How can we explain the UK’s strong performance in the European Adult Education Survey?

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Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey (AES) suggest that participation across most of Europe is rising. I’ve already taken a look at the figures for Austria, which show a surge in participation following rthe adoption of a national policy for lifelong learning in 2011. But the figures for the UK are equally striking: if the AES is to be believed, participation in the UK rose from 35.8% in 2011 to 52.1% in 2016.

As Tom Schuller pointed out in a comment on my post, the UK’s performance is something of a puzzle. Recent years have seen significant cutbacks in all forms of public adult education provision in all four UK nations. The Learning and Work Institute, which monitors participation rates over time, last year described the continuing falls in participation in all forms of publicly funded adult learning as ‘disastrous’. So what might explain the UK’s strong showing in AES?

First, the AES is confined to adults aged 25-64; the European Commission considers this group a priority because it is of prime standard working age. It is likely, in my view, that cuts in publicly funded adult education impact most heavily on the retired, who do not have access to workplace learning.

Second, the AES is a household survey and covers all participation in the twelve months prior to interview. By contrast, the European Labour Force Survey is a workplace survey which covers training in the previous four weeks. According to the LFS, training participation in the UK fell from 20.5% in 2011 to 18.8% in 2016 (though the LFS shows an even sharper fall between 2010 and 2011).

Third, the AES divides adult learning into ‘formal’ and ‘non-formal’. Its definitions of these terms follows the UNESCO International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). Formal education and training comprise ‘education that is institutionalised, intentional and planned through public organisations and recognised private bodies and – in their totality – constitute the formal education system of a country’, and which is ‘recognised as such by the relevant national education authorities’.

Non-formal education ‘may include for example learning events (activities) that occur in the family, in the work place, and in the daily life of every person, on a self-directed, family-directed or socially-directed basis’, and ‘may cover educational programmes to impart adult literacy, life-skills, work-skills, and general culture’.

In the case of the UK, the AES found a huge rise in participation in non-formal education – from 24.3% to 47.5% between 2011 and 2016; at the same time, participation in formal ecucation and training fell, from 14.8% to 11.9%. In other words, the UK rise in overall participation is due entirely to growth in non-formal learning rather than formal education and training. The Survey also suggests that the growth was particularly strng in job-related non-formal education and training, while non-job-related participation showed a small decline.

This leads me to wonder whether what we are witnessing in the UK is a growth in overall participation rates, combined with a fall in the quality and depth (and cost) of activities. The AES offers some support for this hypothesis, in that it shows a clear drop in the duration of learning: the average time sent by UK participants overall fell from 167 hours in 2011 to 121 hours in 2016. The fall was particlarly marked in the average time spent by participants in formal education and training.

So perhaps an apparent growth in UK participation doesn’t translate simply into more learning going on, but rather a redistribution of opportunity – and thinning of resources.

Any other suggestions out there? Am I daft in ignoring the possibility that AES has got it right, and against all expectations the UK is experiencing a lifelong learning renaissance? Or are the survey results just a blip?

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, the UK’s participation in the AES doesn’t necessarily end with Brexit. Non-EU member states taking part include Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey. Brexit will complicate matters, though: as members of a federal state, it will probably fall to each individual national government – which is where responsibility for education policy lies – to decide whether to continue co-funding AES in the future.

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What has Austria got to teach us about adult learning?

Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey are now available. Broadly, they show a rise in learning participation across the continent, with rising participation rates between 2011 and 2016 in eighteen of the nations taking part in both waves, and falls in only six; one country – Norway – reported no change at all.

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Austria – worth a closer look?

Growth was particularly strong in Austria, where participation levels among the working age population shot up from 48.8% to 59.9%. It seems unlikely that the 2016 result is a blip, given that the Labour Force Survey also reported comparable growth rates over this period. For an outsider, the obvious question is how we might explain this impressive growth spurt.

An article by two Austrian specialists points to key factors which they think might lie behind rising participation levels. First, the proportion of the workforce involved in workplace learning has risen. Presumably this largely reflects enterprise-level decisions on continuing training investment, as well as a growing willingness to participate on the part of employees.

Second, they attribute growth in ‘non-formal learning’ (the Survey’s term for general adult education) to changes in public policy as well as learner demand. In particular, the authors point to the emerging impact of the Initiative Erwachsenenbildung (‘adult education initiative’), a joint programme of the federal government and the Länder, launched in 2012 to promote free basic skills and second chance courses for adults to achieve lower secondary school leaver qualifications.

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The Initiative clearly has its weaknesses, but they seem to result from practical design flaws rather than the underlying concept. An external evaluation noted that the insistence on achieving formal qualifications and rigid limits on the length of participation were deterring some of the very people that the Initiative was designed to reach. Overall, though, it concluded that the Initative was making considerable progress in tackling educational disavantage and was meeting a clear need.

It’s early days in the release of AES findings, and anyway I suppose a cynic would say there’s nothing new in the Austrian adult education initiative. We already know the value of concerted campaigns directed towards well-defined target groups and backed by adequate resources. It’s still useful to be reminded of this, though, particularly at a time when some governments are disinvesting from adult learning. And it is certainly interesting to see the broader evidence of sharply rising participation. If you get the chancd, Austria certainly merits a second look.