Commission of the European Communities


Adult Learning:
It is Never too Late to Learn



1. Introduction

The Commission’s 2001 Communication “Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality” and the 2002 Council Resolution on lifelong learning stressed the importance of lifelong learning for competitiveness and employability, but also for social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development. Adult learning is a vital component of lifelong learning.

Definitions of adult learning vary, but for the purpose of this Communication it is defined as “all forms of learning undertaken by adults after having left initial education and training,” however far this process may have gone (e.g., including tertiary education).

Education and training are critical factors for achieving the Lisbon’s strategy ob jectives of raising economic growth, competitiveness and social inclusion. The role of adult learning in this context, in addition to its contribution to personal develop- ment and fulfilment, is increasingly recognised in Members States’ National Reform Programmes. However, with some exceptions, implementation remains weak.1 Most education and training systems are still largely focused on the education and training of young people and limited progress has been made in changing systems to mirror the need for learning throughout the lifespan. An additional 4 million adults would need to participate in lifelong learning in order to achieve the participation rate of the benchmark agreed by Member States in the framework of the “Educa tion and Training 2010” process.2 Recent research3 confirms the importance of investing in adult learning. Public and private benefits include greater employ ability, increased productivity and better-quality employment, reduced expenditure in areas such us unemployment benefits, welfare payments and early-retirement pensions, but also increased social returns in terms of improved civic participation, better health, lower incidence of criminality, and greater individual well-being and fulfilment. Research on older adults indicates that those who engage in learning are healthier, with a consequent reduction in healthcare costs.4

This Communication highlights the essential contribution of adult learning, through the acquisition of key competences by all, to employability and mobility in a modern labour market and to social inclusion. It draws on lessons learnt from the dialogue with Member States in the framework of “Education and Training 2010” and from experiences gained in the existing EU education and training programmes, in particular the “Grundtvig” action of the Socrates programme.5 It also reflects the approach outlined in the Communication on efficiency and equity,6 namely that reforms are possible which make education and training systems both more efficient and more equitable. It recalls that the Structural Funds, and in particu lar the European Social Fund (ESF), have the potential to support the development of infrastructures and strategies. It underlines the importance of certain specific issues: the gender dimension, in particular regarding data collection, differences in access to lifelong learning and in preferred forms of learning.

It provides the necessary policy underpinning for the implementation of the future “Grundtvig” programme, which will form part of the overall Lifelong Learning Pro gramme 2007-2013. Finally, it proposes a reflection on adult learning involving Member States and relevant stakeholders, leading to the formulation of an action plan in 2000.


Member States can no longer afford to be without an efficient adult learning system integrated into their lifelong learning strategy, providing participants with increased labour market access, better social integration and preparing them for active ageing for the future. They should ensure that they have systems which enable them to define priorities and monitor their implementation.

Key Messages

Five key messages for adult learning stakeholders are presented here.

1. Lifting the barriers to participation

Adult participation in education and training remains limited (see Annex). Com pared with the benchmark goal of 12.5 % participation in adult learning by 2010, the average rate in 2005 was 10.8 %. Despite wide variation around this aver age, ranging from 1.1 % to 34.7 % ,7 there is remarkable similarity across Member States in the distribution of adult learning, with those with the lowest levels of initial education, older people, people in rural areas, and the disabled being the least likely to participate in all countries. Barriers to participation by individuals may be policy-related, informational (level of access to good and timely information), provider-related (entry requirements, cost, level of learning support, nature of learn ing outcomes, etc), situational (the cultural value attached to education; the extent to which the life situation or the family and social environment of the adult supports participation) and dispositional (the self-esteem and self-confidence of the adult as a learner, often linked to failure in previous educational experiences). Demand-side reasons are often the most serious barriers: lack of time due to work or family reasons, lack of awareness and motivation, as people do not see learning valued or rewarded enough and hence fail to perceive its benefits, lack of information on the supply and lack of financing .8

The challenge for the Member States is two-fold: to increase the overall volume of participation in adult learning, and to address the imbalances in participation in or der to achieve a more equitable picture, by motivating, encouraging, enabling and supporting the adults least likely to participate in learning in all its modes, formal, non-formal and informal .9 This requires targeted public investment to reach those who have been least well-served by education and training systems in the past.

Motivating people to participate in learning needs to be fostered by improving the quality of information and by exploiting the learning potential of places like community centres, sports clubs, cultural institutions, as well as of institutions of initial education and training.

Message 1
Increasing participation in adult learning and making it more equitable is crucial. All stakeholders have a role to play, but public authorities must take the lead in removing barriers and promoting demand, with a special focus on the low-skilled. This will include developing high-quality guidance and information systems, based on a more learner-centred approach, as well as targeted financial incen tives to individuals and support for the establishment of local partnerships.

2. Ensuring the quality of adult learning

Poor quality provision of adult learning leads to poor quality learning outcomes. Quality is multifaceted: information and guidance; needs analysis; relevant learn ing content matching actual needs and demands; delivery; learning support; as sessment approaches; recognition, validation and certification of competencies. While recognising that all these dimensions are of importance, the following deserve special attention:10

Teaching methods – Teaching methods and materials should take account of the specific needs and learning approaches of adults. Intended learning outcomes should be explicit. In addition, adults must be able to draw on learning support resources such as guidance, literacy provision and the development of study skills as required.

Quality of staff – The professional development of people working in adult learn ing is a vital determinant of the quality of adult learning. Little attention has been paid to defining the content and processes for initial training for adult learning staff. There are many educational and professional routes to becoming an adult
learning practitioner and the profession is not always recognised within formal career structures. Compared with other educational sub-systems, adult learning is characterised by high percentages of part-time staff (and people working on a voluntary basis), who may have few career prospects and are frequently hourlypaid.
Social partners should become involved in the recognition of competences of adult learning personnel.

Quality of providers – The overall quality of providers needs to be addressed through provider accreditation mechanisms, quality assurance frameworks and internal and external monitoring and evaluation of teaching and learning outcomes. Governments have a crucial role to play in this respect, by establishing regulatory
frameworks, setting quality standards, in particular based on existing examples and principles in vocational education and training, and higher education, and certifying adherence to these standards.

Quality of delivery – Improving the delivery of adult learning is essential to raise participation. Measures to promote effective delivery include availability of learning sites and childcare facilities locally, open and distance learning services for those in remote areas, information and guidance, tailored programmes and flexible teaching arrangements.

Message 2
In order to foster a culture of quality in adult learning, Member States should invest in improving teaching methods and materials adapted to adult learners and put in place initial and continuing professional development measures to qualify and up-skill people working in adult learning. They should introduce quality assurance mechanisms and improve delivery.

3. Recognition and validation of learning outcomes

A lifelong learning paradigm values all kinds of learning – formal, non-formal and informal. Recognition and validation of non-formal and informal learning form a cornerstone in the lifelong learning strategy. The learning outcomes should be recognised and valued, regardless of where and how they are achieved. Such recognition of non-formal and informal learning enables learners to identify their starting point, gain entry to a programme of learning at a particular level, achieve credits towards a qualification and/or achieve a full qualification based on competences. It serves to motivate reluctant participants, add value to prior learning and save time and money by reducing or eliminating the need to relearn what has already been learned. Similarly, it enables society to benefit from skills acquired at no public cost.

This emphasis on recognition and validation is in itself, not new, and many Member States have already put in place systems for recognition and validation of learning outcomes.11

In 2004, Common European Principles for the identification and validation of non-formal and informal learning were adopted by the Education Council,12 to develop trust in such systems.

Nevertheless, the further development of validation methods and systems in the Member States requires the following challenges to be met:

  • the introduction of validation must be based on the inclusion of the relevant stakeholders, in particular social partners, in order to promote ownership and credibility;

  • the quality of assessment methods and the institutions applying them should be improved;

  • the objectives of education and training – at all levels – must be reformulated in terms of learning outcomes. This is crucial for validation: as long as objectives are based on input factors validation is difficult to accomplish.

Message 3
Within the next five years Member States should implement systems for validation and recognition of non-formal and informal learning, based on the Common Euro pean Principles on validation and recognition and taking full account of existing experiences. Development of validation and recognition may be linked to the development of National Qualification Frameworks within the overall context of the European Qualification Framework.

4. Investing in the ageing population and migrants

Investment is needed for the ageing population and migrants.

Active ageing

The changing demographic situation described above calls not only for raising the average retirement age and but also for “active ageing” policies addressing life both before and after retiring from formal work. The challenge for adult learning systems is two-fold:

  • To ensure a longer working life, there is a need for up-skilling and increasing lifelong learning opportunities for older workers. It is widely acknowledged that in order to keep older workers employable, investment is needed throughout the life cycle and should be supported by government, professional bodies and sectors. Special attention should be given to those entering their mid career.

  • An expansion of learning provision for retired people is needed (including for instance increasing participation of mature students in higher education), as people are reaching retirement in better physical and mental health, and post-retirement life expectancy is extending. Learning should be an integral part of this new phase in their lives. In its recent Communication on universities the Commission invited universities to “be more open to providing courses for students at a later stage of their life cycle”. Such provisions will have a vital role in keeping retired people in touch with their social environment. In many countries education systems have not yet started to address the emerging needs of this group of citizens, who also have enormous potential in terms of what they can contribute to the learning of others. Moreover, the growing numbers of retired people in Europe should be regarded as a potential source of educators and trainers for adult learning.


As stated before, the challenge for adult learning is to support the integration of migrants in society and the economy, and to make the most of the competences and educational experiences acquired prior to migration. This should involve:

  • EU support policies and action through relevant programmes for improving the quality of education and training policies in migrants’ home countries, particularly the European Neighbourhood Countries;

  • speeding up mechanisms for assessment of capacities and recognition of formal, non-formal and informal learning of arriving migrants;

  • expanding adult learning opportunities in relation to linguistic, social and cultural integration;

  • developing appropriate and effective teaching and promoting more intercultural learning.

Message 4
Member States should ensure sufficient investment in the education and training of older people and migrants, but above all ensure efficiency by designing education and training which matches the needs of the learner. They should also raise awareness of the important role of migrants and older people in society and in the economy.

5. Indicators and benchmarks

In order to monitor the multiplicity of adult learning and to develop evidence-based policies, reliable data are required. Compared with compulsory education, data on adult learning is limited, not least because providers are dispersed, of different natures and often operate outside the public sector. Data availability and quality is improving and will continue to do so in the years to come, as a result of existing and forthcoming international surveys. The results of two surveys implemented by Eurostat – the Adult Education Survey and the third Continuing Vocational Training Survey in enterprises – will provide fresh data, mainly on participation of adults in lifelong learning and investment by enterprises and participation in continuing vocational training by the end 2007. The OECD’s survey on adult skills (PIAAC) is currently under preparation.

Further research and analysis is needed and will have a key role to play in mak ing use of the statistics available and in exploring crucial issues like the returns on formal, non-formal and informal learning and the general role of informal learning in adults’ lives. More focus on trends and forecasts is needed in order to be able to support policy making and programme design. The Commission also contributes to this through the recent establishment a research unit on lifelong learning at the Joint Research Centre in Ispra.

Message 5
The quality and comparability of data on adult learning must continue to improve. In particular, there is a need for better insight into the benefits of adult learning and the barriers to its uptake, and for better data on providers, trainers and training delivery.

The work of the European Commission in this area, including Eurostat, should concentrate on making the best use of existing surveys and data, on improving the harmonisation of concepts and definitions, and on expanding coverage, frequency and timeliness of data. Reliable gender disaggregated data is required.

4. European Union Action

Adult learning has an important role to play in meeting the challenges facing Europe, but its potential is not yet being achieved. The Communication argues that concentrating on quality, efficiency and equity would reap benefits for both society and the economy.

Responsibility in this area lies with Member States. The Commission’s role is to support them in their efforts to modernise their systems. The Commission therefore proposes that there should be dialogue with the Member States and relevant stakeholders to explore:

  • ways of making the best use of financial mechanisms available at the European level (such as the Structural Funds and the Lifelong Learning Programme);

  • how to take proper account of adult learning needs in the National Reform Programmes under the Lisbon strategy;

  • how best to involve stakeholders to ensure that the messages in this Communication are acted on in the diverse circumstances prevailing in different Member States;

  • how to encourage exchanges of good practices through peer learning ac tivities in the framework of the “Education and Training 2010” programme, including on the basis of the results of existing EU programmes;

  • best approaches to improve statistical monitoring.

Based on this reflection the Commission proposes to develop an action plan in 2007 to ensure effective follow-up to the messages set out in the present Communication.



1 “Modernising education and training: a vital contribution to prosperity and social cohesion in Eu rope – 2006 Joint Interim Report of the Council and the Commission on progress under the ‘Education & Training 2010’ work programme”, c_07920060401en00010019.pdf
3 Promoting Adult Learning, OECD (2005).
4 Tom Schuller, John Preston, Cathie Hammond, Angela Brassett-Grundy and John Bynner, The Benefits of Learning, University of London, 2004.
5 Report from the Commission “Interim evaluation report on the results achieved and on the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the implementation of the second phase of the Community action programme in the field of education ‘Socrates”, COM (2004) 153 final, 8.03.2004.
6 Communication from the Commission “Efficiency and equity in European education and training systems”, COM (2006) 481 final, 8.09.2006.
7 “Progress towards the Lisbon objectives in education and training – Report based on indicators and bench marks – Report 2006”, pages 35-40, and its Annex “Detailed analysis of progress”, chapter 6.2.
8 Lifelong learning: citizens’ views in close-up. Findings from a dedicated Eurobarometer survey, Cedefop, Luxembourg, 2004. The report also shows a strong preference of adults for learning in informal settings.
9 For definitions see “Memorandum on Lifelong Learning” [SEC(2000) 1832, 30.10.2000] and further work as the Classification of Learning Activities by Eurostat.
10 “Adult education trends and issues in Europe”, study conducted by the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) in 2006. Unpublished.
11 Source: European Inventory – Validation of non-formal and informal learning,
12 Certain professions, for which minimum education and training requirements are agreed, are exempt – see Directive 2005/36/ EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 7 September 2005 on the recognition of professional qualifications, OJ L 255/22, 30.9.2005.

Adult Education and Development


DVV International operates worldwide with more than 200 partners in over 30 countries.

To interactive world map

Read more

Read the complete edition
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.