The International Conference on Adult Education, a UNESCO-led intergovernmental conference, is an important platform for policy dialogue, as well as for related research and advocacy in the development of youth and adult learning and education (ALE). The first International Conference on Adult Learning and Education took place in Helsingør (Denmark) in 1949, followed by Montreal in 1960, Tokyo in 1972, Paris in 1985, Hamburg in 1997, and most recently Belém (Brazil) in 2009. The next Conference is scheduled for 2022 in Morocco. Since 1997, the abbreviation “CONFINTEA” has been widely used for this Conference, derived from the French expression “CONFérence INTernationale sur l’Education des Adultes”.
Experts on adult learning and education (ALE) from UNESCO Member States meet at CONFINTEA to discuss the further development of ALE, and to decide on the steps to appropriately promote ALE. Finally, they adopt a series of recommendations that Member States should implement in the years to come in order to achieve that goal. As a rule, these recommendations are then also adopted by the next UNESCO General Conference (held every two years), so that they become valid for all Member States.
CONFINTEA VI led in 2009 to the adoption of the Belém Framework for Action (BFA), which recognises the critical role played by lifelong learning in addressing global educational issues and challenges. The BFA recommended the regular publication of the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE), with the aim in mind of establishing a basis for future CONFINTEA debates and monitoring countries’ progress in implementing the BFA. Four issues of GRALE have been published in the period up to 2020. GRALE 5 is expected to be launched in CONFINTEA VII in June 2022. Furthermore, a CONFINTEA mid-term review conference has been organised since CONFINTEA V.
One of the fundamental conditions for UNESCO’s work is that it is to form an integral part of the work of the United Nations as a whole. In this respect, UNESCO supports its Member States in implementing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN in 2015 to overcome poverty worldwide by 2030. It specifically helps to implement the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) on education through the Member States’ education systems. SDG 4 aims to provide all people with high-quality, inclusive and equitable education, and to provide opportunities for lifelong learning.
Some general trends are currently characteristic of adult education from an international perspective, or will come to characterise it in the near future, in particular in view of the next International Conference on Adult Education, to be held in 2022.
1. ALE to be recognised as an integral part of national education provision
A common thread running through the entire history of CONFINTEA is to help policy-makers understand ALE as part of Member States’ education provision, and to make it accessible to all potential learners as far as possible. Member States are intended to take measures to ensure such broad recognition of ALE, with regard to both its past and future achievements!
2. Adult literacy and basic education remain a key priority
With over 750 million adults worldwide who do not have sufficient reading, writing and numeracy skills, the promotion of appropriate educational work will remain a central point of ALE development in all the Member States. The States have made corresponding demands since the first International Conference, and there will undoubtedly be a need to continue these efforts.
3. The role and contribution of ALE in dealing with COVID 19
Since the 1980s, ALE has proven to be an indispensable instrument in addressing HIV/AIDS, with its devastating effects in industrialised and specifically in developing countries. The COVID 19 pandemic represents another challenge with unprecedented implications on local, national, regional and global levels. While we cannot possibly foresee even a fraction of its consequences at present, COVID 19 will certainly play a substantial role in the conference debates, as well as during the preparatory process.
4. Using the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs)
Adult education work materialises in programmes, courses, seminars, events and workshops by using means and materials that are suited to controlling and supporting organised learning processes in a targeted and participatory approach. The Internet and the digital world facilitate access to knowledge and information, and can therefore be regarded as a well-known resource in the interest of improving educational equity, also and particularly in support of traditionally disadvantaged groups, offering many advantages over traditional programmes, e.g. the possibility of more flexible time management. Great hopes attach to the use of ICTs for educational work, especially in developing countries. The challenge is however to reduce the digital divide by widening access and improving the quality of digital media for everyone.
5. Citizenship education in the context of globalisation
ALE uses citizenship education to strengthen learners’ engagement in society, both local and global, thus enabling them to address fundamental threats such as inequality, poverty, climate change, cybercrime and the rise of populist politics. Global citizenship education (GCED) sees itself as “political education on a global scale”, and its approach often relates closely to the concept of sustainability to which it is committed. From the perspective of UNESCO, GCED should certainly form a central component of formal and non-formal educational work, especially in order to enhance the community as a social concern, and to counteract opposing tendencies such as nationalism, but also xenophobia, homophobia or the tendency to search for overly simplistic solutions to complex problems.
6. ALE as a driver of sustainable development
Overall, ALE will ultimately face the challenge of keeping a promise that was made some time ago, and which can be summed up as the ability to genuinely promote sustainable development. This approach forms part of the basic toolkit of adult education from an international perspective, and represents a conviction that has been cultivated for many years. According to this conviction, sustainable development is only possible if citizens have the appropriate abilities, skills and competencies, in other words are able to implement the relevant concepts in practice. Thus, if they become real players in sustainable development, ALE will be the driving force for sustainability.
The next International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII, Morocco, 2022) will deal extensively with this demand, and will attempt to provide appropriate evidence. “Adult education in the service of the global community” will most probably be the key message.