ALE in Europe: A story of untapped potential

Adult learning and education has the potential to address a wide range of agendas, but too often its effects are limited by a narrow understanding of its purpose, argues EAEA President Uwe Gartenschlaeger


An annual survey conducted by the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) among its members provides evidence that European ALE has the potential to deliver services and formats to tackle the key challenges the continent and its people face. However, enabling frameworks are lagging behind and are still caught in a narrow understanding of ALE as a tool for vocational up-skilling. In contrast, EAEA members demand more attention (and funding) for holistic ALE provision, including, especially, civic education, education for sustainable development and digital literacy. Besides, ALE is perceived as a vaccination against xenophobia and a powerful instrument to enable citizens to act and transform their communities and societies.

Since 2014, the EAEA has been collecting outlooks from across its membership in 43 European countries on the adult education sector: recent developments, strengths, challenges and how national policy reflects international policies and initiatives relating to adult learning at present. These country reports present a unique civil-society perspective from all over the continent.

In 2019, the EAEA notes that many of our members were concerned that adult education provision, policy and/or funding in their country was very much focused towards an employability approach to adult education. Aspects such as social interaction, inclusion and active citizenship, as benefits to education in later life, were rarely recognized (or rarely recognized enough) by governing bodies. Many of our members recommended to change this in the future; recognition (and, vitally, funding) to learning programmes for citizenship, personal development and well-being are perceived as vital.

Another challenge facing many of the civil society representatives in Europe is encouraging participation from those without a strong background in education. Outreach is difficult, and breaking down the stigmas they may attach to lifelong learning is a complex process. Besides the familiar set of tools in ALE, it will be vital that the lifelong learning approach is taken seriously, demanding that all sectors in the educations system work together to deliver services in an effective, holistic way.

On a positive note, implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is occurring, albeit to varying degrees, across Europe. Our survey encouraged EAEA members to discuss their country’s relationship with the goals. Despite some members relaying that their policy-makers were designing strategies that responded to the goals, but did directly mention them, most responses noted that the SDGs were reflected and used.

Especially when working with vulnerable adults, validation of learning was clearly a priority for many of our members. Vocational education and training (VET) was mentioned explicitly by a number of members who feel that, without appropriate certification for VET learners, moving back into employment (or seeking better employment opportunities) is less likely. However, recognition for trainers in the sector (professionalization) was also recognized as a key issue in adult education at present.

Our Norwegian and Irish members noted that civil society organizations (CSOs) in their respective countries were being provided with the opportunity to involve themselves in the design of policy and strategies relating to adult education. This is excellent for CSOs in these contexts, however, other members called for greater civil society engagement, recognizing the extent to which these organizations can play a role in advocating for adult learners.

Uwe Gartenschlaeger is President of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) and Deputy Director of DVV International.

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