focusing on one’s personal interests and diverse development, which are the ideals of liberal adult education.

According to the National core curriculum, the task of basic education for adults is to enhance the student's inclusion and encourage active citizenship. The results of my study emphasised the idea that by completing basic education, adults with a migrant background are thought to achieve the same level as adults in the main population. Especially the education providers and the teaching staff were of the view that students can through the education be “included” in Western civilisation.

It is important in many ways that students in basic education for adults learn the basics of matters that are considered to be part of the so-called general knowledge and ability in Finnish society. However, it is problematic to think that an adult who has grown up in another culture and society would be a “tabula rasa” who has not gained any kind of education in their life. I therefore ask the same as Satu Heimo in her Sivistystori blog (link in Finnish): Whose voice do we hear in the debate on liberal adult education and whose education or basic civilization is the "right"?

Looking for common factors

When different forms of education operate under one roof, it would be worthwhile to make an effort to dismantle some of the boundaries between them and find an area of contact instead of keeping everything strictly separate. Sanna Rekola also sates in her Sivistystori blog (link in Finnish) that instead of underlining the differences, it is important to see our shared humanity and the factors we have in common. According to Rekola, education can increase interest in what happens in the world and motivate people to work for the desired future. This is the goal of both liberal adult education and basic education for adults.

The challenge in basic education for adults is how to combine the objectives of the national core curriculum, the requirements of the authorities and the operating environment in question. Even if the chameleon always adapted to its environment, would it also be possible for the environment to adapt to the chameleon? Which of the ideals of liberal adult education could basic education for adults and other education and training for persons with a migrant background benefit from?

Efforts could be made to achieve the goals of shared participation and active citizenship by advertising the courses offered by adult education centres to students in basic education for adults as an opportunity to find a suitable hobby and to study for fun. The courses offered by the educational institution itself could certainly be used as optional subjects in basic education for adults. Students could then better choose courses that are compatible with their interests and demonstrate their competence more diversely. Through cooperation between the different modes of teaching, more diverse encounters and dialogue between people from different backgrounds would become possible, which would help to make integration a genuine two-way process.



Holopainen, Anni. 2021. Samalle viivalle? Aikuisten perusopetus kotoutumista tukevana koulutuksena [‘On the same line? Basic education for adults as education supporting integration’]. Tampere University. Faculty of Education and Culture. Master’s Programme in Educational Studies. Master’s thesis. 


Anni Holopainen

Anni Holopainen, MA (Education), works as a Pedagogical Specialistin the administration of the Education Division of the City of Helsinki. She has previously worked as a teacher of languages in basic education for children of compulsory education age and basic education for adults. She continues to work as a part-time teacher of English at an adult education centre. Anni is widely interested in the different stages of the lifelong learning path. In particular, educational issues related to immigration, equality and multilingualism are close to her heart. In her leisure time, Anni likes to study new things and plays the viola.


This article is part of the Sivistystori blog series of the SVV (Freedom and Responsibility of Liberal Adult Education), in which articles by liberal adult education researchers, experts in this field of education, and the SVV's partners are published roughly twice a month.

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Äärimmäisen hyvää ja tärkeää pohdintaa! Kiitos kaimaseni. Olen itse useinkin pohtinut tuota dilemmaa, että lyhyellä koulutuksella (ml. Koto) pitäisi äärimmäisen heterogeenisistä ihmisryhmistä jollain taikakonstilla leipoa Suomeen uusia kansalaisia, joilla olisi sama yleissivistyspohja ja työelämätaidot ynnä muuta osaamista kuin Suomalaisilla. Ehkä pitäisi ennemminkin tarkastella holistisesti ihmisen osaamista, ja hyödyntää moninaisuutta rikastamaan yhteiskuntaamme ja työelämäämme. Eli ympäristön pitäisi myös mukautua kameleonttiin ?

Kiitos vielä hienosta tekstistä! 


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