ALE for change and a future worth living in

We will only achieve the Sustainable Development Goals if we focus more policy attention on adult learning and education. CONFINTEA VII could be a catalyst for this change, argues Rajesh Tandon


Over the past 12 months of the pandemic, millions of citizens around the world have ‘unlearned’ old ways of being, while learning new behaviours. For rural communities in India, lockdown created greater reliance on local sources of food, water and preventive health care. For urban communities, the restrictions caused huge disruption as people’s very lives and livelihoods depend very largely on mobility, ‘out-sourcing’ and co-habitation. Millions of workers returned to their families in rural areas as employment was suddenly cut off. Many millions acquired digital hardware for the first time and learned to ‘get online’.

Families, communities and societies continue to learn new ways of being in order to navigate the changes affecting them. These new ways of being, in effect, create new changes in communities and societies. If change is inevitable and necessary for the evolution of life and community, so too is the criticality of learning to navigate change.

It is in this context that the forthcoming UNESCO conference on adult learning and education (ALE) needs to be placed. CONFINTEA VII is scheduled to be held next June in Morocco, with a focus on ALE in meeting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Directing more policy attention to ALE is essential in achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ‘building back better’ after the pandemic.

When UNESCO began to convene consultations on adult education in 1949 (CONFINTEA I, Denmark), the challenges the world faced after the war required the spread of foundational literacy skills among a large number of citizens. Functional literacy remained the focus of much of the deliberation in CONFINTEA II (Montreal, 1960) and CONFINTEA III (Tokyo, 1972). However, two significant shifts began in Tokyo. First, the conference included a focus on ‘functions of adult education and in the context of lifelong education’; making a clear link between adult education and lifelong learning, though it was not yet articulated in these terms. Second, an international network of civil society organizations focused on adult education was born: the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE).

These developments began to shape expanded meanings of adult education beyond the limited focus on functional literacy. CONFINTEA IV (Paris, 1985) included deliberations on the contribution of adult education in addressing critical challenges of ill-health, poverty, women’s exclusion, etc. This articulation, supported actively through emerging research from academia and field actions by civil society, began to demonstrate that adult education was an ongoing learning process, both in formal and informal spaces.

The Paris conference adopted a declaration of the ‘right to learn’ as a fundamental right for all citizens. Notice that it is not limited to the ‘right to education’!

Stimulated by the strong practical and analytical programmes of national, regional and international networks of civil society focused on adult education, CONFINTEA V (Hamburg, 1997) brought a much-expanded focus on adult education, taking ‘adult learning as a right, a tool, joy and shared responsibility’ as its motto. Civil society participation had developed considerably as CONFINTEA V was one of the early UN conferences at which official delegates and civil society participants joined together in deliberations and consultations in the same forum.

Preparing for the twenty-first century, this conference benefitted from the release of the report of UNESCO’s International Commission on Education, chaired by Jacques Delors, in 1996. This report addressed adult education but broadened its focus to consider ’learning throughout life’. It described its purpose as fourfold: ‘learning to know, to do, to be, and to live together’.

The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) acted as the anchor for these deliberations, before and after the CONFINTEA V.

In preparation for CONFINTEA VI (held in Belém, Brazil) in 2009, new global developments in technology, migration, climate change and the UN Millennium Development Goals were considered. The financial crisis of 2008 added new dimensions to conference deliberations. In light of widespread unemployment and structural shifts in the global economy, the relevance of ALE in vocational education, skilling and re-skilling and professional renewal was recognized in Belém. Its theme of ‘living and learning for a viable future’ had suddenly become very relevant, viewed through the lenses of climate change and the economic challenges facing humanity.

Therefore, as UNESCO and its partners in governments, business and civil society prepare for CONFINTEA VII in 2022, there is an opportunity to harness the accumulated experiences of the past seven decades to address 2030 Agenda and the task of rebuilding post-pandemic. Several issues require urgent attention:

  1. In the face of the global spread of the pandemic, the importance of global interdependence for the survival of people and planet has been strongly demonstrated. But, growing economic inequality and ‘vaccine nationalism’ mitigate against collaboration and partnership, the spirit of SDG 17.
  2. Investment in the public provision of primary health care (especially its preventive and promotive aspects, adopted since the World Health Organization’s Alma Ata Declaration of 1976) has been shown to be crucial in preparing families and communities, and is essential is if SDG 3 on health and wellbeing is to be realized.
  3. Access to digital technology (in its hardware, software and humanware aspects) has been found to be so uneven that a whole generation of students in schools and colleges is at risk of slipping behind. Online learning alone cannot be panacea for education. SDG 4 on education, and especially Goal 4.7 on sustainable development and global citizenship education, mandates the integration of lifelong learning approaches into all forms of education.
  4. Despite enormous progress since 1949, women’s learning and empowerment has faced set-backs during the pandemic. The new World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2021 shines light on educational setbacks in economic, political and social spheres. Taken together, SDG 4 on education and SDG 5 on gender equality are essential underpinnings to the achievement of other SDGs.

UNESCO’s Commission on the Futures of Education will soon release its final report, adding a new dimension to the four mentioned above: ‘Learning to become’. If the pandemic has taught one lesson to us all, it is to mobilize our own collective capacities and social networks to address the challenges ahead. Therefore, ‘learning to become’ may well be the message for ALE in the post-pandemic era.

In order for this realization to be mainstreamed, an integrated understanding of learning – from classroom to college to work to life – needs to be promoted so that formal and structured educational opportunities harmonize with and build on informal and everyday experiential learning, both lifelong and life-wide. Adult education cannot be merely a chapter or a department or a programme of governments’ educational policies. Adult learning and education must weave through all sites and issues where change is required and attempted.

Can CONFINTEA VII spread such an understanding among educators, policy-makers and practitioners? That is the challenge ahead, and it is an essential one.

Rajesh Tandon is UNESCO Co-Chair on Community-based Research and Social Responsibility of Higher Education, and Founder President of PRIA India

3 thoughts on “ALE for change and a future worth living in

  1. I agree very much that “Adult education cannot be merely a chapter or a department or a programme of governments’ educational policies. Adult learning and education must weave through all sites and issues where change is required and attempted”.
    Adult education and lifelong learning should be in the real action. It should not be only a policy.

  2. Very well put, Rajesh. The challenge for rural Africa would be how to bridge the digital gap between the rural and urban areas.
    Of even greater obstacle would be how to rapidly overcome adult illiteracy and the ever teaming numbers of out-of-school children.
    Then of course, poverty and insecurity will continue to stare at our people on the face.

  3. I totally fail to understand how anyone in sane state of mind can think of digital education in COVID-19 affected population world over that is undergoing lockdowns and associated adult joblessness (rural; urban) together with -ve GDP since 2020 to date? A crisis of providing vaccination to citizens of all countries is crying for solution; not digital profit. Redefine SDGs for COVID-19 affected world right away. One must stop being hypocritical about achieving pre-COVID-19 SDGs for African; non-African nations.

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