Inclusion and diversity: Setting the agenda

From left to right:

Heribert Hinzen
Leibniz University Hanover

Steffi Robak
Leibniz University Hanover

 – Inclusion and diversity frequently form the starting point for much of the inter­national work in adult education. They have found their way into many central documents and global reform processes. This article charts  a map of the most important events, thought processes and ideas guiding adult education ­towards a more inclusive and diverse world. It is important for us to follow up on the global commitments and to find out what they mean for people on the local level.

“How can societies face the diversity ­of people and accept not only their ­similarities but also their dissimilarities?”

Key issues and questions 

Making statements and proclamations in support of an inclusive approach in adult education is easy. Responding to some of the tough questions is not. How can societies face the diversity of people and accept not only their similarities but also their dissimilarities? How to deal with different interpretations, prejudices, judgments and experiences towards the different aspects of diversity? How to solve problems of discrimination on grounds of gender, age, ethnic, racial and religious discrimination? How to deal with xenophobia? How to enable all groups of people to participate in society and education? What are suitable concepts and how can in­clusive educational systems be shaped so as to contribute to making societies inclusive? How to design learning approaches, programmes and institutions to shape inclusive systems? 

Discourses on diversity and inclusion come from a variety of sources, but they should be discussed together. They are two sides of the same coin. Inclusion in a lifelong perspective can only be realised by developing diversity as a part of inclusive education. Combining the two perspectives of diversity and inclusion meets the demands of inclusive societies in a globalised world.

A rights-based approach

It makes a lot of sense to start with the most basic document – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 2 reads as follows: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (UN 1948). Here we have both, the acceptance of diversity, as well as the need for and the right to inclusion as the opposite of any sort of exclusion.

And later, in Article 26: “1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages […] 2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” (ibid.). It is not only the right of the child to schooling, in today’s world it may be better interpreted as the right of all people to lifelong learning.

The global agendas

Currently we relate everything to the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals that were proclaimed by the United Nations (UN) at their Summit in September 2015.1 These are substantial in orientation and very important politically for the advocacy agendas of civil society as they have been signed off on by all our governments as a commitment for the period up to the year 2030. However, when we look at diversity and inclusion, it makes sense to relate further back to some of the earlier and very intense and long-lasting discussions and struggles over inequality of opportunities, disadvantages, discrimination and stigmatisation.

Major global conferences paved the way for deepening the debates and preparing for change. Many will recall the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, which established the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It declared that “Women’s rights are human rights”, and the strategic objectives include the following:

  • “Advance the goal of equal access to education by taking measures to eliminate discrimination in education at all levels on the basis of gender, race, language, religion, national origin, age or disability, or any other form of discrimination.”
  • “Create flexible education, training and retraining programmes for life-long learning that facilitate transitions between women’s activities at all stages of their lives.” (UN 1995)

Less is perhaps known about the impact of two other groundbreaking global commitments:

The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (UNESCO 1994) emerged from a separate UNESCO conference in 1994. “The trend in social policy during the past two decades has been to promote integration and participation and to combat exclusion. Inclusion and participation are essential to human dignity and to the enjoyment and exercise of human rights. Within the field of education, this is reflected in the development of strategies that seek to bring about a genuine equalization of opportunity.” 

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities from the UN in 2006 states in its preamble: “Concerned about the difficult conditions faced by persons with disabilities who are subject to multiple or aggravated forms of discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic, indigenous or social origin, property, birth, age or other status [...]”. Article 24 on Education states: “[…] States Parties shall ensure that [...] persons with disabilities are able to access general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination and on an equal basis with others.” (UN 2006)


© Nhung Le

Looking for the GEMs

Two major global conferences took place in 2000: The World Education Forum adopted six goals to achieve Education for All (EFA)2, and the UN Summit set itself eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that were to be reached by 20153. An EFA Global Monitoring Report was established to report on achievements yearly. It became clear in the process that most of the goals could not be reached during the time set, and new strategic thinking advanced towards Post 2015, when the 2030 Education Agenda would be fully included in what is now referred to as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).4

The word “inclusive” features prominently in the seventeen SDGs, and it has even found its way into the wording of ­several of them:

4. Quality Education – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

8. Decent Work and Economic Growth – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

9.Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation

11.Sustainable Cities and Communities – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

16.Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions – Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions on all levels 

The following are also highly important and closely related:

5.Gender Equality – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

10. Reduced Inequalities – Reduce inequality within and among countries

The new Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM) will be a key instrument to follow up on achievements. The aspect of inclusion is already a key indicator for progress in its edition for 2016, and the 2018 version will address migration.5

The Collective Consultation of NGOs (CCNGO) for Education 2030 met in Cambodia recently for their first global meeting on the implementation of the SDGs, and on Goal 4 in particular. They stated in their final declaration: “Inclusion and gender equality remain at the heart of the 2030 Agenda. We call on governments to step up their efforts to ensure inclusive education, in particular paying attention to gender equality, disability, migrants and refugees, respect for diversity, including human rights for LGBTQI, by addressing discriminatory policy and practice, access, curriculum, learning and teaching processes.” (CCNGO 2017)

It has often been said that education and lifelong learning are cross-cutting issues for the successful implementation of all the SDGs. Another important component relates to teaching and learning, at all levels and ages, about the SDGs as a special support towards its implementation. Here UNESCO has just published a very helpful resource book entitled Education for Sustainable Development Goals. Learning Objectives. It includes ideas and suggestions on key competences; cognitive, socio-emotional behavioural learning objectives; topics, approaches and methods. (UNESCO 2017)

Diversity – diversity education 

Diversity has different approaches in the educational subdisciplines (Baader 2013; Vertovec 2015). We can state that, for adults and lifelong learning in adult and continuing education, diversity forms an individual configuration like an individual signature in a third social space. Part of this space is the connection between the individual and the lifeworld. The habitus is also part of the signature as a result of socialisation. The structural core within the signature is formed by diversity aspects such as gender, age, generation, social background, social milieu, qualification background, religion and capabilities. These aspects form part of the habitus which constitutes the final shape of diversity configurations (Robak 2013).

The other sub-disciplines emphasise different aspects, but they all agree that diversity education is to be conceptualised in two directions: On the one side, diversity education counteracts inequality, and on the other side it supports and empowers the individual to create his or her competences, interests, capabilities and personality. 

Inclusion – inclusive education – inclusive societies? 

Inclusion can be one answer to shape inclusive societies, recognising diversity and care for the opportunities and challenges of a globalised world. Different perspectives of inclusion will be shown below from an educational perspective. All of these form an integrated conceptualisation for inclusive education: 

1. One approach comes directly from the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Inclusion addresses persons with physical and mental disabilities, and disabilities that occur because of stigmatisation processes. This approach of inclusive education aims to enable them to participate more in society and to enhance their participation behaviour in education. Monitoring data show that not only disabilities, but also factors such as health, employment and basic qualification background, are crucial to partaking of an inclusive society (Schmidt-Hertha, Tippelt 2013). 

“We have evidence regarding the positive relationship between qualification background, political initiatives to promote gender equality and increasing the participation of women in work, politics and cultural life.”

2.Inclusive education as a strategy to counter exclusion and inequality, and as a strategy for supporting access to education and participation. Selection processes start at school and, unfortunately, also continue in the field of adult and continuing education. Lifelong learning in the adult and continuing education sector not only aims to counteract selection processes that restrict opportunities in all areas of everyday life. It also aims to support learning opportunities in general, vocational and civic education that broaden possibilities to participate in society, and to develop one’s personality and create identity. Excluding mechanisms and inequality occur more often to certain groups, and these therefore form specific target groups addressed by special educational programmes, such as illiterate persons, people with a migrant background and the long-term unemployed (Kronauer 2010).

We have evidence regarding the positive relationship between qualification background, political initiatives to promote gender equality and increasing the participation of women in work, politics and cultural life (Cornelißen 2005). But in many cases, there is no single factor that determines exclusion. Lower educational participation is also formed by different aspects such as gender, age, employment and position. These aspects can form a configuration promoting or hindering participation. For example, persons with a migrant background are often among those with fewer qualifications, in unskilled work and with poor language skills, and this might result in a low level of participation in education. At the same time, there are many examples and data which provide evidence that well-educated persons with a migrant background are also highly successful in education and work, and that they indeed participate in learning activities and education (Leven et al. 2013). 

Organisations such as community education centres are able to design programmes and projects by seeking to identify people’s needs, demands and interests, and transferring them into offers and projects. These institutions are responsible partners and know how to professionally address and motivate the population in specific regions to participate in education and learning activities. One case study shows how community education centres design programmes in arts education such as theatre classes for migrants. It has been revealed that these motivated participants to also attend more classes in other areas of study such as basic education and vocational education. Classes in arts education formed an entry point for greater participation in education (Käpplinger et al. (eds.) 2017).

“We need more fruitful concepts on inclusive organisations and diversity-sensitive educational settings.”

3.Recognising and integrating diversity as a principle for inclusive education. Integrating diversity cannot stop at research and concepts relating to single aspects and categories such as gender, age or migrant background. It is crucial to broaden the perspective on combinations of diversity formations that a single person or groups of individuals can reach through socialisation, educational and working experiences. Gender Mainstreaming and Diversity Management have formed appropriate entry points to bring the topic of gender equality into the institutions and to foster individuals’ diversity in organisations and enterprises. Furthermore, it will be necessary to gain a better understanding of individuals’ learning und participation barriers, motivations, interests and emotional preconditions. But we need more fruitful concepts on inclusive organisations and diversity-sensitive educational settings. 

4.Sustainable development as a key aspect in inclusive education. In order to save the planet and the environment, diversity should also include the notion and consciousness of biodiversity regarding the diversity of living beings, organisms and plants. Knowledge and attitudes towards these existential conditions are perceived and treated differently in different countries. Recognising these diverse formations opens up possibilities to think about educational concepts that allow competence development, whilst at the same time fostering emancipation and creating identity. There are several challenges for research and programme development, e.g.: how to teach and discuss values, norms and practices in a way that suits democratic requirements in countries where there is no democratic debate. 

Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice

“Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice”. This is a message from Zabeen Hirji, the Chief Human Resources Officer to the 2015 Diversity and Inclusion Report of the Royal Bank of Canada. She argued: “Diversity goes well beyond basic definitions and meeting legal requirements. Having diversity is just one part of the story; how well that diversity works together is the key. Our approach includes fostering inclusion, leveraging diversity of thought and the principles of human equity. This is looking at a person as a whole – not just their education, physical characteristics, cultural background or work experience, but how all the elements work together” (RBC 2016).

In other parts of the same report, we found two more insights:

  • “In fact recent studies show that companies with more diversity – whether defined by gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other dimensions – are more likely to have a competitive advantage over less-diverse companies.”
  • “RBC has several PRIDE Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) in Canada and internationally. PRIDE stands for Proud RBC Individuals for Diversity and Equality. These groups help create a positive work environment, inclusive of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered and allied employees to drive engagement, retention, attraction and recruitment of talent.”

Civil society does not always find it easy to engage with the corporate sector. When it comes to aid in education and ­development, however, there are increasing claims for public-private partnerships. Therefore, it seems to be important to look at companies’ concepts and practices in all respects.

The next steps

Developing and supporting diversity as a part of inclusion and implementing inclusive education demands a four-level approach: 

Policy and financing: The desire to develop and form an inclusive system with publicly-financed organisations and professional staff who are authorised to develop inclusive educational programmes.

Organisation and programmes: The organisations need their own concepts on diversity and inclusion that suits the region and the local people. The staff who are responsible for planning processes should be able to analyse the demands and needs within the perspective of inclusion and diversity. 

Research and theory: The scientific community (educational science) has to establish a theoretical foundation and carry out empirical research regarding the configurations of diversity, mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion and learning processes.

Professional staff for planning and teaching: The staff need to be qualified in all aspects of diversity and inclusion in combination with professional planning processes and the necessary knowledge resources (Fleige et al. 2014).


1 / More on the Sustainable Development Goals at

2 / More information at

3 / More information at

4 / See for example the Education 2030 Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action at

5 / More information at


Baader, M. (2013): Diversity Education in den Erziehungswissenschaften. “Diversity” as a buzzword. In: Hauenschild, K., Robak, S. & Sievers, I. (eds.) (2013): Diversity Education. Zugänge – Perspektiven – Beispiele. Frankfurt a. M.: Brandes & Apsel, 38–60.

CCNGO (2017): Collective Consultation of NGOs (CCNGO) for Education 2030. Implementing SDG4-Education 2030. Global meeting declaration. 

Cornelißen, W. (2005): Gender-Datenreport. 1. Datenreport zur Gleichstellung von Frauen und Männern in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland im Auftrag des Bundesministeriums für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend.

Fleige, M.; Zimmer, V.; Lücker, L.; Thom, S. (2014): Diversität und Weiterbildung. Expertise im Auftrag der Kommunen Bremen und Bremerhaven. Bonn. 

Käpplinger, B.; Robak, S.; Fleige, M.; Hippel v., A.; Gieseke, W. (eds.) (2017): Cultures of Program Planning in Adult Education. Concepts, Research Results and Archives. In: Studies in Pedagogy, Andragogy, and Gerontagogy. Volume 70. Frankfurt (Main): Peter Lang.

Kronauer, M. (ed.) (2010): Inklusion und Weiterbildung. Reflexionen zur gesellschaftlichen Teilhabe in der Gegenwart. Bielefeld: Bertelsmann.

Leven, I.; Bilger, F.; Strauß; A.; Hartmann, J. (2013): Weiterbildungs­trends in verschiedenen Bevölkerungsgruppen. In: Bilger, F.; Gnahs, D.; Hartmann, J.; Kuper, H. (eds.): Weiterbildungsverhalten in Deutschland. Resultate des Adult Education Survey 2012. Munich: Bertelsmann.

RBC (2016): 2015 Diversity and Inclusion Report of the Royal Bank of ­Canada, 3. [For future aims see also RBC (2016): Diversity & Inclusion. Blueprint 2020]

Robak, S. (2013): Diversität in der Erwachsenenbildung(sforschung) im Spiegel theoretischer und empirischer Reflexionen - eine Standortdiskussion. In: Hauenschild, K.; Robak, S.; Sievers, I. (eds.) (2013): Diversity Education. Zugänge – Perspektive – Beispiele. Frankfurt (Main): Brandes & Apsel., 183-203.

Schmidt-Hertha, B.; Tippelt, R. (2013): Inklusion in der Weiterbildung. In: Döbert, H.; Weishaupt, H. (eds.): Inklusive Bildung professionell gestalten. Münster, 241–262.

UN (1948): Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

UN (1995): Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. [More information at

UN (2006): Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. [More information at]

UN (2015): Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UNESCO (1994): The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education. 

UNESCO (2017): Education for Sustainable Development Goals. Learning Objectives. Paris.

Vertovec, S. (2015): Introduction: formulating diversity studies. In: Vertovec, S. (ed.) (2015): Routledge International handbook of diversity studies. Routledge: London, 1-20.

About the authors

Heribert Hinzen, Prof.(H) Dr., earned his doctorate with a thesis on Adult Education in Tanzania at the University of Heidelberg, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Pécs. He worked for DVV International from 1977– 2015 in Bonn, Sierra Leone, Hungary and Laos. He lectures at several universities. He previously served as Vice-President of ICAE and EAEA. 


Steffi Robak, Prof. Dr., is a professor of Adult Education and Diversity Education at Leibniz University in Hanover. At the Institute for Vocational Education and Adult Education, she focuses on intercultural education and international education research in areas such as education management and professionalisation in adult education.


About the author

Thomas Kuan is the founder of the U 3rd Age, a non-profit organisation in Singapore. He is Secretary-General (and incoming President) of East Asia Federation for Adult Education (EAFAE) and a member of the virtual Universities of Third Age-Asia Pacific Alliance (U3A-APA).


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