International Seminar

The impression that the realities of adult education practice are changing faster than the policies associated with it may not be entirely false. And this would reinforce the view that adult education policy is lagging behind its development. But how can this situation be reversed? Or was it always like that? – At all events it was a praiseworthy effort on the part of the UNESCO Institute for Education, the Québec Ministry of Education and the Canadian UNESCO Commission to hold an International Seminar on Adult Education and Lifelong Education Policies in Industrialized Countries from 29 November to 2 December 1999. Numerous experts, especially from North America and Europe, including representatives of the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE), the European Association for Adult Education (EAEA) and the European Union, responded to the invitation. – Here we print the final declaration, which points the way to a policy for adult education.

The New Adult Education Policies: Key Issues

Gathered in Québec City at a UNESCO seminar held under the auspices of the QuébecGovernment in cooperation with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, 50 international and national experts took stock of developments in adult education, which, in the last few years, has become a priority in industrialized countries.

We cannot wait 30 years, the time it will take to raise the next generation’s level of schooling. There is an urgent need to empower adults today. Giving adults the ability to act autonomously in the areas of work and health and in their local communities is a winning strategy.

Governments in most industrialized countries – for instance, Denmark, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland – and some provinces of Canada, including Québec, are currently formulating new adult education policies in response to a number of major trends. The first of these trends is the general recognition of the need to provide basic education for all, so that they may continue learning throughout their lives. This need is closely tied to the difficult emergence of knowledge-based societies. While these new societies rely on the intensive, generalized production and use of scientific and technological knowledge, they also acknowledge the endogenous knowledge of communities and individuals as a strategic resource. They are, moreover, aware that a true "learning society" can exist only if all the necessary components are in place: basic education for children and adolescents, diverse forms of lifelong learning, the enrichment of learning environments, and the active involvement of the community sector, the media and business in education.

Industrialized countries are also formulating new policies to reduce the educational disparities that the current organization of adult education and lifelong learning tends to produce between various segments of the population. It is imperative to reverse this tendency to perpetuate disparities. This calls for new policies in youth education and new approaches in adult education. Our efforts to fight poverty cannot have a lasting impact if we do not empower marginalized people and help them to act autonomously.

The realization that today’s major economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges cannot be met without the effective participation of all segments of the adult population has also led governments to support the diversification of opportunities for lifelong learning through various formal, non-formal and informal education networks. In doing so, they are consistent with the diagnosis they made at the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education in Hamburg.

What are the key issues of the new policies currently being debated in the various countries? Apart from a few exceptions, most governments, under the influence of socioeconomic partners, initially made workforce development the primary goal of their new adult education policies. Very soon, however, several countries came to recognize other needs and demands in connection with workforce development. Now that the newinformation technologies are widespread, it is vital that everyone be able to use them. Otherwise, they will only compound the already intolerable growth of economic, social and cultural inequalities. Governments must now base the development of preventive health and environmental policies or local development policies on the active, creative participation of men and women and, therefore, on a major adult education effort. While active citizenship is a responsibility, it also entails certain rights, including that of meaningful participation in society.

To achieve this goal, the trend is to rely on diverse adult education agents acting in a network. The idea is not to centralize, but to consolidate and support the diverse services offered. The new adult education policies therefore provide for communication and cooperation among ministries and among sectors. They give adults wider access to educational institutions, strengthen existing continuing education structures and create new structures to reach other groups of adults, using the new information technology. They enhance the status and qualifications of trainers. They provide for the recognition of learning acquired outside training systems. There is a strong emphasis on measures to counter marginalization, including measures to give excluded groups such as disabled people and migrants true access to education. Policies to enable educational demands to be expressed and initiatives such as an Adult Learners Week are becoming increasingly important in most countries.

Adult education requires resources to be mobilized differently than with basic education for children and adolescents. Various actors are involved in adult education: ministries, educational networks, economic agents, the community sector and the media. Sources of financing also vary: government funding, support from business, contributions by learners, and a significant contribution of time by individuals and volunteers belonging tonon-governmental organizations. Furthermore, funding has a lasting impact only if it is provided in keeping with sequences and approaches that enable the various actors to use the resources expediently in a specific context. Also, there is a trend toward the diversification of the types of financial and technical support provided to enable people to receive the training required or desired.

The international experts agreed that current funding of adult education is clearly insufficient, and noted that, often, financial resources are made available only if the broad impact of investment in adult education in terms of improved health and better management of local problems has been documented. Several experts added that the overall economic, social and cultural benefits of adult education must be considered, as well as the cost of refusing to invest to increase the potential of individuals and communities.

The demand for improved skills is so closely connected with production initiatives or activities, lifelong learning is so intimately tied to specific life and work situations, and learning is so personal an activity that adult education policies can be developed only with the commitment, involvement and partnership of all. Economic agents, members of the community, social groups and local bodies must work together and participate in various levels of decision making for these policies to succeed. In this integrated or synergistic approach, the role of the state is, paradoxically, both transformed and enhanced; civil society and business are active players in the new learning society.

The adoption of adult education policies by governments in all the industrialized countries has become urgent. The state must ensure that actors in all spheres of activity pursue the objectives of equity, respect for diversity and increased productivity and creativity.

Investment in people’s creativity is one of the most profitable and sustainable social investments that can be made today. The ongoing development of the diverse skills of adults has become a social priority requiring the mobilization of all actors in society.

Everyone must be able to exercise his or her right to learn, to question, to create, to be curious and to develop himself or herself. Recognition of this right in concrete terms by all partners is one of the best ways to foster active citizenship and meet economic goals. The empowerment of individuals and communities is more than ever a necessary goal, but this goal cannot be achieved unless all partners are determined to act, governments have the political will to act, and this will to act is entrenched in societal policy.