Equity and quality in adult education

Problem statement

Although the important role of adult learning for achieving sustainable personal, social, cultural and economic development is becoming increasingly recognised, implementation of successful policies lags behind the attitude shift. Most education and training systems are largely focused on the education and training of young people. Limited progress has been made in changing systems to reflect the need for lifelong learning throughout the life course and in particular in adult learning [1]. Nevertheless, quality of adult learning provision is one of the strategies to increase and widen participation in adult learning, but also to tackle problems such as drop‐out rates.

Implications for education

Participation in adult education helps people to take a constructive and active role in their local communities and in society at large. Yet statistics shows that only a small proportion of adults participate in learning, with large variations visible between countries. Participation in adult education has been slowly decreasing since 2005 [2]. Participation rates are particularly low among groups of adults that fall under the greatest risk of poverty. These are adults from vulnerable groups, migrants or adults with a minority background, low educated, low skilled or non-qualified, economically inactive, and older adults. The policy agendas of Member States already include specific references to promoting access to adult education for the above-named groups. However, these documents often lack definite objectives and targets to be reached [3]. A key challenge across the EU is solving the ‘low skills trap’ whereby adults with low levels of skills and educational attainment, who are most in need of education and training, are less likely to participate in learning. The main barriers for participation in adult education remain family responsibilities, conflicts with the work schedule, failure to meet ‘prerequisites’ (for example, appropriate entry qualifications), financial issues (participation costs are too high), lack of support from employers and lack of suitable learning activities, no available training within a convenient distance, health or age reasons, and insufficient material resources (for instance, no computer for distance learning) [4].


Countries can deploy a wide range of mobilisation strategies to raise levels of participation (e.g. providing guidance and counselling, flexible learning trajectories, quality management, outreach strategies, accreditation of prior learning, and financial instruments) [5]. However, there is little evidence on how well these strategies are implemented [6]. This calls for a greater need for evaluations focusing on effectiveness and relevance [7] of existing adult education services to stakeholder‘s needs [8]. Admitting the various benefits of high quality and widely accessible adult education, all the relevant actors at the EU, national and local levels should seek to create adult learning systems characterised by diversity [9], flexibility, high quality, transparent quality assurance system, excellent teaching, and an enhanced role for local authorities, employers, social partners, civil society, and cultural organisations [10]. The focus of the quality assurance systems needs to be on the learner [11]. Furthermore, development of a strategy for involvement and consultation of the main stakeholders involved is essential, while the quality assurance systems need to be transparent for all stakeholders [12]. Broadening the EQAVET framework so that it can include adult learning which is provided by institutions from other sectors is also required whereas the quality assurance systems must be organisationally strongly backed [13]. The bodies responsible need to possess authority in the sector whilst the quality assurance systems must have commitment within the providers of the management and the employees [14]. Last but not least, the quality assurance systems must be affordable given the adult learning provision and the context, and relevant for the given context (no one‐size fits all) [15].

 [1] Field, J., ‘Lifelong learning and the new educational order’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 37, 2006, pp. 987–988. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2006.00660_18.x.

[2] European Commission, European semester thematic fiche – Skills for the Labour Market, 2015. PDF file

[3] European Commission, EU Skills Panorama: analytical highlight focus on Adult learning, prepared by ICF GHK and Cedefop for the European Commission, 2014.

[4] UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, Global Report on Adult Learning and Education, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, 2009. PDF file

[5] Broek, S. D.; Buiskool, B. J., ‘Mapping and comparing mobilisation strategies throughout Europe: Towards making lifelong learning a reality’, Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, Volume 18(1), 2012, pp. 4-26.

[6] European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, Adult Education and Training in Europe: Widening Access to Learning Opportunities, Eurydice Report, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2015. PDF file

[7] Bechtel, M., ‘Competence Profiles for Adult and Continuing Education Staff in Europe: Some Conceptual Aspects’. In: Nuissl, E.; Lattke, S., Qualifying adult learning professionals in Europe, Bielefeld, W. Bertelsmann Verlag, 2008.

[8] Zepke, N., Leach, L., ‘Improving learner outcomes in lifelong education: formal pedagogies in non-formal learning contexts?’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol.25, no 5, 2006, pp. 507-518.

[9] Faurschou, K., Systematic quality assurance in adult learning, Nordic tiles in a mosaic. Nordic Network Quality in Adult Learning, The Nordic Council of Ministers, 2008.

[10] Broek, S. D.; Buiskool, B. J., ‘Mapping and comparing mobilisation strategies throughout Europe: Towards making lifelong learning a reality’, Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 18(1), 2012, pp. 4-26.

[11] Looney, J., Teaching, learning and assessment for adults: improving foundation skills, OECD Publications, Paris, 2008.

[12] Faurschou, K., (ed.), Quality management approaches for vocational education and training, Cedefop European Forum on Quality in VET, 2002.

[13] Moran, J. J., Assessing adult learning: a guide for practitioners, Boca Raton, FL, Krieger, 2001.

[14] McGivney, V., Adult learning pathways: through routes or cul-de-sacs?, NIACE, Leicester, UK, 2003.

[15] Broek, S. D.; Hake, B. J., ‘Increasing participation of adults in higher education: Factors for successful policies’, International Journal of Lifelong Education, Volume 31, Issue 4, 2012, pp. 397-417.