Lexicometric methods in the study of lifelong learning

I was recently asked to provide a foreword to a new study of the troubled relationship between lifelong learning research and European education policy. The author, Lisa Breyer, was formerly a colleague at the University of Cologne, and is now a head of department at the Volkshochschule Rhein-Erft. While her book is in German, she has published lexicometric analyses in English on approaches to social justice in adult education and on comparisons of national adult education policies.

Given the widespread use of ‘critical discourse analysis’ in Anglophone research in our field, I was delighted to read and recommend a rather different and – as I see it – more grounded method of analysing the languages of lifelong learning policy. If you want to read more of Lisa’s own work in English then take a look at the two papers I mentioned above. What follows here is an expanded and slightly reworked English language version of my foreword.

Adult education research has to position itself in a field rich with tensions, which is influenced by scholarly theory, educational policy, and practical pedagogic demands. Unlike most academic disciplines, the study of adult education developed out of the field of practice, and was also shaped by policy measures. At the same time, policy actors increasingly support their decisions with reference to research findings and recommendations, all in the name of evidence-based policy. Relatively few studies so far have been concerned with the relationship between and form of the communication process between research and policy.

In our field at least, this book presents a new approach to policy research. Lisa Breyer has gone beyond standard approaches, contributing both to our understanding of policy influence and to our methodological repertoire, as well as provoking reflection on the much-debated relationship between policy and research, by subjecting a corpus of 288 texts from adult education research and education policy covering a 20-year period to lexicometric analysis. Her findings force us to think again about the relations between policy and research.

While much discourse analysis tends to be based on the researcher’s reading of a relatively small number of texts, Dr Breyer uses lexicometric techniques to examine and compare the ways in which the core concepts of „Lebenslanges Lernen“ (lifelong learning) und „Kompetenz“ (skill) feature in systematically selected papers from the European Commission as well as in journal articles by adult education researchers. Her analysis of the findings sheds light on relations between research and policy in adult education, as well as on the differing ways in which researchers and policy-makers understand, use, and contextualise the basic concepts in the field. Indeed, even where there is a shared use of terms like lebenslanges Lernen and Kompetenz, Breyer’s findings show that the very notion of a field of adult education is often understood very differently by policy actors and researchers.

Although some of these patterns will seem familiar to readers, as in the divergence between the economic and employment focus of policy as against the emancipatory and critical values of researchers, the book provides a rich variety of evidence and  a refined analysis of the complexities and nuances that can be found. She also examines the attention that each party pays to the other: while researchers refer explicitly to the European level of policy, policy-makers implicitly privilege comparative survey data as their main source of research evidence while turning to researchers as a source of evidence-based policy. This evolving relationship, Breyer contends, means that it is necessary to redefine the relationship between research and policy.

These reflections complement other research and publications of the DIE, particularly in respect to system and policy. However, the book also serves as a case study in a relatively new method. Breyer has adapted her lexicometric approach to the discipline of adult education research and applied it to a corpus of 288 texts, and concludes that the method allows us to identify patterns and relationships that cannot be shown by analysing a handful of texts. This seems to me to have wider methodological ramifications for comparative educational research in general, as well as for adult education research in particular. I am not aware of any other lexicometric study in adult education of such scale and ambition; and personally I am convinced that she has abundantly demonstrated the potential of this approach, and thus makes an important contribution to our methodological debates.

Education and the Brexit saga

One thing seems to be consistently clear in the debate over the UK’s relationship with the EU: our participation in the EU’s education and training programmes is set to continue. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as all the main UK parties have said repeatedly that they would like our participation to continue. And now the political declaration attached to the latest withdrawal agreement confirms it.

What exactly this will mean in practice is another matter. Given its track record, the question of whether the U.K. Border Agency is capable of distinguishing between students and illegal immigrants at point of entry is a good one. And I have no idea whether we are reaching the end of the beginning in the never-ending story of Brexit.

Still, it seems clear to me that those who value international exchanges now have work to do if they are going to shape the scope and scale of future U.K. participation – especially if they are involved in areas other than the well-represented and lobby-rich sectors like schools and higher education.

Benchmarking adult learning across the European Union

The European Union’s latest Education and Training Monitor reports on progress against the 2020 targets, originally adopted in 2010 as part of the EU’s ten-year strategy for growth. There are six targets, all sharing the virtue – and pitfalls – of clarity and simplicity. In respect of adult learning, the target is that by 2020, 15% of Europe’s adults aged 25-64 shall have received formal or non-formal education or training in the four weeks leading up to the annual Labour Force Survey.

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Progress against this target has so far been, let’s say, modest. Participation stood in 2015 at 10.7%, barely a rise on the 9.2% achieved in 2012, and exactly the same as it was in 2014.

As ever, this headline figure masks wide variations between countries. Denmark, Sweden and Finland were Europe’s top performers, with participation rates of 31.3%, 29.4% and 25.4% respectively; bottom were Romania (1.3%) and Bulgaria (2.0%), followed closely by Croatia and Slovakia (both on 3.1%). Of the EU’s big four, France and the UK came above the EU average, while Italy and Germany both fell beneath it.

The report also notes variations within countries, with notably lower participation rates among the low-qualified. It does not report, though, on inequalities of participation by age (we can confidently expect that older workers receive relatively little education and training), gender or ethnicity.

Education is, of course, hardly the only area where the European Commission has set targets which then serve as benchmarks. There are similar 2020 targets for various areas of economic activity, from the share of GDP that is invested in research and innovation to the proportion of the population that lives in poverty.

As Alexandra Ioannidou pointed out ten years ago (see this article), the EU and OECD have developed monitoring and reporting into new policy instruments. The problem for the EU is that, unlike OECD, it has real policy powers in the area of education and training.A failure to meet they targets cannot, therefore, be simply blamed on the weaker member states. In this case, the EU is placing a heavy emphasis on its New Skills Agenda.

As the Agenda was only published in 2016, over half way through the monitoring period, it won’t have much impact by 2020. And of course this benchmark is only one way of measuring adult learning; apart from any other weaknesses, it says nothing whatever about quality.

“Research and education are the sinews of economic war”: trying to build a European spirit

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Jacques Delors. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

In January 1989, Jacque Delors (President of the European Commission) gave a lengthy speech to the European Parliament. His topic was the implementation of the Single European Act – signed off, among others, by Margaret Thatcher – which created a single market across the ten twelve member states. Creating the single market, he said, required more than moving to free trade within the EU. It also meant giving the European Community ‘a little more soul’.

Liberalising capital movements, harmonising standards and mutual recognition of diplomas were all essential steps. But, he said, the trouble is that people ‘cannot fall in love’ with a single market. In order to win their consent, Delors proposed that the Commission had to think broadly about how to build a ‘European consciousness’.  And it was in this context that he proposed to expand the Commission’s role in education and research.

Delors’ rationale for a European education policy was couched in strictly economic terms, as a matter of competitiveness. Hence the vivid metaphor:

At a time of profound change, research and education are the sinews of economic war

He was also clearly pondering cultural battles, worrying over Japanese domination of audio-visual communications technologies and American domination of content, as well as environmental regulation, international aid, workers’ rights, monetary policy and a variety of other themes. But it is striking that he started with education and research as a means of engaging young Europeans and providing ‘tangible proof that the Community is not a technocratic machine but a human venture’.

This speech also marks the start of Delors’ attempt to broaden ideas of education beyond schooling, and to embrace what he would subsequently call ‘lifelong learning’. He acknowledged that the Commission’s powers over education were limited, but suggested that this could be changed, not least because the challenges facing education itself were changing: “Ten years after we leave school or university, our skills can be obsolescent’.

I stumbled across this speech online, thanks to the European Parliament’s digitisation programme. I missed it twenty years ago, when I was researching for a book on European Union policies for education and training. It therefore helps fill in a gap in the history of European policies for education, and shows that the idea of lifelong learning was there from the start.

Delors’ speech also gives us an indication of what the EU has been missing in recent years. I’m not arguing for or against his political strategy, but rather noting that he had one which involved trying to engage citizens in the process of European construction. Jean-Claude Juncker presumably has strengths, though the only one I know of is designing business-friendly tax regimes, but thinking strategically about how you get people to ‘fall in love’ with a free trade area is not among them.

The fall-out after Brexit rather illustrated this point. Here in Germany, a large number of commentators have lamented the inability of Europe’s currently leaders to win hearts and minds. Meanwhile, in the UK, it turns out that there is a cultural chasm between those who turn out to have developed some kind of European identity and those who identify strongly with their nation.The first group felt bereft after the vote, the second group were jubilant.

I’m not so concerned about the rights and wrongs of this as the extent of the division, and the way in which the referendum has laid it bare. How do we deal with it? And does Europe need a new Delors in Brussels – a Delor for our own times? Or is it once more a project for technocrats, and a playground for globalisation’s winners?

Comparative and international research in adult and lifelong learning

I’m currently working with some German colleagues on a paper about comparative adult education research. Our starting point is our impression that this area of study is not in great shape. And this is in spite of the funding available through European Commission sources to support international and comparative activities.

As a quick way into this area, I carried out a simple search of article titles in three journals. First, I looked for the word “comparative” in titles in the International Journal of Lifelong Education and Adult Education Quarterly; then I searched for “lifelong learning” and “adult education” in titles in Comparative Education and Compare. I confined the search to articles published between 1999 and 2015, and excluded book reviews and short notes.

The first thing to say is that this is a very rough and ready measure. Even though I think these are decent journals, there are many others that I could have chosen. And my search terms meant that I missed some important contributions, including an analysis of the OECD’s PIAAC survey of adult skill, while the dates excluded a European comparative study using fresh survey data. But this was only ever meant to provide a starting point, as well as a simple test of whether our hunch about the poor health of the area is accurate.

Second, there are many more papers on adult learning in the two comparative education journals (42) than papers on comparative studies in the adult education journals (9). Compare came out top with 27 papers, thanks partly to special issues on lifelong learning in 2006 and 2009; Comparative Education also had a special issue on lifelong learning, in 1999. AEQ came bottom, with 2, and neither of the adult education journals published a special comparative issue. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to find it an interesting pattern.

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Annual totals of relevant titles in all four journals

Third, if the trend data don’t show a decline, neither do they suggest an area in rude health.  What they do show is the importance of special issues devoted to research on adult learning; and it is worth bearing in mind that as well as the direct boost of a special issue, the articles that feature in it will then generate furthe debate and in turn stimulate more papers. Given this, it is a bit worrying that the last special issue in  these four journals appeared in 2009.

It’s wise not to over-generalise on the basis of limited data and a simplistic analysis, but let me hazard some informed suppositions. I think the special issues were probably largely a response to the rise of policy interest in lifelong learning. It strikes me that the adult education journals aren’t as open to comparative research as the comparative education journals are to studies of adult learning. There is little evidence here of a European effect, though some of the papers may well have drawn on evidence that was provided through EC funding.

All in all, people who care about comparative adult education research have a bit of a challenge on their hands. Or perhaps this is something that we are happy to leave to the OECD and European Commission, who will then undertake surveys that we can contentedly critique, without actually doing much comparative research ourselves?

 

A new skills agenda for Europe – or a drearily familiar shopping list?

The European Commission prearing to publish a position paper entitled A New Skills Agenda for Europe. Due to appear in late May, the paper is concerned with ‘promoting skills’, including the mutual recognition of qualifications, supporting vocational training and higher education, and ‘reaping the full potential of digital jobs’.

Will the content live up to its title – that is, will it really be ‘new’? Judging by the minutes of the Education Council, much of it will be familiar stuff. It will focus entirely on skills supply, with little or no discussion of how to raise the demand for and utilisation of those skills. Employability will be everything; don’t expect any creative thinking about skills for other areas of life. There could be a brief nod in the direction of equity and inclusion, and there will certainly be much rhetorical excitement about the growth potential of the digital economy.

Finally, because responsibility for skills lies largely with member states, several of whom are worried about ‘competency creep’ in the field of education policy, the Commission will largely confine itself to urging other people to do things, few of which will be innovative. So far, then, so familiar.

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Minutes of the European Council, 24 February 2016

Possibly there will be one new feature, compared with past policy papers on skills. The New Skills Agenda is highly likely to refer to the skills and the integration of refugees. Germany’s experience in the last year suggests that refugee integration into the labour market is proving slower than anticipated, partly because of language difficulties, but also because fewer refugees than anticipated hold recognised qualifications.

If my analysis is right, the energy has drained out of the ‘social Europe’project that was embodied during the 1980s by Jacques Delors. But neither are the largely Right or Centre-Right figures who dominate today’s Commission capable of producing creative and imaginative approaches to the skills and knowledge of Europe’s population, whether established or new. I find it hard to see the new paper making much of a splash, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong when it is published in May.

 

Student mobility and social inequalities

We’ve known for a number of years that international student mobility programmes tend to increase social inequalities. One recent analysis of patterns of study abroad reasonably concluded that while a number of factors are at work, including sometimes strongly held parental ideas, there is no doubting the importance of access to financial, cultural and social capital. And the same study shows that a period of study abroad has a measurable and positive impact on life chances.

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Infographic from Campus France

I was reminded of this research recently by seeing a French infographic on Twitter. Reporting a survey of outwardly mobile students from France, the authors noted that international student mobility continues to be a key social marker, in terms of outcomes as well as participation.

In terms of participation, the authors found much higher levels of parental support among students from wealthier families, particularly where the parents themselves had gone to university.They didn’t even ask about ethnicity, disability or mature age study.

There was also more institutional encouragement and support in the elite institutions, with the least encouragement being reported by students in health studies. Language was a challenge: as English has become the global language of academic study, so it becomes more important to have studied in an environment where you can develop your English language skills. Finally, money was also an issue, with study abroad costing an average of €6,000 for a six month stay.

What this effectively means is that study abroad programmes such as Erasmus are selectively subsidising the most affluent and advantaged of the student population. Furthermore, the students who have participated in study abroad programmes then get a head start in competing for cosmopolitan positions, which reinforces their privileged position. The net contribution to social mobility is therefore negative.

Researchers have known about the regressive effects of mobility programmes for some time, and have drawn them to the attention of policy makers, who have done precisely nothing to change the situation. Europe’s education policy makers and university leaders alike view Erasmus and similar programmes as a great success, and take every opportunity to say so. This latest French study adds to a body of evidence which ought to make us all ask a few hard questions about what values these programmes represent, and what aims they should be seeking to serve.

 

Shaping European policies for adult learning

In 2009, the European Union set itself a series of objectives for education and training by 2020. This agenda, known in summary as ET2020, set four common goals, including that of ‘making lifelong learning and mobility a reality’. It also identified a number of benchmarks, one of which is that at least 15% of adults should participate in some form of lifelong learning.

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Since 2009, a number of working groups have been helping to shape European policies in these different areas. The first stage of this process is now over, and the existing working groups – one of them focusing on adult learning – are due to be replaced. The new working groups will function between 2016 and 2018, by which time presumably all will be in place (or not) for the 2020 finishing line.

So who will sit on these working groups? I don’t know the names of the individuals, but the European Commission has published a list of the organisations who will nominate them. In the case of the Working Group on Adult Learning (WGAL) they are:

  • BusinessEurope, an umbrella group of business organisations (including the CBI)
  • The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
  • The European Association for the Education of Adults
  • European Association of Vocational Education and Training Institutions
  • The European Federation of Education Employers
  • The European Trade Union Committee for Education
  • The EuropeanTrade Union Confederation

I notice that the European Universities Continuing Education Network, which previously was represented, is not among the 2016-18 members.

The Commission has also published the ‘mandate‘ for the working groups. WGAL is asked to address the ‘concrete issues’ of  promoting and widening the availability of workplace learning and responding to demands for workforce up- and re-skilling, especially for the low and mid-skilled.

There is no scope, then, for learning as personal development or active citizenship. However, the two vocational goals are understood in comparatively broad terms, so that WGAL will also be asked to consider such matters as migrant integration and intergenerational solidarity, albeit within the context of workforce skills. And there is a separate working group on promoting citizenship, whose remit is currently limited to children and young people; if we wish to expand their remit, then that means a bit of work.

Can we trust the Eurobarometer surveys?

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From Eurobarometer 75, one of the reports analysed by Hoepner & Jurczyk

I’ve always treated the Eurobarometer surveys as something to dip into occasionally. They regularly cover public opinion in the member states of the EU, with candidate nations like Serbia and Turkey also taking part. Several have dealt with various aspects of education and training, or other issues in which I’m interested such as civic participation, and I’ve cited their results.

Now, though, I wished I’d checked the technical details a bit more thoroughly before quoting the findings. Two German social scientists have gone over the methods used in the surveys, and their findings make uncomfortable reading. Martin Höpner and Bojan Jurczyk set out what they call ten ‘good rules of public opinion survey research’, all of which seem to me broadly aligned with good practice in survey design. They then check in detail selected examples of Eurobarometer surveys, and conclude that they are so poorly designed as to blur the line between research and propaganda.

More specifically, they accuse Eurobarometer of using

incomprehensible, hypothetical, and knowledge-inadequate questions, unbalanced response options, insinuation and leading questions, context effects, and the strategic removal of questions that led to critical responses in previous Eurobarometer waves.
I find their analysis pretty compelling. They give detailed examples of questions that seem to lead respondents directly to express views that are favourable to the European Union. Note that we are not talking here about the way that others – the media, for instance – report the findings, but rather about the very design of the survey questionnaires themselves.

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From Hoepner & Jurczyk 2015

Has this bias been unintended, a simple result of accident or drift? The authors of this study believe not, and conclude with a stark warning that ‘survey manipulation’ simply intensifies the gap between citizens and elites. Eurobarometer is an arm of the European Commission and if Höpner and Jurczyk are even half right, then its value to the research community, as well as the wider public, has been compromised.

The European Commission’s thinking on lifelong learning

New PictureThe European Commission has recently published two documents that offer us insights into its thinking on lifelong learning. First, it has issued its Education and Training Monitor for 2015; ostensibly a ‘state of the art’ report, the Monitor also provides insights into the  EC’s current priorities. Second, the Commission has agreed a Communication on its Work Programme for 2016, concentrating on what it calls ‘the big things where citizens expect Europe to make a difference’; one of these ‘big things’, it seems, is skills.

What do these documents together tell us about the Commission’s thinking? Well, it seems reasonable to start by saying that learning and skills are a rather greater priority for the European Commission than they are for most of the member states. Both of the documents also confirm the continuing importance of gender equity in the Commission’s thinking about the labour market. Beyond that, though, the two papers differ in purpose and scope.

To some extent, the Monitor treats adult learners as peripheral. Most of it is devoted to schools, higher education and initial vocational training, with adult basic education and upskilling being classed as examples of the need to modernise vocational education and training systems. Apprenticeships are seen as something for young people, in which learning at school and work are combined, while e-learning and MOOCs are treated primarily as a sub-set of higher education.

So far so familiar. But four pages of the Monitor are devoted to adult learning, focusing on participation rates and the benefits of learning. It asserts – reasonably enough – that there are ‘clear social and economic benefits to engaging adults in continuing learning activities’.

On participation, the Commission notes that in 2009 the member states set a target for 2020 of 15% of working age adults participating in learning during a given four-week period; the current rate stands at 10.7%, with only six member states (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France, the Netherlands and the UK) reaching the 2020 target.

From the 2015 Monitor

From the 2015 Monitor

The Commission concludes that the weak evidence of progress implies ‘a rethink of adult learning policies’. It then draws on an as-yet-unpublished meta-study of the effectiveness of particular adult learning interventions, which are ranked according to the strength of the evidence. The most effective, according to this exercise, are public co-financing of employer training, aligning provision with skills forecasting, and targeting funding on provision for the disadvantaged and difficult to engage groups.

Quite how the Commission will persuade member states to rethink their adult learning policies is unclear. It can pull some levers – including publishing comparative benchmarking reports like the Monitor – but education is a responsibility of national governments, and at European level it is dealt with under the so-called ‘open method of co-ordination’. This effectively leaves it to the member state to decide whether they take any notice of European-level policies or not – which is why the 2020 targets will be missed.

On the other hand, the Commission does have powers over vocational training. The 2016 Work Programme is going to include a ‘New Skills Agenda’, which takes an explicitly human capital approach to investing in skills throughout life in order to improve competitiveness. This includes raising participation in the labour market by women, but otherwise the new agenda is nebulous in the extreme.

From the 2016 Work Programme

From the 2016 Work Programme

The European Commission has a long record of interest in adult learning. Perhaps its most influential intervention was the European Year of Lifelong Learning, a largely symbolic gesture which nevertheless reached out to governments, providers and other actors such as trade unions and voluntary associations. Much of the excitement that surrounded the European Year has evaporated, as has the social democratic vision of Europe that was associated with its then president, Jacque Delors.

In current circumstances, it probably shouldn’t surprise us to find that the Commission’s view of adult learning is an instrumental and impoverished one. Nevertheless, the fact that the Commission is debating adult learning and skills offers opportunities for advocacy and a chance to try and broaden out the terms of debate.