chevron-down chevron-left chevron-right chevron-up home circle comment double-caret-left double-caret-right like like2 twitter epale-arrow-up text-bubble cloud stop caret-down caret-up caret-left caret-right file-text


Elektronická platforma vzdelávania dospelých v Európe



Why do we ask what adult education can accomplish?

od Simon BROEK
Jazyk: EN
Document available also in: FR RO DE HR

EPALE’s February theme for 2017 is benefits of adult education. We expect many contributions and discussions on the effect adult learning can have on individuals, society, organisations and the economy. These areas include:

  • Personal development
  • Health
  • Increased knowledge, skills and competences
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Productivity
  • Social cohesion

Cedefop will soon publish a report that clearly shows the potential benefits of a (possible) public policy aimed at reducing the share of low-skilled adults in the EU over the next decade.

It is important to focus on getting the message across that adult learning provides an important contribution to society and economy. These ‘arguments’ can motivate policy makers, politicians, employers and even individuals to invest more in adult learning.

This being said, I would like to raise a more fundamental issue which might be forgotten when focusing too much on the benefits of adult learning:

Should adult learning be seen as a means to an end or does it have intrinsic value?

I would like to answer this question with ‘yes’, and I would like to focus on two arguments for this:

A (universal) right?

Concerning initial education, within the framework of establishing universal primary education for all, the most important driver for universal education is the acknowledgement that it is a human right: not that initial education is a means to an (economic) end. The same is true for adult learning.

The situation might become clearer if we ask the question in another context: Do we ask about the benefits of equal rights to all? The benefits of access to health care? The benefits of providing elderly care? Or should we take those topics as valuable in themselves and worth investing in as a society. I think the same applies to adult learning.

Best value for money?

Focusing only on the possible benefits of adult learning is dangerous and has been proven so in the past. It can lead to comparing the costs of the benefits and making a decision whether to invest in adult learning based on revenue. Studies show that the ‘return on investment’ is higher for initial education and early childhood education and care compared to adult education (see for instance the 2005 study on the returns to various types of investment in education and training).

Benefits are mainly for the individual?

Sometimes policies that do not see access to adult learning as something valuable in its own right, reduce the benefit of adult learning to individual benefits: higher skill levels, better employment chances, higher wages. This can lead to seeing individuals as the ones that have to pay for learning (private market). In the Netherlands it has become painfully clear that societal benefits cannot be achieved through privatisation of adult learning.

To conclude

Yes, it is important to highlight that adult learning has wider benefits, but only after acknowledging that it is a valuable provision in its own right for all, just like initial education.

In that sense, we could change the question to:

Under what conditions does adult learning yield the most benefits?

Now this is a question about:

  • the quality of the learning environment
  • the matching between the learner and the learning taking place
  • the quality of the learning facilitator
  • the quality of the institutional arrangements and policies etc.
  • How to measure and evaluate benefits and success so that it can inform our adult learning policies and programmes



Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Epale SoundCloud Share on LinkedIn
Refresh comments Enable auto refresh

Zobrazuje sa 1 - 5 z(o) 5
  • Obrázok používateľa Gilles Pinte

    Réflexion effectivement très intéressante. Paul Santelmann il y a quelques années, posait la question de savoir si  la formation continue était un nouveau droit de l'homme. Les apports de la formation professionnelle continue en termes de bénéfices pour l'emploi sont à relativiser également puisque de nombreuses études montrent que seules les formations longues (au moins supérieures à 4 mois) permettent des perspectives de retour à l'emploi, de promotion professionelle ou de reconversion... En France, la plupart des formations sont des formations courtes et très adaptées au poste de travail.

    Effectivement, le principe d'éducation permanente est à repenser au regard de la prise en compte de l'expérience des adultes dans les dispositifs de formation pour une véritable formation tout au long de la vie.

  • Obrázok používateľa Mario Cardona

    I totally agree with you Simon on this. Adult Education is to be seen as an entitlement within the paradigm of Lifelong Learning. If learning is understood in its essence as enabling ourselves and others to reach human fulfillment, then it is a basic human right, not only in childhood but throughout our lives.

    On the basis of this I'm very sceptical (if not angry) at the fact that presently the EU has drifted away from conceptualising Adult Education in terms of employability. Education is for life, and employment is only one part of it. Education is for being and not only for knowing (in terms of knowledge, skills and competences). What if Adult Education was also for empowering communities all across the Union to re-envisage democratic life as we know it? And then, picking up upon your own suggestions, making sure that this kind of Adult Education was one of quality?

  • Obrázok používateľa Thierry Ardouin

    Merci pour la réflexion très intéressante. Cet article pose bien la question des différents niveaux de bénéfices. Et le risque est sans doute de ne penser la formation des adultes qu'en bénéfices individuels dans son  utilité pour l'emploi et l'employabilité. Cela correspond à un "bien privé individuel".Cela est nécessaire mais pas suffissant.

    L'élévation du niveau global de formation d'une population participe au niveau de développement social, culturel, sanitaire et économique. Dans ce sens, la formation des adultes est un "bien public", élément d'un "droit universel " comme nous l'indique Simon Broeck, au service de la communauté et du dévelopement de la culture générale. Et l'accès à tous est recherché.

    Cela rejoint, nous semble -t-il, le principe d'éducation permanente auquel je suis très attaché.

  • Obrázok používateľa Simon BROEK

    I can't agree more with you Paul and of course see the practical and political value of listing the benefits.

    The issue is that adult learning probably won't 'win' from initial education in terms of benefits and that by going the pathway of convincing governments by listing benefits we run the risk of forgetting that adult learning is a valuable provision in its own right for all.

    Maybe it is better to list of benefits of quality adult learning, not questionning the intrinsic value of adult learnning in it self.


  • Obrázok používateľa Paul HOLDSWORTH

    Good question (and answer!).

    On the other hand, public education (and other) budgets are being squeezed very tighly in many countries.

    Often, adult learning is the part of the education budget that is seen as 'easiest' to cut. (after all, who's going to complain if adult learning is cut? but think how many will complain if the funds for childcare or schools are cut? - another reason why the adult learning sector could benefit from being more organised!)

    So, organisations in several countries have found it useful to be able to list the many advantages of adult learning as a way of justifying continued support from national / local government. If you can show that adult learning might actually reduce expenditure on health care, for example, the authorities might listen....