It’s time we lived up to our commitments on adult education

The fourth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education represents a wake-up call to countries to do more to advance participation in adult education – we need to heed it, says David Atchoarena

Published by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), the new Global Report on Adult Learning and Education GRALE 4 – is a landmark publication in the field of adult learning and education (ALE) for the international education policy community.

The report charts UNESCO Member States’ progress against the commitments made at the sixth International Conference on Adult Education in 2009 and codified in the Belém Framework for Action, with a special emphasis, in this report, on participation in ALE. The story it tells is in some ways a positive one – more than half of responding countries reported an increase in overall participation between 2015 and 2018 – but the overwhelming message is that participation is still far too low, and that progress, overall, is insufficient, particularly among disadvantaged groups. Investment too is far from where it needs to be, with one in five countries reporting spending less than 0.5% of their education budgets on ALE and a further 14% spending less than 1%.

Where progress is being made, it is not evenly spread across the three fields of learning identified in the 2015 UNESCO Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education. While countries reported significant progress in the quality of literacy and basic skills and continuing training and professional development (vocational skills), liberal, popular and community education (active citizenship skills) is, by comparison, neglected, with no more than 3% of countries reporting progress against any of the quality indicators for this area of learning.

Why does this matter? First, the previous report, GRALE 3, showed that participation in ALE has a positive impact on health, employment and social and civic life. GRALE 4 reveals that these benefits are not equitably distributed. Persistent and deep-rooted inequalities in participation remain, within and between countries and regions, with adults with disabilities, older adults, minority groups, people living in rural communities and refugees and migrants among those most likely to be missing out.

Second, the wide and interconnected nature of the benefits of ALE participation means that by continuing to neglect this part of lifelong learning, we also diminish our chances of making progress against a range of other agendas critical to the future of our societies and, indeed, the planet. To put this in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the guiding framework for the work of UNESCO to which all Member States are signatory – failing to deliver on ALE will not only undermine our prospects of achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education but also limit our progress against the other 16 SDGs, notably those on climate change, poverty, health and well-being, gender equality, decent work and economic growth, and sustainable cities and communities.

Third, the neglect of citizenship education suggests that provision is too narrowly focused on basic skills and employment. In other words, we continue to disregard the huge potential benefit of ALE in terms of promoting and protecting democracy, human rights and peace.

This has to change. The scale and nature of the challenges we face – technological, environmental, demographic and democratic – demand a new approach, one that places adult education at the heart of a lifelong learning framework that values every kind of learning and enables the development of holistic and inter-sectoral solutions that genuinely ‘leave no one behind’. It is time we made adult learning and education a real priority, within the framework of lifelong learning. As GRALE 4 notes, we are at a tipping point in terms of our achievement of the SDGs – ‘not on track but still in time’. If we redouble our efforts now, matching our commitments to promote adult education with political will, increased investment and cross-sectoral policies, we can still make it. Let the publication of GRALE 4 be the turning point.

David Atchoarena is Director of UIL. A summary of the report is available.

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