Joachim H. Knoll

There is general agreement that adult education (AE) has an international dimension, but how does AE today respond to this challenge? What is the relationship between theory and practice, given the international developments in this field, and what are the implications of the need for AE to work internationally? The author, who will already be familiar to many of our readers, addresses these questions. Prof. Joachim Knoll is Professor Emeritus of Adult Education at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. He has supported the work of the IIZ/DVV for many years and is a member of the Advisory Board for International Affairs of the German Adult Education Association. In 2004, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Free University of Berlin.

Adult Education – Continuing Education – International Dimensions – Or: What Are the General Characteristics and the Common Core of Adult and Continuing Education?

Modern adult education has developed far beyond its origins, when it was not recognised as an integral part of the overall educational system. By the 1920s it had nonetheless developed an international dimension through the World Association of Adult Education. However, there is one specific difference between the 1920s and today. In the 1920s, while university educationalists were the first to look at adult education from an international point of view, "tied" institutions (as they were called because their adult education services were offered by voluntary associations or political parties) restricted themselves to the national context. In short: academic research was international, but practical work was national. Today, this relationship has turned upside down. The public and non-public institutions of adult education also perform international tasks, whereas the sub-discipline of educational science known as ìadult educationî, "andragogy" or "adult and continuing education" generally keeps its distance from international concerns. Only in the last two to three years has more attention been given to the European context and European relationships, although there have always been prominent exceptions on both sides.

The Adult Education System

In the Federal Republic of Germany, the adult education system is integrated into the school and post-school education system as a so-called fourth pillar of the system. Its structure is pluralistic, which means that public, non-public and commercial institutions participate on the basis of attributed competencies: competencies are rather vaguely attributed to different institutions (see below). The system is partially subsidised by the public and private sector and is governed by legislative regulations.

Coordination between the components of the system is partly imposed by law. They cooperate in both administration (through "Arbeit und Leben", a joint activity of the trade unions and community adult education centres in Germany, and distance and face-to-face learning in various institutions), and learning content, attempting to adjust according to different areas of competencies.

Structural Issues

In UNESCO terms, the schematic structure of this highly pluralistic system can be divided into formal, non-formal und informal adult education.

  Formal adult education Non-formal adult education Informal adult education
Profile Certificate-oriented education, Continuing education, further training, Retraining Non-vocational, Certificate-oriented ed. (school-leaving qualifications), Socio-cultural education Alternative, non-institutionalized adult education
Learning sites Company training centres, Industry-wide training centres Public institutions, Non-public AE institutions (e.g., community adult education centres, denominational institutions, trade union education departments) Communication centres and others
Content Vocational AE and training General AE Learning by communication


Despite these clear divisions within the pluralistic adult education system, we can recognise an increasing tendency for the borders of the three segments to be crossed. To date (and this applies both nationally and internationally), demand and supply have been adjusted within the competencies attributed. This has meant self-regulation on the basis of recognised and assigned competencies: participants in adult and continuing education programmes are familiar with the learning sites, and to some extent also with the organising institutions and providers, and accept the competencies that are attributed to them.

Significant centripetal tendencies have emerged, however, largely due to the governmental financial incentives granted to vocational education and training. This means that learning content has sometimes shifted from one learning site to another, although the recipient site may not have demonstrated its competency to fulfil the new commitments. This process has been made possible by the existing laws on adult education, which rarely assign content to a specific institution. This process of "content migration" can be outlined as follows:

Formal adult education            <-- Non-formal adult education            --> Informal adult education
Company-specific and industry-wide vocational education and training Vocational AE, socio-cultural AE, communicative learning Learning by communication


In the case of community adult education centres, for example, this means that their vocational orientation has increased, their communicative function has decreased, and their subject content and orientation have changed as a result of resource allocations.

Of course, the system could also be described in terms of other characteristics:

  • a differentiation could be made, for example, according to the institutionís legal status (public, non-public or commercial)

  • in the context of lifelong learning, the education system could also be looked at as an "educational chain": a continuum of learning opportunities from pre-primary education to education for the elderly
    ñ this would also indicate clearly that adult education is only one component of lifelong learning.

Content-related Issues

Learning content has traditionally been split, in line with its own stated description and political purpose, into the following broad categories: vocational education, general education and civic or political education.

The law on adult education in North Rhine-Westphalia (first issued in 1974) specifies the following fields of activity:

a) Non-vocational, certificate-oriented adult and continuing education, such as the delayed achievement of school-leaving and other qualifications
b) Vocational education (excluding professional training) to acquire basic qualifications and specific skills, certificated through a partly independent system
c) Academic education, in cooperation with institutions of higher education: so-called "public science"
d) Civic education, e.g., through the instrument of educational leave ("Bildungsurlaub")
e) Education for leisure and creativity, including cultural adult education and intercultural education
f) Parental and family education, skills learning mainly provided by religious bodies
g) Education for personal fulfilment, including special measures not included in the above points

This segmentation into fields of activity should not be understood as a hierarchy of content, although, during the introduction of reform and savings measures, there has been a considerable temptation to give preferential treatment to ìhardî fields instead of cutting all fields of activity equally.

In regard to the relationship between adult education and lifelong learning, the EU formulates in very general terms what the implications are (Memorandum on Lifelong Learning, 2000):

"all learning throughout life that serves the improvement of knowledge, qualifications and competencies within a personal, civic, social or vocational perspective."

Thus, a balanced mixture of subjective and objective demands on education is established, quite contrary to the idea of adult education as a sort of continuing education that merely focuses on efficiency and employability.

Nevertheless, todayís "core objectives" are considered to be:

  • Mobility

  • Employability

  • Competitiveness/attractiveness

In its latest self-portrait, the German Adult Education Association defines itself by reference to the following headings:

  • Environmental education

  • Migration and minority policies

  • Health education and family planning policies

  • Rehabilitation

  • Labour market policies

  • Civic and social education

As in the earlier "Agenda for the Future" (UNESCO International Conference on Adult Education, 1997, with a total of ten thematic fields) and the "one hour per day" programmatic approach, decentralised regulation and reform are now in favour. In broad terms, the suggested fields of activity can be understood as an offer from which suggestions for reform can be extracted to suit the specific orientation of regional and national education policies.

International Issues

German adult education, both as an academic discipline and as a practical activity, engages in international cooperation via those international agencies that address educational issues, meaning international and supranational organisations such as UNESCO, the OECD, the Council of Europe and the European Union. Although less prominently, the World Bank and the IMF should also be mentioned, especially in the context of fundraising.

We shall discuss fields of activity for adult and continuing education below from an international perspective. Our intention is not to indicate typical, quasi-standardized features which occur everywhere with the same distinctness and intensity. Rather, we suggest those fields and aspects of adult education which could very broadly be called the "common core". Although with differing degrees of emphasis, they should be part of all systems of adult and continuing education that consider them to be significant. To give one example, literacy is a task on the agenda of both industrialized and developing countries. However, the emphasis will differ, depending on the level of illiteracy and related problems. The same applies, for example, to minority issues. Countries with relative ethnic homogeneity will probably face these questions only in the context of global migration movements. Elsewhere, for political and cultural reasons, this question may be of considerable importance for nation building. The following fields of activity should therefore be part of every adult education system, although differing in terms of emphasis and commitment:

1. Intensifying literacy, especially in the context of new demands in the job market (increased skill levels, formal certification systems)
2. Migration and related problems, especially integration in the industrialized Central European countries, and strengthening of current activities carried out by non-public institutions and agencies.
3. Minority rights and language policies (in its 1992 Charter, the Council of Europe raises the issue of education and language for allochthonous and autochthonous minorities, and suggests a catalogue of measures)
4. Vocational education and training for building and improving labour market structures, especially in medium-size and small enterprises
5. Civic/political education on the basis of the human rights charter, building political structures that guarantee freedom and equal opportunities, but proclamations on the concept of democracy should be kept low-key
6. Preservation and development of cultural tradition, in relation to processes of nation building and the idea of cultural world heritage
7. Balance of content between education for qualifications and cultural education, and development of new ways of promoting political culture
8. Education for development and awareness-raising in the context of intercultural education
9. Cooperation with universities and teacher training institutions for training professional staff working in the field of adult education
10. Continuing education for educational staff, including possibilities of in-service training
11. Providing and improving professional quality in adult education, especially improving the relation between theory and practice
12. Raising awareness that adult education is located within a triangle of policy/politics, academic and practical work
13. Improving the framework for adult and continuing education, especially securing education systems on a legal basis
14. Improving the quality of adult education, including systems of open and distance learning
15. Developing decentralized projects and structures, e.g. on a regional scale (no standardization of content or organization)
16. Financial support for projects and themes in a European dimension, e.g., training of adult educators
17. Homogeneity in plurality: coordination and cooperation in federal structures of adult education, taking into account the principle of subsidiarity
18. Increasing cooperation with countries and regions that are, currently or in the future, relevant in the field of adult education (e.g., United States, Japan, China, Canada)
19. Extension of international professional contacts (conferences, symposia, publications, data collection)

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