The role of ALE: Our stories, our voice

Work on promoting adult learning and education is expanding and there are some encouraging signs. With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development approaching its half-way point, next year’s seventh International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII) will be a pivotal moment, writes Christiana Nikolitsa-Winter


This week, more than 300 representatives of civil society organizations and other stakeholders met online to kick off a five-year global campaign to promote adult learning and education (ALE) and make it more visible. We are ALE’ aims to strengthen the voice of ALE and enable civil society organizations to speak with one voice in their advocacy.

It is one of a number of positive interventions aiming to move ALE up the agenda of national and international education policy. This is essential, as, across the globe, investment in ALE is shrinking and action on ALE on the decline, despite what the pandemic has taught us about its value and usefulness. In many places around the world, the great work of previous decades in building a strong ALE sector is being undone.

Considering the challenges we face, from the climate crisis to the technological transformation of the workplace, and the as yet unfulfilled potential contribution of ALE to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the need for a strong voice on ALE is acute.

This means combatting the idea that learning and education is about school and formal education only. It must be lifelong and include not only formal but also non-formal sectors. We are adults for most of our lives, after all, and it is important that we have access to the education we need throughout our lives to make a full contribution to the development of our societies. Consequently, ALE is a core component of lifelong learning. Furthermore, it must comprise all forms of education and learning, ensuring that adults participate not only in the world of work, but across wider society.

So, what do we know about global progress on ALE? In 2016, the third Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 3) found that the most marginalized, disadvantaged and poorest people are persistently excluded from ALE activities. This message was reinforced in 2019 by GRALE 4 which identified deep inequalities in participation, with vulnerable groups excluded, ALE underfunded, and the wider role of ALE, particularly in supporting active citizenship, neglected.

While the overall picture is disappointing, there are significant regional variations, which underscore the importance of renewing our efforts in this area. For example, an OECD report, published in April 2020, found participation in adult learning in Latin American and the Caribbean to be more than 10 percentage points below the OECD average, and particularly low among women. However, here as elsewhere, we see a familiar pattern: those who benefitted least from education as children and young people are also those least likely to access education as adults, leaving out the most vulnerable and lowest-skilled.

An Education Committee report in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, published in December 2020, demonstrated the extent of the lost opportunity. It showed that adults who gain Level 3 qualifications (equivalent to A-levels, the French Baccalaureate or the German Abitur) experience a 10 per cent increase in earnings and are more likely to be employed, and highlighted research into the impact of community learning on mental health that found that 52 per cent of learners with mental health problems no longer had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression by the end of their course. On 8 March 2021, a cross-section of high-profile British public figures put their names to a letter highlighting the importance of adult education and lifelong learning and calling for an increase in state investment.

These issues are even more urgent given the likely post-pandemic decline in participation in adult learning predicted by the European Commission’s technical report, Adult learning and the business cycle. It is important that nation states take action to prevent this.ALE has a key role to play in re-skilling and up-skilling adults and supporting personal development and social cohesion. For example, not only has the pandemic made us more dependent on digital and online technologies, for work and education, it has also highlighted that many adults lack both the infrastructure and the knowhow to access the digital world. ALE has a critical role to play in closing the digital divide. Similarly, in our increasingly fragmented, polarized societies, beset by ‘fake news’ and disinformation, ALE for active citizenship is crucial in promoting social cohesion and resolving conflict.

ALE also has much to offer the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and not only to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education (and specifically targets 4.3 to 4.7). It is critical too to enabling progress on reducing poverty (SDG 1), improving health and well-being (SDG 3), and gender equality (SDG 5) to name just three areas of action under the agenda. However, we are some way still from achieving this potential and including ‘all learners’ within a lifelong learning framework, as SDG 4 demands.

CONFINTEA VII, scheduled to take place in Morocco in 2022, is an important platform and an opportunity to renew Member States’ commitment to ALE. It will include government and civil society representatives from the 196 UNESCO Member States in efforts to strengthen partnerships and shape policy directions for ALE within a lifelong learning perspective, in the context of the SDGs and beyond. The CONFINTEA VII outcome document, an up-dated framework for action, will encourage Member States to put in place regulatory frameworks to develop opportunities for living and acting in a culture of human rights, justice, and sustainability, as well as for keeping pace with the development of information technology and finding inclusive, sustainable solutions for those who need them the most.

UNESCO has been pleased to support ‘We are ALE’ and civil society moves to strengthen the voice of ALE.  I hope these efforts will resonate with preparations for CONFINTEA, as well as other work in the field to renew and rebuild ALE. To paraphrase the UK’s landmark post-war 1919 Report on adult education and reconstruction, ALE is a ‘permanent necessity’, an inseparable aspect of citizenship that should be ‘universal and lifelong’, and an indispensable ally for all those concerned with addressing our current challenges through learning and education. As our minds again turn to renewal and reconstruction in the wake of the pandemic, it is essential that this argument is made and heard.

Christiana Nikolitsa-Winter is a Programme Specialist at UIL and part of the GRALE editorial team

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