On the state of adult education in the world
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This article was originally published in German by EPALE Germany.
This article appeared first in the Journal "Bildung für Europa" of the NA beim BIBB.
The Fourth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE IV) appeared late last year, before any of us had even heard of the new coronavirus. Published by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), the report comprises a state-of-the-art survey of adult education across the world, and an accompanying analysis of practice and research into participation. It concludes with a reminder of adult education’s relevance to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and its 2030 Agenda, and encourages countries to do more to encourage and widen participation in adult education, both by increased investment and through policies that focus on the poorest and most excluded.
So far as the overall condition of adult education is concerned, the report paints a varied picture. A total of 159 countries responded to the survey, equivalent to a response rate of 80%. Of these, just under one third said that adult education policy remained largely unchanged between 2015 and 2019, while two thirds stated that there had been ‘significant progress’ in ALE policy. When analysed by domain of learning, it was clear that the progress was largely in respect of adult literacy and basic skills, along with work-related continuing education. The field of popular, liberal and community education, by contrast, appears to receive little if any policy attention in most countries.
The main reported area of policy change is in stakeholder engagement – a finding that also emerged in response to our questions about governance. A growing number of countries see themselves as working in partnership with others to develop their lifelong learning policies and systems; in particular, it has become common for countries to report that they are working with employers and civil society organisations.
Financing remains meagre
So far, then, the global snapshot has a rather rosy colour. When it comes to finance, though, the picture is more blurred. Investment in adult learning brings social, civic, health and of course economic benefits, as was demonstrated by the Third Global Report in 2016, which also reported that 57% of countries planned to increase their spending on ALE. In 2019, 28% of countries reported a rise since 2015 in ALE spending as a proportion of overall public education expenditure, 41% reported no change, and 17% reported a decline. Almost 20 per cent of countries reported spending less than 0.5% of their education budget on ALE, and a further 14 per cent reported spending less than 1%. When it came to giving examples, most states reporting an increase pointed to improvements in funding provision, with a bare handful reporting on interventions to raise demand among the most excluded.
Compared with the increasingly ambitious policy expectations of our field, then, adult learning remains significantly underfunded in all but a handful of countries. Our survey also explored developments in the quality of ALE provision. Three-quarters of responding countries reported quality improvements; these were largely in the fields of curricula and assessment and teaching methods; over half of countries reported improvements in training and/or employment conditions for adult educators. Once more, almost all the claimed improvements came in the fields of literacy and basic skills or vocational development; barely any member states mentioned popular, liberal and community education.
Classifications of the findings
Before discussing the important lessons learned, it is worth emphasising the limitations of the survey. First, while 159 countries took part, 46 countries – including the United Kingdom, one of UNESCO’s founding members and home of its first general secretary – failed for one reason or another to respond. Second, the responses were mostly drafted by civil servants, usually but not always from the national education ministry, who will have varying levels of knowledge and understanding of their country’s adult education provision. The responses might look very different if they came from different sources. Third, while the UIL ensures that the survey questionnaire is issued in a range of widely-used languages, the linguistic coverage inevitably remains patchy, and much will be lost in translation. Finally, there were areas where we showed insufficient curiosity when designing the questionnaire. Chief among these was the role of digital and online learning, which we knew two years ago to be of growing importance across the globe, and which is now playing a paramount role in bringing learning opportunities to adults at a time when the pandemic has closed most colleges, centres and schools. Very little evidence emerged from the survey to inform our picture of digital learning in 2019, and I regret this gap.
What do we learn from this?
All of that said, there are some clear and highly significant messages in the report, which provides the most complete global snapshot of adult learning that we have. Overall, it shows that while ALE is generally understood to be an important tool in achieving the 2030 sustainable development goals, it remains dramatically underfunded, and is prevented from contributing as much as it easily could and should contribute. This is an important message to take back to our own countries, as well as to share across the United Nations. Second, while the development of ALE continues apace, it is uneven, with more of the investment and attention being focused on basic and literacy education or professional and vocational development. By contrast, the general failure – with honourable exceptions - to nurture active civic participation should be a key concern. Third, it is clear that despite improvements, many countries are still operating with insufficient data to reach informed decisions about the future. To take one example, after a decade of policy debate about migration and the movement of displaced populations, over a third of countries reported not knowing the ALE participation rates of minority groups, refugees and migrants. Finally, most countries rarely if ever mentioned digital and online learning in their responses; while I accept that we failed to include this key growth area in our questionnaire, it is still striking that when asked about innovative teaching methods, hardly any of the countries referred to it, suggesting to me that these developments have yet to penetrate the consciousness of those who compiled the responses.
John Field is now a Professor Emeritus at the University of Stirling (Scotland) after a long career as a researcher in the area of adult education. He is a longstanding supporter of adult learners.