Joachim H. Knoll

Adult education has been developing its own interest in the notion of internationalism since the 1920s. Can AE help to create a new cultural awareness that extends beyond national borders, and thereby contribute to peace? What part can international organizations play in this? What is the relationship between theory and practice? Using the examples of UNESCO and European Union institutions, the author describes general trends and actual contents of adult education programmes. Prof. Dr Joachim H. Knoll is Professor Emeritus of Adult Education and Out-of-School Youth Work at the Institute of Education, Ruhr University Bochum. His specialist fields are: International and comparative adult education research; Adult education organisation and institutions; Youth media and media protection for young people.

Adult and Continuing Education in and through International and Supranational Organizations

1. Definition and Origins of Internationalism

The terms “internationalism” and “international” refer primarily to international legal relations between a number of States, institutions or associations for the purpose of agreements, mutual support and discussion in political, scientific and economic matters, without any transfer or dilution of sovereignty, such as occurs in the case of supranationalism. In the context of adult education, “internationalism” and “international” also suggest, in addition to contractual agreements, people living and belonging together in a mood of cultural awareness that crosses the borders of their own State and thus represents a means of fostering peace. And this last aspect, the fostering and securing of peace, provides a link to the time when adult education first discovered for itself the notion of internationalism.

If we look at the development of international awareness in the practice and study of adult education, we shall find confirmation of the thesis which I have put forward earlier, that during the period following the Second World War, as distinct from the “Weimar” period after the First War, adult education practice was more internationally minded than academic theory. This thesis becomes even firmer if we look at the special case of the extraordinary international work done by the DVV. The “Institute for International Cooperation” is an instrument of developmental education which lends support to the further thesis that German adult education practice has applied what it has learnt from its experience at home in playing a part in the creation and reconstruction of adult education systems in other countries and continents, and in providing educational support for development, an approach that has been approved and recognised in grants from the public purse.

In Germany, adult education first acquired an identifiable international orientation during the Weimar Republic, when it was associated with a belief in the League of Nations on the assumption that education could contribute to peaceful coexistence between peoples by fostering mutual respect and acknowledging differences. The first concrete steps towards encounters between the academic discipline of adult education in Germany and its counterparts in other countries, initially in Europe, were taken in 1925 with the establishment of the German committee of the World Association of Adult Education, first set up in the United Kingdom by A. Mansbridge.

We can thus maintain our thesis that the academic study of education was open to international influence in the 1920s, while practice remained largely unaffected.

2. The Contribution of International Organizations to Adult and Continuing Education

Information about international trends in teaching and learning can be gleaned both from publications issued by individuals and from agencies, which may have either a reform agenda or an interest in adult education that takes a synoptic view of existing provision. We are thinking here primarily of bodies that are part of or associated with international organizations concerned with 

  • adult education or other educational policy (legislation, funding, cooperation and coordination)

  • individual topics in the practice of adult education (lifelong learning, vocational adult education, literacy, the environment, health) or

  • programmatic designs for the future (the 1972 Faure Report, the 1996 Delors Report) to stimulate international discussion

Admittedly there is no hard and fast distinction between individual academic publications, such as university research papers on adult education, and those issued by the agencies of international organizations, since the people involved are often the same. This is evident from the fact that numerous professors of adult education are or have been working for international agencies (J. LOWE, G. WEDELL, A. TUIJNMAN, P.BELANGER, L. BOWN) or contribute academic expertise without having a permanent association with any particular agency (C. TITMUS, W. LEIRMAN, P. JARVIS, J. KNOLL). At the same time, there is no disputing that large-scale research, especially on an empirical basis, can no longer be handled by one individual. For example, funding has been provided for

  • the compilation of statistics on literacy in industrialized countries by the OECD

  • literacy as part of development policy by UNESCO

  • investigation of the mentality and profiles of adult education and adult educators in European countries (DELPHI Project, W. LEIRMAN, Leuven) and for

  • models of vocational education in a learning society by the EU

These organizations have also been involved in the implementation of such initiatives, or at least in the basic design.

It should be pointed out at this point that the way in which international agencies think and work is such that discussion of adult education phenomena and problems is invariably hedged about with a particular interpretation of the world and society, and this very quickly turns into a simplified form of short-hand. In the literature on adult and continuing education there is, for example, a consensus that adult education must surely be heading “towards the learning society”. This establishes a view of the world, in accordance with which subsequent reforms should be introduced. There are also descriptive terms for society such as the information society, the civil society, the knowledge society, or the courageous citizens’ society.

As a result, the programme presented at the G8 summit in Okinawa, the “Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society”, very soon became a formula: “... everyone, everywhere should be enabled to participate in and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the global information society” (my emphasis).

3. General Trends and Actual Content of the Adult Education programmes of International Organizations

First of all, all international organizations, including the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and research establishments represented at CONFINTEA V (the Fifth UNESCO International Conference on Adult Education) in Hamburg, would probably agree with the general trend identified by Federico Mayor, the former Director-General of UNESCO and described as follows in reference to the Delors Report:

The aim of lifelong learning is to enable active and creative participation of all members of the community. Adult learning occupies a place at the heart of society and responds to the concrete aspirations of individuals.


Learning to be
learning to do
learning to live together are the core concerns – this includes
learning to read, write and count, but what is most important is to ensure that all women and men are free and more responsible citizens.”

This description includes the notion of lifelong learning, as well as that of the four pillars on which learning rests in the learning society (Delors Report), and it enshrines the fundamental right to education in all countries and for all people.

There is also general agreement on lifelong learning, on the new character of the learning society, on the part to be played by adult education in the development of social institutions, on the right to education, and on the practical consequences to be drawn, right down to the way people are to plan and live their private lives in fields that are nothing to do with education and training.

The international organizations which most readily typify internationalist adult education, and whose activities also affect adult education in European countries, include UNESCO, the OECD, the EC/EU and the Council of Europe, together with the special institutes and centres for educational policy-making and research which draw up proposals for forward-looking education on behalf of these agencies.

Since we cannot describe them in detail, we shall make a selection according to their prominence and scale of operations. I shall therefore restrict myself initially to UNESCO and the EU.

4. The Example of UNESCO

The institutes belonging to UNESCO, and their range of responsibilities, clearly demonstrate UNESCO’s profile in educational policy, practice and research. Part of their role is to make proposals and recommendations for adult and continuing education, or at least to make and influence projections in this field. They include:


  1. the UNESCO Institute for Education in Hamburg, which has come to specialize in basic education, lifelong learning, adult literacy and adult non-formal education
  2. the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) in Paris, which carries out research into educational planning, including statistical methods, and provides relevant practical training for specialist educational planners
  3. the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE), Moscow, which is still being established
  4. the UNESCO Literacy Institute, formerly in Teheran, which has stopped functioning for political reasons. The International Literacy Institute, University of Pennsylvania, USA, which is affiliated to UNESCO, now fulfils a similar role It is evident from the structure of UNESCO that specialized research has “migrated” from national universities to international organizations, and this is also true of comparable institutions in the other international organizations.


The Delors Report, which takes the general trends referred to above as given, sets out as it were to anticipate the world of tomorrow and therefore explores areas which are not part of the core of education but are said to have global implications. It should be asked at this point whether the power of adult education is not grossly overvalued when it dreams of utopian plans for the world and takes on a socially therapeutic role as a result. The Delors Commission was, for example, instructed by UNESCO to concern itself with the following areas:

1. cultural education

2. education and democracy

3. education and social processes

4. the world of work

5. education and development

6. education, research and science

– and it was naturally told to keep the principle of “thinking globally and acting locally” (globalization and decentralization) constantly in mind. Adult education was being asked to do something which it cannot, especially when it was also supposed to developed a consensus on values which would reconcile religion and culture and accommodate their particular spiritualities.

A list of what is assumed to be a matter of agreement would also include, besides general principles, the specific demands made of educational policy and adult education:


  • basic education for all

  • a balance between vocational and general adult education

  • literacy, with emphasis on the links between literacy, numeracy and social skills

  • closer ties between adult education and the mass media, including types of distance learning

  • professionalization providing a bridge between practice and research, and

  • legislation guaranteeing basic funding


5. The Example of the EU 

During the early institutional history of the EU, the European Community (EC) regarded “vocational training” as a secondary measure supporting the process of economic regulation and unification, and in the mid-1970s terms such as “vocational adult education” and “migrant/youth education” are found in plans for harmonization; but today, “vocational and general education” stand side by side on an almost equal footing. The EC/EU did not fall in with the distinction made between the concepts of adult and continuing education, which began in the Federal Republic with the structural plan of the German Education Council (1970) and apparently became firmly established in the overall education plan of the Federal-Länder Commission for Educational Planning (1973).

The aims set out in Articles 126 and 127 of the Maastricht Agreement (the 7 February 1992 version of the treaty establishing the European Community), and in the identically worded Articles 149 and 150 of the Treaty of Amsterdam (the 2 October 1997 version of the treaty establishing the European Community) on “General and Vocational Education and Youth” mark a temporary end to developments. They are subordinate to the principle of subsidiarity set out in Article 3b (now Article 5) of the Treaty: In those fields which are not its exclusive responsibility, the Community shall, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, only act where and to the extent that the aims of the measures in question cannot be adequately achieved at the level of Member States and can therefore be better achieved at Community level.” The principle of subsidiarity requires restraint in such matters as amending constitutional guarantees of federal rights in the Federal Republic; in consequence, the Federal Government may initially only transfer sovereignty in respect of its responsibility for vocational training. Harmonization and subjection to the Community are rejected by nearly all Member States. An assessment of the current responsibilities and room for action of the EU produces varied results: on the one hand, almost unthinking hope is placed in further support and development for adult and continuing education, but on the other hand, it is remarked tentatively that the texts of the Agreements contain nothing new in addition to the support measures, and particularly the exchange programmes, which are already being provided without being enshrined in Community legislation.

Since the Maastricht Agreement (1992), the EU’s overall education policy has been strengthened by the “European Year of Lifelong Learning” in 1996, for which the following were among the topics selected: the significance of general education, promotion of vocational and general continuing education, motivation for learning throughout life, cooperation between educational and commercial agencies, and encouragement of the European dimension.

The European Commission’s White Paper on general and vocational education “Teaching and Learning – Towards the Learning Society” (1995) argues for greater planning of vocational training and vocational continuing education with a threefold emphasis on the learning society, vocational education and the European dimension, and with a particular call for flexibility in national systems (schools and the world of work, on-the-job training, language learning, recognition of qualifications under the principle of equivalency, etc.).

The two documents “Memorandum on Lifelong Learning “ (2000) and “Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality” (2001) launched a consultation process among adult and continuing education establishments in the Member States of the EU. This is based on a concept of lifelong learning embracing all institutions of school and out-of-school education that is founded on continuity and no longer on closed and separate systems of education and training.

Adult education is offered support under SOCRATES through the GRUNDTVIG Programme, which is addressed to all adult education organizations, with the emphasis on “promoting the European dimension of lifelong learning through greater transnational cooperation”.

While the international and national dimensions of adult education still appeared to be quite distinct from each other in the 1980s, they now appear to be drawing closer in the discourse. On the one hand, there used to be the generally large-scale surveys providing international comparisons (lifelong learning, literacy, country reports), and on the other, there were descriptions of adult education which barely went beyond the German system. While practice certainly sought and found an international dimension to its work, research work on adult education still seems even today to be reluctant to open up internationally, although an international approach at certain universities gives some hopes of a general change of course. The new division of academic education into BA and MA courses may perhaps encourage such hopes, as may the financial stimulus of EU support programmes.

Essentially, however, the principle of subsidiarity still restricts the impact of international adult education on national education policy, ruling out for the time being any grand hopes of the harmonization of adult education systems in the countries of Europe, and thus of the notion of “European adult education”.


UNESCO (ed.) CONFINTEA, Adult Education – The Hamburg Declaration, The Agenda for the Future, Hamburg 1997.

UNESCO Institute for Education (ed.), Towards an Open Learning World, Hamburg 2002.

Hüfner K. / Reuther, J. (eds.), UNESCO Handbook, Russian edition, Moscow 2002.

European Commission (ed.): Teaching and Learning. Towards the Learning Society. White Paper on Education and Training, Luxembourg 1995.

European Commission (ed.) Memorandum on Lifelong Learning, Brussels 2000.

European Commission (ed.) Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality, Brussels 2001. // EU and Lifelong education // – (European and international associations related to education)

Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.