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The Year of Skills: active citizens are needed more than ever before

The first part of the three-fold article series The Year of Skills focuses on active citizenship and the value of skills in a changing world.

Ovea avaava ihminen.

Active citizenship means that individuals must not only show interest in the concerns of fellow citizens and their communities but also take those concerns seriously.

In 2023, the Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe (EPALE) will publish a three-part article series ‘Time of Learning’ on the top priorities of the European Year of Skills. In the first part, we will consider the role of skills in a changing society, and active citizenship from the perspective of skills, trust, and strengthening of democratic society by means of adult learning.

In November, the European Commission declared the year 2023 the European Year of Skills. The first four words of the declaration reveal what the year is essentially about: “The green and digital transitions are opening up new opportunities for people and the EU economy...”.

European talent must acquire the skills required in an increasingly digitalised society and economy. However, amidst these colossal changes, we must retain the capacity for conscious and responsible citizenship as we are facing the threats posed by growing populism, dictatorships and deliberate disinformation. As the theme of skills is examined in the light of these factors, we realise that it does not only involve the enhancing of working life skills but also the building of democratic citizenship skills. And when it comes to lifelong learning, development of skills is also to a great extent a matter of personal growth.

Who are the people that will make Europeans top performers in this field? The answer is: adult educators. They will have to carry out a substantial part of the work because in demographic terms, the EU is the oldest of the world’s major economic areas. In fact, the third key objective of the Commission is to attract talent from outside the EU to the European labour market, which will further increase the need for adult learning and citizenship education.

More funding for skills improvement

A smile appears on the face of Erno Hyvönen, a project planner in the Ministry of Education and Culture.

- For us who work in the field of learning, every year is a year of skills, he notes.

As the coordinator of the European Agenda for Adult Learning, Hyvönen appreciates the message of the year.

- His message to providers of adult education is a simple one: there will be enough money for adult education because the EU must invest in it.

In addition to national programmes, the European Social Fund (ESF), the recovery fund NextGeneration EU, Erasmus+ programme funding  and Digital Europe remain the most important funding instruments of the EU in the field of skills development. For example, projects promoting active citizenship and inclusion as well as digital and green transition in the adult learning sector have high priority in Erasmus+ programme funding during the current programme period.

There will not be any additional funding for skills development as a result of the thematic year because the inputs in the sector are already substantial. In fact, Hyvönen urges providers of adult education to familiarise themselves with the funding channels and the content of the digital green transition.

- He adds that development projects involving skills enhancement that have been built around green transition will definitely attract the interest of funding providers.

There should also be a strong commitment to skills development in Finland

When we examine the overall situation, Finland is also a model student in the context of the European Year of Skills.

- Like other Nordic countries, Finland is way ahead of the rest of the Union in adult education policy, and thus Nordic views on adult education typically have more influence on the EU than EU recommendations have on us. When making decisions, the EU always takes into account the averages between Member States, Hyvönen explains.

He highlights identification and recognition of prior learning as key Finnish strengths.

However, citizens’ skills needs are changing at the same rate as the world situation. The current world situation is characterised by polarisation between major powers and between citizens of individual countries. Communications technology provides a basis for information bubbles of like-minded people and the spread of unintentional misinformation. Skills of committed and responsible citizenship are now crucial issues.

Disinformation – the greatest threat to democracy?

What are the typical features of an active and responsible citizen and who will teach them the skills they need? There is also the question of who defines active citizenship and where the education process should start – from an individual or ‘from above’.

Björn Wallén, the chairman of the Finnish Adult Education Association (VST) has analysed the issues of citizenship education for decades and would broaden the definition of an active citizen. In democratic citizenship, political institutions serve as platforms for participation, whereas a functional citizen is activated through civic engagement. For Wallén, self-education and studying are features of active citizenship, as is consumption: for example, refraining from consumption can be a political act. During the climate crisis, worrying about the earth’s carrying capacity may actually be fundamental to being an active citizen.

- It should be remembered that in a democracy, there is also room for passive citizenship, which is also a form of fully fledged citizenship, Wallén notes.

For him, genuine active citizenship grows from citizens’ togetherness and it cannot be dictated from above. In such an environment, disagreements are inevitable.

- Genuinely active citizenship inevitably leads to a certain amount of disagreement but in a climate characterised by respectful debate and constructive solutions, it should not be feared.

In fact, for Wallén, a healthy and responsible trust-based citizenship lies at the core of the citizenship concept and the seeds of such an attitude are sown at home and in early childhood education and care.

- When individuals trust society and other citizens, they are able to engage in a constructive and respectful debate that drives society forward.

Misinformation and disinformation erode trust and for this reason, they are more dangerous to democracy than disagreement.

Engaging in debate and encountering diversity are also building blocks that liberal adult education can use when fostering active citizenship.

- The purpose of adult education is to provide communal learning environments where there is no need to excel and where we can disagree and engage in a constructive discussion.

The timeout dialogues held in liberal adult education institutions are a good example of how such skills can be enhanced.

There is growing interest in volunteering

Volunteering in its different forms is one of the most visible manifestations of active citizenship. A volunteer is the embodiment of the classic ideal of an active citizen: unselfish desire to foster common good.

A phone call to Kristiina Stenman, a volunteering development expert in the City of Helsinki, reveals that there is growing interest in volunteering in the Finnish capital. Volunteering experts in Helsinki train volunteers, channel offers and requests for assistance and bring together volunteers and those in need.

- Our impression is that people are willing to help and that the exceptional events of recent years have activated citizens in this respect. In our opinion, the simple desire to help is sufficient to activate people, because it gives you a sense of purpose that we are all looking for, Stenman explains.

In the view of a volunteering expert, what is the most essential aspect of active citizenship?

- In my opinion, if you are interested in phenomena around you, if you are able to empathize and cooperate with others and if you want to work for the common good, you are a an active citizen, Stenman says.

Thus, volunteering is one of the many ways of learning active citizenship skills. In fact, in Stenman’s view, the opportunity to learn is one of the most important incentives for doing voluntary work.

- The learning dimension is a key motivation for many volunteers and their motto is “I am also doing this to learn more about myself, about other people and about society at large”.

Björn, Erno, Katariina.Björn Wallén (VST ry) (Photo: Nina Ahtola), Erno Hyvönen (OKM), Kristiina Stenman (Helsingin kaupunki).


The article at a glance

- The year 2023 has been declared the European Year of Skills by the European Commission

- The focus during the year is on digital green transition and the EU makes funding for this purpose available to education providers through a wide range of different funding programmes.

- Polarisation of society, which is accelerated by digitalisation, requires substantial inputs in citizenship education.

- Trust in society and the ability to engage in a constructive discussion protect pluralistic active citizenship whereas disinformation erodes it.

- You can learn active citizenship skills in a non-formal manner in liberal adult education and informally in volunteering and working life.


Sources and additional information

Björn Wallén: Deep Bildung (in Finnish) (VST, 2021)

Statement issued by the EAEA on the occasion of the European Year of Skills

Article in the Elm Magazine: The EU Year of Skills, opportunity or tokenism?

EPALE resource kit: Skills revolution

EU funding advisory service


Markus Palmén (MSc/BA), is a freelance journalist, writer and producer working with online journalism and audiovisual content. He has previously worked as thematic coordinator at EPALE and before that, as Editor-in-Chief of European Lifelong Learning Magazine (Elm) at the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation. In the world of learning, his special interests include different types of learning and liberal adult education. Twitter: @MarkusPalmen

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