Gina Ebner/Michael Samlowski

47 countries with 800 million inhabitants are members of the Council of Europe. Together, they make Europe a region with extremely diverse history, many languages and disparate cultural and economic development. This diversity also becomes apparent in their extremely heterogeneous educational systems which sometimes differ even within the borders of individual countries. The history of the European Association for the Education of Adults, however, shows that even with such disparities there are common interests that can best be tackled by joined efforts. Gina Ebner is EAEA’s general secretary. From 1998 to 2004 Michael Samlowski served as one of EAEA’s vice-presidents on behalf of the German Adult Education Association (DVV).

The European Dimension of Adult Education in Practice – the European Association for Education of Adults (EAEA)


“The EAEA promotes adult learning and the widening of access and participation in formal and non-formal Adult Education for all, particularly for groups currently under-represented. The purposes of learning may be competence development for personal fulfilment and in employment related fields; for social change and active citizenship; for sustainable development and gender mainstreaming; for cultural and intercultural awareness and knowledge.”
(Motto of the EAEA)

Adult education is not an invention of our time. It reaches back into centuries of european educational traditions and social movements. therefore it was not previously, nor is it today, the result of encapsulated nation-state thinking that doesn’t take into account developments outside its own borders, nor does it reject compatibility with the character and thinking of the respective national community or state, but rather it has always grown through cross-border intellectual dialogue and built on the further development of ideas, insights and actions which were usefully available in the european dimension.

This contribution does not intend to deepen or refine this basic message, but rather regards it as proven and, by the way, as a logical consequence of the history of intellectual development in europe. It was actually always international and multicultural. the greeks used the knowledge of the egyptians, the romans used that of the greeks, the germans used that of the romans; the german Minnesang1 was based on the songs of the French troubadours; canaletto, the Italian, painted the most beautiful views of dresden and warsaw; and an educational trip to Italy was a requirement both for goethe and for the english nobility. though trivial, it’s true: what is valid for general education is valid for Adult education as well.

The exchange of concepts and the practice of the organisation of further training and education was therefore always a requirement for all those who were ready to learn from the ideas and experiences of those beyond their own borders who had something to share that could bring others further along in their work. Because this initiative could not be left to the more-or-less sparsely equipped Adult education area alone, especially in the comparatively restricted postwar period, and given the modest incomes of the employees, it was reasonable and logical that a group of far-sighted adult educators from different countries, which included Helmut dolff from germany, Arthur Stock from Britain and Bob Schouten from Holland, founded a european association for Adult education in 1953, which was given the name european Bureau for Adult education, and whose headquarters was located in the city of Amersfoort in the netherlands.

This set the stage for international cooperation in the field of Adult education, for something which later became gladly referred to by the term networking. However, the form and content of this networking was very loose and rudimentary. the main interest at that time was to try, with Adult education, to overcome the limits of postwar europe, to promote mutual understanding and thus contribute to understanding between peoples. this was most likely to succeed if an international exchange of technical knowledge through colleagues was made possible. the association was only partially organised. Its statutes were not ordered according to regional or institutional representation. Individual memberships were not uncommon; national associations such as the DVV were as involved as federal state associations or individual Adult education centres. In other countries it was no different. especially in the netherlands and great Britain there was much interest in the new association, with a correspondingly large number of members. other regions, especially southern and eastern europe, were not even represented. For single large-scale planned activities there was usually sufficient government funding. Membership fees were collected largely through the principle of voluntary contribution. Accordingly, the activities were also informal. european Adult education conferences were

Each able to be organised in different places. otherwise, the office was a pool of more or less high-profile experts who met regularly and consulted and certainly brought about a lot of action in their countries. However the office was neither systematic nor powerful in the exercise of educational policy tasks. Its membership in the International council for Adult education was as similarly informal as its own founding and, incidentally, the IcAe itself.

This is said without too much criticism. the form of the organisation reflected the intentions of the members, and state funding for seminars and conferences was, up through the nineteen-eighties, also in the area of Adult education in many european countries, not difficult to achieve. In this respect, the association, in its structure and its operation, met the challenges of the times. For whoever wants to learn more about the history of the european Association for education of Adults they are invited to inform themselves further at the website:

With political conditions changing increasingly, the european office came under pressure to reform. However, changes in the structure of the organisation were an onerous process. what has to be mentioned first and foremost is the development in the european community that increasingly affected the sovereign political decisions of the member countries and, through the formulation of programs for which the union’s resources are used, dictated normative frameworks which, with the assertion of the subsidiarity principle of the individual member countries, were taken up, willy-nilly, even if they didn’t accord with their primary focus and weren’t consistent with their principles. the transnational educational policy which was formulated corresponded to an attempt by transnational Adult education institutions to react to it and to influence it where possible.

The other important element that was forcing change in the european Association was the fall of the socialist structures of society in the central and eastern european countries and the need to respond to this, also in the field of Adult education. In all these countries, further education faltered. the organisations that remained in the newly emerging landscape were heavily influenced by western models and pushed for contacts with western organisations.

From the beginning of the early nineteen-nineties it had become clear to the members of the european Bureau for Adult education that without a decisive turn toward the decision-making processes that were taking place in the relevant general directorships of the european commission, based on the requirements of the european Parliament and the council of Ministers, Adult education in europe would collapse. Standardisation and funding were being increasingly mandated through Brussels, as were the guidelines and conditions specified for the award of funds and setting of budgets for the european Social Fund and the sector programs with the fanciful names from ancient mythology and european cultural history like erasmus, eurydice, Minerva, Socrates, Leonardo, and what the carriers were to compete for in future and how their offerings had to be organised. the concentration of design and decision-making processes in Brussels was running in parallel with the process of the withdrawal of public funding from the traditional training offered in the individual countries and the opening of the further training market – the first mention of this terminology – for private and commercial providers, with a clearer focus on the vocational education sectors and with strong financial support from the respective labour authorities.

Brussels considered as redundant the holistic model of Adult education which the Adult education centres were holding on to in particular because of their convictions and their traditions. But not only that. For them there was no place in the thinking of the commission which was, at that time, strongly influenced by western and southern europeans. In the draft resolutions of the education policy of the european community the term “Adult Education” no longer appeared. It was here that the european Bureau for Adult education decided to start. For the first time the Adult education network demonstrated that, informal as it initially may have been, it could have an influence on education policy.

The association had, in the meantime, given itself the name by which it is currently known: the european Association for the education of Adults (eAeA). At any rate, the scope of this service was still quite manageable in the nineteen-nineties. the work of the association was mostly done by individual board members and had two main components: education-based and project-based.

An attempt was made, through a number of contacts with european parliamentarians, report writers, department directors, general directors and commissioners, and at the half-year european further training conferences held during the rotating eu presidency, not to limit the formation of education policy, in the terminology of the eu, to vocational training and retraining and to raise awareness and secure the right to access to education for all people in all areas of their choice and their needs. the first highlight of this effort was the Fifth world conference on Adult education of uneSco, held in 1997 under the title conFInteA V in Hamburg and where the slogan one Hour a day for Learning was adopted by more than one hundred governments as a policy guideline.

As a result, continuing education attained its own importance in the development programs of the eu. with the grundtvig action, a modest but independent direction was established for Adult education. In other eu programs as well, especially in the structural programme of the Social Fund, Adult education was accorded a role.

New developments show, however, that lobbying for the political security of Adult education must be a continuous process. In the commission’s proposal for erasmus for All – the planned successor to the Lifelong Learning programme – Adult education is reduced and envisioned as only a small sub-programme in a larger offer of vocational/educational training. In contrast to this, the eAeA is requesting an own area for Adult education, with the necessary means and visibility guaranteed. these requests were forwarded by the members to the ministries in the various member states and are currently being negotiated with members of the european Parliament. Further developments will show whether and how successfully the eAeA can implement its political demands.


EAEA staff from left ro right: Project Assistant Francesca Operti, Information Officer Aura Vuorenrinne, Secretary-General Gina Ebner, Policy Officer Ricarda Motschilnig and Office Manager Valentina Chanina.
Source: EAEA

The association acted as a mediator for eu-funded projects on a project-specific basis, each of which involved a number of member organisations, and in which it laid the foundations for partnerships which have now continued and been strengthened in new project constellations. the eAeA also coordinated some projects that are important both strategically and for education policy, such as, for example, the grundtvig network outreach empowerment diversity for education of migrants and ethnic minorities, or an accompanying measure of awareness campaigns for Adult education.

The EAEA, despite all the necessary focus on the european union, never succumbed to the temptation to be limited to eu member countries and limit their needs and thus to become a quasi-european organisation. this neither corresponded to its roots, which go back even before the founding of the european community, nor the interests of its members, many of whom come from countries that are not eu member states, nor to its mission to operate for the promotion of Adult education across europe. the working area of the association extends from Ireland and Portugal to russia, Israel and Azerbaijan. this clearly demonstrates the pan-european dimension; and one of the stated aims of the association’s work is the support for the coming together of all the countries in europe and in particular the integration of the parts which have been excluded for decades from the partnership.

The expansion of membership remains one of the major challenges for the eAeA: in Southern and eastern europe the association is still not well represented and because of the crisis in europe the participation of existing members has also become much more difficult. In the next few years the eAeA will pay special attention to those regions and try to promote cooperation in the regions through relevant projects.

The challenges regarding the work of the association have grown increasingly. education policy tasks, project management, consulting for the membership in various subject areas, expansion of membership, integration of the partners throughout europe, collection, transfer and dissemination of information, all of this is no longer possible with the tools the association used in previous decades, which depended much on the willingness of individuals to do volunteer work. consequently, the association revised its constitution in order to gain representation and legitimacy. In the general Assembly each country represented has the same number of votes. the ten to twelve board members must come from different countries. In this way the views of individual member countries are rigorously taken into account publicly, and through their national coordinating organisations are systematically worked back into those countries.

Above all, however, work on a voluntary basis was no longer possible. the association therefore made great efforts to build a professional structure with a full-time secretariat and a permanent office in Brussels. A great number of member organisations contributed substantially to assist the process. However, a full-time association representation in Brussels, which also requires technically competent staff, cannot be permanently maintained through membership fees and special services alone, especially in a sector that is constantly under-funded. In its strategy for the gradual development of an appropriate infrastructure, the association worked, through active participation in eu co-financing projects to earn the necessary additional funds. But even this could only bridge a transitional period. A decisive step forward was only taken when the eAeA was able to get institutional support for their association work from eu funds. then it was time to increase the efficiency and relevance of the association to such a degree that it was recognised by the eu as an important instrument for strengthening european Adult education, and thus continued institutional funding would be obtained. this was also associated with the risk of losing their own associational independence to some extent. Here, a fine line had to be trodden.

EAEA membership has grown steadily in recent years. this is due in part thanks to the growing participation of organisations and newly formed Adult education associations, especially in central and eastern european countries. Membership of EAEA was a good way to get in touch with organisations, mainly from the western and northern european countries, and learn about the different ways of supporting transnational, cross-border project activities and to find and set up appropriate partnerships. It was probably also helpful that the association could give the organisations advice and assistance, where the bureaucratic requirements that were associated with such projects were both unfamiliar and rather a deterrent.

On the other hand, it has obviously succeeded in convincing the members that the association is useful for them and their membership is therefore beneficial for them. especially through the development of erasmus for All, it was once again demonstrated to many members that continuous representation for Adult education at the european level is necessary. Included in this is regular information about these developments through their website as well as through a newsletter and personal messages. Annual conferences on current topics enable participants to exchange experiences and practices, but also the possibility to formulate educational policy recommendations at the european level. requests for collaboration in the network, as well as dissemination activities are easy to carry out through the large eAeA network. Various other events provide eAeA members the opportunity to participate in the work in europe: important initiatives like a grundtvig training course for young Adult education teachers or a workshop for members outside the eu, as well as events in the european Parliament or the grundtvig Prize which the eAeA awards each year to an innovative european and non-european project.

Moreover, an EAEA member is in various networks and platforms that support the work of the EAEA in a broader sense. thus, the association is a founding member of EUCIS-LLL, the european civil society platform for Lifelong Learning, which brings together the most important organisations in the education sector. the important role of Adult education is emphasised here through eAeA chairmanship. other memberships concern the social platform and the platform of development organisations (concord), the Access to culture platform and the platform for multilingualism. through these memberships and cooperations the association increases the visibility of Adult education and establishes contacts with neighbouring areas.

Above all

  • It takes care of international cooperation among its member organisations
  • It campaigns with international organisations, and particularly with the european union, for the drawing up of plans, programmes and political regulations that meet the educational needs of the adult population in europe
  • It develops international education strategies for Adult Education
  • It is in constant contact with the european commission, the european Parliament, the uneSco Institute for Lifelong

Office in Helsinki (Information and Communication) Main office in Brussels
Source: EAEA
Source: EAEA

Main office in Brussels
Source: EAEA





Learning UIL, with UNESCO and the others and seeks to advance policies and measures that can improve the situation of Adult education in europe.

What is especially noteworthy, however, in addition to all these and other such services that the association makes available to its members, is its educational role. the EAEA is viewed by the main european body for the formulation of educational policy requirements, the directorate general for education and culture, as a critical interlocutor representing a substantial part of european educational institutions. In this manner, the EAEA made major contributions to the emergence and development of the Action Plan for Adult education of the european commission It is never too late to learn2 and to the new european agenda that followed. the association plays a key role in the accompanying bodies – and in the working groups on quality and funding which run in parallel – as representatives of civil society and of the providers in this area. the EAEA is constantly working to strengthen its educational policy influence. regular contacts with the european commission, the european Parliament and other institutions (such as the economic and Social committee), and especially at the leadership level (the EAEA board met both the education commissioner Figel and his successor, commissioner Vassiliou) have established the EAEA as an important association in the area of education.

The larger the membership of EAEA becomes, the more critical is another question that has been raised: How can the organisation ensure that its members are involved from the onset in decisions on the design and the implementation of its programme of work? It can barely be enough to consult the members at the annual general meeting for a few hours on an action plan that has been prepared by the Board. How can it be ensured that the dialogue between the Secretariat and Board on the one hand and the members on the other will work in both directions? In the long run, members will only be able to identify with their association and to support it if they are sure that it knows and represents their interests. the EAEA board has therefore put a special focus on the topic membership. In a survey, and as a result of a working group during the general Assembly, the concerns and recommendations were collected and analysed, which should further facilitate communication with members and improve the work of the association.

The international work will also remain a fundamental issue for the EAEA: from participation in CONFINtEA to representation on the board of the ICAE, the association operates in an international context. A special focus is lobbying for Adult education for development at the eu level. In december, the EAEA, together with the ICAE, will hold a workshop on this subject in Brussels.


1 the name derives from the word minne, Middle High german for love which was their main subject.

Adult Education and Development


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