Coercion and adult education: the case of Austrian asylum-seekers

Austria has many wonderful qualities and I’ve always enjoyed visiting and learning from it. But I’m not so comfortable with a recent announcement by the country’s Bundeskanzler Sebastian Kurz, who plans to link welfare benefits for asylum-seekers with their competence in German.

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Deutschkurs, from the website of Caritas Wien

To date, monthly social welfare payments for Austrians and asylum-seekers alike are a minimum of 863 Euros (£768/$983) for a single person. In future, asylum-seekers will receive 563 Euros (£501/$641) until they achieve B1 in German, though an exception will be made for those who can speak English to at least level C1 (see here for a full explanation of the language levels).

Previously, attendance at a language course was required only after a positive decision on asylum. I reckon at least a year is needed for someone from a different language tradition to achieve B1 in German, quite possibly longer. And that is assuming that (a) you are literate in your own language and (b) can find a course in the first place. Effectively this measure places asylum-seekers in a waiting room, where they will inevitably struggle to survive until they can leave a course with a nice neat certificate.

Bundeskanzler Kurz has justified the change with reference to the 2015 ‚refugee wave‘. This group was disproportionately composed of young adult men, and Kurz claims that a high proportion have preferred welfare to an apprenticeship. Even if there is something in his claim (if so, much of it is due to the slow rate at which asylum claims are being processed), the decision will also affect children, single parents and older asylum seekers.

The new requirement is also being introduced at a time when support for language courses has been cut. In the last year Austria recognised 22,000 asylum seekers; yet there are only 7,000 places available. And when the Catholic adult education provider in Steiermark offered its own courses, it was roundly attacked by Kurz’s coalition partner, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs.

This is among a number of migration-related measures introduced by the government, which is a ‘blue-black’ coalition of Kurz’s conservative Österreichische Volkspartei with the right-populist Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs. Remarkably, some of these measures have been directed against migrants from elsewhere in the EU (but not, significantly, against migrants from Switzerland).

Times have clearly changed in the Alpine paradise since I posted a rather positive and optimistic analysis of Austria’s adult education partnership and its achievement. The  coalition’s decision seems to me wrong in principle and likely to backfire in practice. Meanwhle, I have great sympathy for those adult language teachers who will be faced with the practical consequences, and with those migrants who no doubt will be roundly denounced for failing to integrate.

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A Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act for the USA?

New Picture

Learning and training accounts continue to attract attention from policy makers interested in widening participation in adult learning. A wide variety of voucher and credit schemes have now been trialled, from the UK’s Individual Learning Accounts through France’s Compte personnel de formation to Singapore’s SkillsFuture Credit. All have in common the idea of incentivising learners through financial support rather than funding providers (though obviously the two are not mutually exclusive.

Now comes the USA’s turn. Following the Democrats’ success in the mid-term elections, two members of Congress have announced their intention to introduce a Lifelong Learning and Training Account Act. If passed, the law will enable States and public agencies to create systems of employee-owned accounts to help meet the costs of participation in training.

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Mark Warner (Democrat, VA), one of the two member of Congress who sponsored the Act

Eligibility is restricted: those who are entitled to an account must be workers aged 25 to 60, with incomes of up to $82,000. The accounts themselves are to be paid for by a combination of employers and workers together with matched federal funding of up to $1,000; and the sum is to be exempt from taxation. It can be only spent on training costs, not including food or accommodation.

There are also restrictions on the type of training that is eligible. The training must meet certain criteria; the intended outcome must include a recognised post-secondary credential , and the provider must belong to a number of specified categories (including community colleges, industry associations, and labour organisations).

This is a potentially interesting development, and I look forward to seeing how it develops. I don’t know enough about US politics to guage its chances of success, but it chimes with at least one Trump goal, which is to boost the employability and skills of US workers. It is not, though, confined to funding work-related training, and it is focused on the lowest-paid, so it could be quite significant in widening participation in types of learning that workers can choose for themselves.

If it comes off, the Act will add to our understanding of credit and voucher systems in adult learning. So watch this space.

The remarkable resilience of SCUTREA

The 2019 conference of SCUTREA provides an opportunity for thinking about where adult learning research now stands, particularly in the UK. One friend and former colleague recently told me that compared with a decade ago, he thought the programme looked ‘a bit withered’.

It’s true that attendance has declined in recent years. But it’s still attracting a decent turn-out, with some thirty-five separate papers, a couple of workshops, a keynote, and a panel debate. By way of contrast, look at the contents page for the 1982 proceedings, which lists eleven papers.

There’s also a marked and very welcome gender shift, with most of the 2019 papers involving at least one female presenter; international researchers are a much more visible presence than in the earlier years. And although as a co-presenter I am of course biased, the 2019 programme looks much more lively and stimulating than the rather stodgy fare on offer in 1982.

So I guess it depends what dates you choose for your comparison. For the most part, adult learning is still a comparatively small part of the research community in most countries; seen from this perspective, the 2019 programme suggests a sub-area in reasonably good health, and with plenty to say for itself.

But maybe it’s time to revisit the name? Not just because it’s a strange and rather meaningless acronym, but more importantly because much valuable research is undertaken by people outside the university sector.

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The 1982 papers