Rita Süssmuth

Adult Learning and Education for Equity and Inclusion within the Context of Participation, Mobility and Competition

CONFINTEA VI Pre-conference in Budapest 

CONFINTEA VI Pre-conference in Budapest
Source: DVV International

A Contribution to Moving from CONFINTEA V to VI

Let me look back for a while. I still remember CONFINTEA V which took place in 1997 in Hamburg, where I was honoured by being elected President of the con ference, and where my standing as the then President of the German Parliament helped tremendously in getting some of the more difficult decisions taken. Clearly, diplomacy and politics had to be combined with professional rigour.

Some may still remember the slogan: One hour a day for learning!

And Hamburg may be called the beginning of the international adult learners weeks and festivals movement, who are, as I was told, now reaching out into more than fifty countries around the globe.

The intellectual and analytic capacity of all those inspired participants from so many countries across the world was later shown in the concluding “Agenda for the Future.”

This document summed up the perspectives of adult education and learning for the next century, defined crucial points, its problems, and now looking back – many of its still unsolved problems.

However, the “Agenda for the Future” helped adult education and learning to be placed higher up in the international development agendas, such as the “Mil lennium Development Goals” and “Education for All”. Although much more needs to be done, as we could see from the CONFINTEA mid-term review.

Nevertheless, we had set targets for action, but often enough action did not follow. We still need to research deeper into the reasons why, and we have to monitor the process closer as we do not want to debate this again in a decade from now.

Now we are back preparing for CONFINTEA VI in Brasil, in Belem, close to the Amazonas, in the heart of growing environmental issues. It is twelve years after Hamburg. A good time to take stock! And Budapest is an excellent place for a regional pre-conference looking at Europe and North America.

No doubt, I appreciate many of the new and challenging arguments and developments coming from the discussions and recommendations in the African, Asian and Latin American regional CONFINTEA conferences – it must be noted that we are really part of an important global movement.

It is definitely a great success that during the last decade we changed the educational paradigm: Never before have so many countries started reforms of their systems towards a dimension of lifelong learning.

Problems – and not yet Solutions

We would not treat reality fairly if we close our eyes in front of continuing issues, and some even on a higher level than before. Therefore I want to emphasize some of the permanent problems which have been under discussion since that time and are far away from being sufficiently investigated, and I dare to say quite frankly that it will be hard to fulfil many of the aims forecasted for the magical date 2015.

In the first place, literacy is still the most prevailing problem which not only tangles the developing countries but the industrialised as well, and came into the UNESCO focus since the 4th World Conference in Conference in Paris, where at that time it became apparent that 6 % of the population in industrialised countries belong to the group of illiterates and even more to the semi-illiterates.

However, adult education and learning in respect to migration and integration, ecology and sustainable development, poverty reduction and inclusion have not decreased in their importance. The global financial crisis contributes – improvements may diminish and disappear!

The Global Commission on Migration contributed ideas and data taken from a worldwide analysis and emphasized the interlinking between migration and the right to education.

No doubt, legal frameworks for adult education, financing, cultural diversity, and new forms of cooperation between government and other stakeholders need more and better attention.

Could public funding be increased by internationally suggested rates like the 6 % for adult education and learning out of the National Budget for Education?

Recognition of non-formal and informal youth and adult education as relevant modes bring forward the educational outcomes of the individual – and not only looking at his or her formal certification and qualification.

There is still so much room for improvement.

Matters of Reform

This regional pre-conference will pay attention not only to the global approach, but predominantly to the regional, it is the country level within Europe and North America, and of course at the local level, where participants are to be recognised as youth and adults being confronted with economic challenges and aspirations of improvements of their living conditions.

And we all know that there are huge differences between and within different parts of Europe and North America. Richer and poorer parts are by far no smaller than we have within the North – South divide.

I therefore hope that in addition to all the professional issues that CONFINTEA VI will look into, that it will look into global issues of development as well, including all that is behind the challenge of financing adult education for development – and the commitments and pledges of the richer part of the world. Is asking for global solidarity too much?

Lifelong learning is at the centre of reforms in educational systems within a global perspective since CONFINTEA V in Hamburg. We are all fully aware that without participation, education and learning there will be no successfull efforts in poverty reduction, no full employability and access to the labour market, no real influence on politics, economy and culture – all needed for full particpation in society.

Lifelong learning starts in early childhood and continues throughout life. What is important for the richer countries is of the same importance for the poorer develop ing countries. This is not possible without much higher investment and better human resources. However, there is no room for a divide of lifelong leaning for the North, and basic education only for the South!

But besides all the upcoming problems, there are some common cores to be observed, which should be stabilized further. In some countries they are rather insufficiently realized, such as

  • Pluralistic structure of the system of adult education
  • Development of models of private-public partnership
  • Balance of the vocational and general in adult education

But let us appreciate the support of all the other stakeholders that are needed.

Besides the activities of UNESCO, for instance via the General Monitoring Reports on Education for All, there are other international organisations and agencies, governmental and non-governmental, which have strongly influenced the national systems of adult education.

The European Union has demonstrated its capacity and interest, especially by findings in the field of lifelong learning, by its Action Plans and by developing a European Qualification Framework, which is now under discussion in several mem ber states, leading into national frameworks. Here we have to bring in competen cies and qualifications derived from non-formal and informal adult education.

The OECD has provided data on literacy within lifelong learning, and the Stand ing Committee of the European Ministers of Education has recently reopened the discussion about problems of school and higher education, closely linked with professionalisation, a subject of high interest within adult education and learning as well.

Key Messages

These messages are emerging as main features of adult learning in increasingly difficult situations when basic securities are becoming fragile, and where all respon sible actors, including governments and civil society organisations, should want to preserve social coherence and economic stability.

Learning should be relevant

The learner is in the centre of the learning process, preferably through par ticipatory approaches, existing competencies of learners, their prior knowl edge, wisdom and values are acknowledged and adequately used for further learning. While starting from the real life situations of learners, adult learning provision often has the potential to meet their needs exactly and initiate a sequence of learning experiences. Providers should have the possibility to react with flexibility to changing learn ing demand, while learners should be encouraged to engage in the planning, organisation and implementation of their own learning opportunities. What to learn and how to learn – this is not an issue for the professionals alone. The learners are equal partners in the learning process. They must be involved in defining the content and the methods, and this is true or all formal as well as informal learning processes. Professionals have to learn: Don´t start with deficits, but with the strength and potentials of learners! Empowerment is the keyword, and this is needed for both women and men, however most importantly for underpriviledged women.

A sound basis is indispensable

It is barely disputed that despite universal schooling illiteracy remains a challenge in practically all countries of the region.

The overall number of functionally illiterate people in the European and North American region is unknown, due to the lack of valid data in most countries. Nevertheless the need to provide literacy to adults from different milieus and in diverse forms and settings is quite clear, and in parts well researched. Today a broad range of methodologies and approaches to literacy work is available, for a multiplicity of target groups and in different settings, including work-related literacy, literacy for specific groups, including migrants, refugees and prisoners. Family literacy approaches have proven their effectiveness for a broad range of target groups, especially migrants.

Learning for sustainable development Realizing the right to learn for everybody is a cornerstone to equitable and inclusive societies. For all the three key areas of education for sustainable development, namely the environment, the economy and the society it is obvious that information and knowledge increases at high speed. Learning is the key to induce the necessary changes towards ecologically sound, economically balanced and politically stable societies that manage to create and maintain a culture of sustainability for the key areas mentioned, along with their citizens. It is the diversity of actors, including social movements, that will be effective to provide the necessary learning opportunities to that end.

Diversity of actors and institutions Adult learning provision is often characterized by decentralized structures, a multiplicity of organisations, institutions and actors, and a huge potential for building partnerships including the economy and social partners, and networking. This heterogeneous structure with the possibility of effective interaction be tween formal, non-formal and informal learning provision is often an asset regarding reaching population groups which are often difficult to reach. Effective support to civil society organisations is often helpful to provide orga nized learning for those most in need. Governmental structures alone will often not suffice to give appropriate sup port, although policy, legislation and core public funding are a prerequisite.

Investment in adult learning pays There are a good deal of statistics available showing the gain of adult learning in increasing productivity, gain in health care, in social cohesion.

High quality learning needs appropriate learning infrastructure and well qua lified personnel with reasonable salaries. Without sufficient provision of initial and continuing training of trainers and establishing ambitious professional standards, adult learning provision cannot meet the objectives of enhanced learning activity, especially regarding quality learning on all levels, including basic education. Experience shows that sustained efforts are necessary to reach those who lack satisfactory learning experiences, but helps to reduce opportunity cost substantially.


It is my understanding that many of my colleagues and friends, who have continuously participated in UNESCO’s regional and worldwide Conferences, would be grateful if those key elements mentioned before would be integrated into the final document which will give notice of European and North American solidarity within adult education.

A final document must pay attention, and here I repeat only some of the key words again, the following targets:

  • Lifelong Education and Learning for All
  • Reduction of youth and adult illiteracy
  • Strengthening non-formal and informal learning
  • Bridging vocational and general adult education
  • Contribute to employability and citizenship
  • Developing legal frames for adult education
  • New strategies for internal and external migration
  • Improvement of living standards by means of education
  • Fostering processes of nation-building within cultural diversities

All these targets must by centered towards the individual needs of youth and adults and must by carried out by agencies which are optimistically committed to their educational obligations.

Therefore we may have to agree on an additional, maybe most important mes sage: We need to move from rhetoric to action!

There is no scarcity of good ideas or good intentions, effective concepts are available. If we want to know what to do, we have all the opportunities to know better. And if we want to do it, we are in the right position to go beyond rhetoric. And the best time to start is now.

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.