/en/file/social-inclusion-vulnerable-groups-2Social inclusion of vulnerable groups
The September EPALE podcast considers the question: does adult learning increase inequalities? In this article, EPALE Thematic Coordinator Andrew McCoshan offers his thoughts on why policies might benefit from thinking clearly about which adults actually do formal learning and the types of learning provision they access.
To look at the question of whether adult learning increases inequalities, we need to be clear what we mean by ‘adult learning’ – because we can distinguish between: (a) who the learners are; and (b) the types of adult learning provision they access. Adults sit across a spectrum in terms of their predisposition to access learning and their ability to do so – people need both motivation and means. And they access different types of adult learning provision.
Adult learning that widens the equality gap
The adult learning provision that increases inequalities is likely to be learning that is accessed and paid for privately by individuals and companies. This type of learning comprises people who don’t think twice about doing more learning, people who have higher level qualifications, especially tertiary level. And they are likely to be accessing adult learning that is non-formal and sourced in the workplace, since statistics show this is the biggest slice of adult learning in every EU Member State.
So this group of people, who are already advantaged in socio-economic terms, are likely to become more advantaged by developing work-related skills to improve their career prospects – unless we help those people who don’t regularly access adult learning provision.
A learning threshold
What about those people who aren’t regularly accessing adult learning provision? For these people, it might be useful to think (hypothetically) about how close or distant people are from the ‘threshold’ of getting into learning, as this may help us from a policy perspective.
Some people are close to the threshold. They might require comparatively little support to get into learning and ‘nudging’ them might have a big impact on the skills base and therefore on the economy.
Then there are other people, who might be called the hardest to reach, who may lack both motivation (at least for formal learning) but especially the means to get into learning. As we know from many EPALE posts – support to these people may need to be intensive. Support may also serve mainly a social purpose but also, in the long run, has economic benefits.
Both target groups warrant support. But it is important to acknowledge their different starting points and potential finishing points if policy is going to be effective.
What does all this mean for policy?
First, we know that employers are the biggest single providers of adult learning but not to everyone in the workforce (see the 2016 Adult Employer Survey). People in low-skilled jobs are much less likely to benefit from company training. Should policy seek to activate companies to provide training for all employees? There are many barriers to address – e.g. little career progression, and companies may ‘poach’ trained workers from other companies So what’s the best policy solution? Maybe subsidies or financial incentives. Perhaps developing the role of trades unions may also have a part to play.
Secondly, we also know from the statistics that, in some countries, formal and non-formal education institutions play a more significant role – e.g. in Denmark, Spain, Finland, Lithuania and Malta. Why is this? These are countries with diverse education and training systems.
Denmark and Finland have long adult education traditions or embedded learning cultures, but what about Spain, Lithuania and Malta? It would be fascinating to hear from people in these countries – and other countries where adult learning provision is strong.
There is also a need for research so that we can learn systematically what lessons and experiences might be transferred across countries and regions.
Finally, inequality is relative as well as absolute. Technological change and industrial transformation has created winners and losers. It is clear the ‘market’ takes care of the already well-skilled. The public sector currently tends to focus on people who need help with basic skills. But would people near the learning threshold benefit from a nudge?
Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training in Europe for over 30 years as an academic researcher and consultant. He is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University in Ireland.