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.


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.

Education for older adults: where now?

I’m just back from a European conference on education for older adults. It was a stimulating and impressive showcase for recent research in the area, interspersed with reports from professionals running programmes with older people. There was a lot to digest and it was also fabulously well organised.

Marvin Formosa, a gerontologist from Malta, caused a bit of mild controversy with a critique of European Union lifelong learning programmes. He pointed out that the EU was slow on the uptake, failing to mention older adults at all in the first decade of its discussions on lifelong learning, and then later on referring mainly to ‘older workers’.

Formosa also noted that the EU’s Year of Active Ageing has focussed above all on promoting a particular vision of older people. Essentially, the active older adult is someone who is healthy enough and lively enough and responsible enough to look after themselves. They will make few demands on the welfare state, either for personal and health case, or presumably for publicly funded education.

This reminded me of some of the discussions I joined during the Government Office for Science’s foresight project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. Our review of research showed that participating in learning, exercise and social activity were all good mechanisms for protecting against cognitive decline and promoting resilience. The problem was that these benefits were all in the bailiwick of the government departments responsible for health and social services, but the spending mostly fell in other departments such as education.

Formosa went on to argue that two key groups are excluded both from the EU’s thinking and from most provision. The first are the elderly old – those who are in what Peter Laslett classically called the ‘fourth age’. Formosa argued that this group are typically neglected by policy because they represent low value as human capital.

This claim prompted a fruitful discussion about programmes for people whose mobility may be limited, especially those living in residential accommodation, or who are socially isolated with little access to transport.

The second missing group, Formosa pointed out, are men. In all those countries for which we have figures, men rarely comprise more than a quarter of members of the U3A or similar bodies, and in some countries they account for far less than that.

This prompted debate about the role of men’s sheds and similar organisations, but I hope my colleagues will forgive me for saying that I found it a bit shapeless. Looking ahead, if we are to move beyond the anecdotal, we need a much firmer gender perspective on learning in the third and fourth ages. At the moment, we don’t really know how to explain men’s non-participation, or whether it much matters to them.

The conference papers are available through the programme web page: