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European priorities for quality in adult learning: the challenges continue

ag Andrew McCoshan
Teanga: EN

/ga/file/challengesqualityresizedjpgChallenges Quality

Challenges Quality

At European level, EU Member States are working towards a common set of objectives called the strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training, or ET 2020, and these have recently been reviewed by the European Commission. The framework covers all areas of education and training and provides an “umbrella" for the Renewed European Agenda for Adult Learning.

The review comes in the form of a draft Joint Report from the Commission and the Council. Published in August, it reports on the implementation of the framework with a view to determining the priority areas for the coming years. The report offers an opportunity to look at how priorities have changed since the last review in 2012 and, by implication, what progress has been made in Europe as a whole in recent years.

So what's the same and what has changed regarding the issue of quality in adult learning?

Quality runs as a thread through the review, as it does through the strategic framework itself. “Quality learning for all" is key to fostering “upward social convergence". Adult learning “is the basis for up-skilling and re-skilling", with persistent problems of low basic skills and high unemployment rates making it necessary to reinforce the implementation of the European adult learning agenda. There is a need to “significantly increase the supply of high quality adult learning provision", and priorities include better quality assurance. These elements will be familiar amongst adult learning practitioners. They reinforce previous messages at European level and point to the need for continuing progress.

But not all is reiteration. Notably, the Joint Report draws attention to the need to stimulate the quality of learning outcomes “in a lifetime perspective". As far as I can tell from my many years watching European adult learning policy, this application of the quality concept to learning outcomes is new. It applies the term right at the heart of learning processes. The meaning is not elaborated in the report. But it would be interesting to think about what “quality" learning outcomes might be.

The report also makes much more of digital learning and information and communication technologies in the strategic framework than before. This reflects thinking at European level in the last few years. Indeed, ICT is now reflected in the priority areas, which include the need to promote the use of ICT not just as an add-on to learning, but as nothing less than “a driver for systemic change to increase quality and relevance of education at all levels". The 2011 Renewed Agenda for Adult Learning simply made reference to making better use of ICT to improve the quality of provision. To make ICT a systemic change driver poses both opportunities and challenges for adult learning.

The review also builds on previous thinking about monitoring and evaluation. It encourages Member States to use evidence-based policy-making to monitor policies and design reforms that deliver quality education more efficiently. And it also prioritises the exploration of “new ways to measure the quality of teacher training", which has not previously been identified in the strategic framework although there has been much focus on the quality of teacher training in general. Finding ways to measure it is new. The report also identifies the need in adult learning to “collect necessary data on needs to effectively target and design provision", a priority which highlights an important gap in many countries.

Overall, the Joint Report reinforces existing priorities and also identifies new needs. At the same time, it streamlines the number of priority areas from 13 to 6.  On balance, we therefore have greater focus but at the same time confirmation that the needs identified when the strategic framework was adopted in 2009 still remain. The review also applies the concept of quality into some new areas, filling in some important gaps but also raising new questions.

As the report points out, Member States will select the areas and issues they wish to focus on according to their own national priorities, but the priorities throw down important challenges for anyone concerned about quality adult learning in Europe.

Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 20 years. For the last 10 years he has specialised in policy development studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently a freelance consultant, an Associate with the UK Higher Education Academy, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and a Member of the UK Education & Employers Taskforce Research Group.

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  • Francine Varner's picture

    Hello Andrew,

    Trying to answer you far reaching questions re. “where are the edges in the frameworks that we need to make learning more flexible where existing provision is very rigid and inflexible?” And  “Are there trade-offs, and if so what are they?”

    - Obviously, there are many factors to consider and I am sure that most provisions have already been made. However, I believe that the original assessment of the adult learner should include an effort in establishing how much time the adult learner can dedicate to their studies, daily, and also what would be their own course completion end date. Some may be able to complete faster, some may need an “extension”.

    I would not think about resolving this matter necessarily as a trade off or as making exceptions. One way to compensate these potential hurdles would be, at the top, to be ready for their actual needs – even in the more rigid environment – by assessing their starting point, and based on the time they can estimate they have, have different courses formats to allow them to start and study at a sensible pace, considering their other obligations as adults. This could include allowing them to “chunk” (sorry, I can’t think of a better word) the course(s) taken or, sometimes, under some conditions, allowing them to take a break during the course.

    Adults have obligations and circumstances they don’t always control. So, it would not challenge the system in place, it would take some of the pressure and allow them to focus on actually acquiring the knowledge they need, and not be pressured by a looming target date for completion.

    I saw a very interesting video yesterday on the topic of children and adult education and – simplifying – basically should it be an either or. Considering the current events, they are both critical. Going beyond the walls of the courses themselves and how they are provided, I think that in the case where both children and adults are learners, then they should be encouraged to study together (when at home).

    I also think that there should be in place a specialized counseling for adult learners, not mentors, not social workers, who would be available all along. For adult learners, the social environment is critical and makes the difference between success or failure just as much as for children. Providing this service would “take into account the realities of provision” and probably avoid an adult learner from having no other option but to drop out.

    I am not so concerned about the tech side and how to deliver the courses. There is more than enough tech resources already available to ensure access to the courses to any type of learner.

  • Andrew McCoshan's picture

    Many thanks for taking us in such interesting directions, Francine. It shows how important it is not to be limited by where we have come from in terms of how education has been thought of in the past. In short, I guess there shouldn't be any limits to personalisation. And, if we believe that, then we need more sophisticated ways of thinking about how we measure the costs and benefits, or the potential trade-offs, in adult learning especially. The specialised workers are case in point, where they can be seen to be “expensive" but can make the difference between success and failure, as you say.


    At a time when education budgets come under pressure and when adult learning can be seen as expendable, we need as much evidence as possible. The more and better data called for in the Joint Report from the European Commission and Council is not just vital for better targeting but also to enable adult learning to make its case when difficult financial decisions are being made.


    Interestingly, it seems to me that adult learning can take advantage of the fact that in many countries it still needs substantial development at a time when technology can provide many cost-effective solutions to the challenges of personalisation. It would be good to hear what examples people have of this … where spending a little achieved a lot.

  • Franco Massimo SPIEZIA's picture


    Thanks to ask us to cooperate in this matter, I am really proud to contribute to help on that.

    Taking into account the theme "quality assurance" that in several case also means "customer satisfaction" (in QUALITY LETTERATURE and ISO 9001 STANDARD that I worked on for several years), the best woud be ask to the adults, trough an appropriate survey and opportunely segmenting the audience and potential users/customers, what would be their best request for that. However, in order to set strategy it's also good to ask to yourself what can be the right information and training contents to give to an adult in a Long Life Learning program. Here are two proposals:

    1) For population who already have a high level of knowledge (degree/master) it's important to set training to align the current technology status and communication media (social or not) to cover the gap they for sure have if the didn't had enough capability to learn by themselves in the last years (due too busy job, family issues, not enough money etc) . (I have already prepared a web social marketing training Base and advanced course I can deliver).  I am quite sure they will be really interested in starting again to communicate with relative and socializing in a new way! but also what are Nanotechnology, new advanced material, alternative energy etc. with a different level of knwoledge (the target could be to bridge the gap, or learn new things- and also for that I can deliver divulgative training)

    2) Moreover, we should not forget that adults have also several things to contribute including their life experience as they learned a lot of things and the best would be to allow them to learn from other  adults merging what they learned in phase 1) and how this new knowledge would increase their previous job or knowledge or attitude to work!

    I am available to prepare a program and develop such kind of course if anyone is interested.



  • Andrew McCoshan's picture

    Hi Franco, Many thanks for the interesting ideas. If you are looking for partners for projects like this, don't forget that you can use the EPALE Partner Search tool! Kind regards, Andrew

  • Andrew McCoshan's picture
    Hi EPALE Slovenia, many thanks for your input via Facebook about the need for adult educators to do more sharing of their stories and best practices. We have the platform, of course, so how do you think it could be best used to do this?
  • Andrew McCoshan's picture

    Many thanks to Francine Varner who has responded to the  Facebook question: “What should change regarding the quality issue of adult learning?" by saying “more targeted to the actual learner's goal". Such concerns seem to be reflected in the Joint Report which, amongst other things, draws attention to the need to collect more and better data about adult learners so that provision can be better targeted. What else needs to happen do you think?

  • Francine Varner's picture



    Thank you for inviting me to continue the conversation.

    I am aware that there is a lot already being done in the context of adults education at large and it seems that, in light of world changing events, there might also be a sense of emergency.

    From my personal experience, however, as an educator in foreign languages at all levels, but with a greater expertise in teaching adults, live in an online environment, I find that - currently and thankfully - the accent is more and more on personalizing and customizing, which is critical with adult learners.

    Adult students are usually very self motivated, they have targeted goals and resume their education or start learning in a new field because the "want to", which is very positive. So, when I mentioned "more targeted to the actual learner's goal", I am aware that it was a very elliptic way to say a lot more. With adults, it is critical to consider the time factor at the top, time as how much time can they spend on studying daily and fit in their daily schedule but, also, according to their own plans and needs for their next step in both their personal and professional life to which their education will open the door for them.

    Again, my experience with adult learners is that they are self motivated and want to achieve what they set out to do, which is a great disposition from an educator's point of view. The education/courses/settings we provide need to be such that the learner will know, without a doubt, that they are moving towards achieving their goals consistently. In other words, again, the education provided has to consistently measure time and timing in order to ensure the learner's personal and professional success. It is not an abstract, it is - literally - life changing for the learner, individually, for their family, socially and in many other areas since we are more and more hearing about "global" education and professional mobility.

    I understand that, at the top, a solid structure is needed. However, imho, to ensure success and considering the rate of changes in education at large, worldwide, keeping a close ear to the ground and having consistent communications as well as flexibility, at all levels, are paramount factors for this and next generations.


    Francine Varner


  • Andrew McCoshan's picture

    Many thanks for these stimulating ideas, Francine.

    They make me wonder what the limits are to personalising and customising learning for adults? Or perhaps it's better to ask where are the edges in the frameworks that we need to make learning more flexible? Perhaps this isn't a helpful question in situations where existing provision is very rigid and inflexible and where any change in the direction of more personalisation is to be welcomed.

    At the same time, providers of learning opportunities inevitably face this question at some point. I wonder if there are core questions that must be asked in order, on the one hand, to respond to learners' need for flexibility in timing as well as in setting goals and monitoring progress and, on the other hand, to take into account the realities of provision? Are there trade-offs, and if so what are they?

    Perhaps other readers can shed light on this as well.