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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



What can we learn from Portuguese adult education?

by Paula Guimarães
Language: EN
Document available also in: HU FR

/en/file/portugal-lessons-learnt-epalePortugal Lessons Learnt EPALE

Portugal Lessons Learnt EPALE


Paula Guimarães reflects on the challenges that adult education faces in Portugal and what lessons other countries and the European Union can draw from that.


Adult education policies are at the centre stage but participation is still low

Since the democratic revolution in Portugal in 1974, adult education policy has rarely been considered a central point in the policy agenda and a relevant issue to the Portuguese population.

Despite the ET2020 targets, such as those for lifelong learning participation, the rate of early school leavers is still high in Portugal, and literacy levels of the Portuguese population are low when compared to other EU Member States. Furthermore, non-participants (especially those who are low skilled) have been hard to involve in lifelong learning, especially in formal learning.

Adult education policy may have become more relevant from 2000 to 2011 through the adult education policy programme called Iniciativa Novas Oportuidades. However, the improvement of participation rates in the last years has not revealed a consistent pattern, which explains the recent decrease of participation rates in lifelong learning that can be observed in EUROSTAT data. Additionally, according to recent data from Instituto Nacional de Estatística, non-participants in lifelong learning represent a big percentage of the population.


Diverse adult education and lack of coherence between programmes

One way to reach participants is to offer short-term programmes. These are mainly implemented by many non-state, civil society and non-governmental organisations. Also, state-funded and regulated provision is moving in this direction and becoming more diverse. Many currently implemented projects and activities are not part of adult education policy, which allows the existence of several types of provision without coherence and policy consistence. This situation has been reinforced by discontinuous adult education policies imposed both on the national and European levels, and by the uniform funding pattern by the European Social Fund, which is mainly directed at school certification and professional.

Therefore, recent policy discourses on the European and national levels seem to:

  • emphasise too much the link between education and the economy;
  • ignore other relevant dimensions (such as the social/cultural/political/civic impact) of adult education.


Lack of a professional identity of adult educators

The discontinuous policies and the diverse programmes and projects devaluate the work achieved by adult educators, who are seldom hired, and work on a freelance or volunteer basis, facing precarious working conditions. Hence, adult educators do not see themselves as a professional group. This is mainly because:

  1. There has never been a professional career for adult educators within the development of public policies’ forms of provision. Adult educators are hired according to human resource management needs, using short-term contracts based on few formal rules and legislation, and they are fired when adult education is not a priority in the political agenda.
  2. There are no higher education paths (on a Bachelor’s level) specifically directed at training adult educators. The existing Master’s programmes including adult education in subjects and courses are too broad and do not form specialised adult educators, but educators in general that may work in very different education settings.
  3. There are no professional associations of adult educators or requests from existing trade unions for the professionalisation of adult educators. This has led to a lack of social recognition of adult educators as professionals and of adult education as a professional field.
  4. There is no social pressure in policy decision making that would favour adult education as a field of professional practice. It is also not common to find events, academic or otherwise, that are specifically devoted to discuss the problems in adult educators’ occupation.

The circumstances have not helped to improve the professional identity of adult educators in Portugal and the situation there is an example of what happens in many European countries. EPALE, as a platform could however reinforce this by showing that whatever our adult education profession may be, we all share common characteristics as a professional group.


Continuing adult education policies and ensuring adult educators’ professional identity

The debate on adult education policies and adult educators’ occupation and work conditions in Portugal is important for other countries which are facing similar challenges as well as to the European Union, which has been stressing the relevance of lifelong learning and adult learning staff in the policy agenda.

We’ve learnt from Portugal that:

  • it takes time to assess and eventually change the need for public policies with direct outcomes for adult education;
  • adult educators need to have a profession that is considered relevant for their country and for Europe as a whole (several professional models can be discussed based on the specificities of adult education work).

Paula Guimarães has been Assistant Professor at the Institute of Education of the University of Lisbon (Portugal) since 2012; she was also Researcher at the Unit for Adult Education of the University of Minho from 1992 to 2011. Paula’s research interests include adult learning and education policies and civil society organisations intervention in adult learning and education. Paula has many publications in different European and Portuguese journals and books.

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