/epale/en/file/inequalities-and-adult-learningInequalities and adult learning
Adult learning is widely considered a tool for social inclusion, but EPALE Thematic Coordinator Simon Broek shares an alternative opinion – that if not implemented correctly, adult learning can actually contribute to inequalities.
Over the last decades, in many (European-level) policy documents, adult learning has been recognised as an opportunity for a second chance, as a way to solve skill gaps, inequalities and unequal opportunities between different groups of adults. Also, according to the Upskilling Pathways initiative:
Close to 70 million Europeans struggle with basic reading and writing, calculation, using digital tools in everyday life. Without these skills, they are at higher risk of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion.
Upskilling Pathways aims to help adults to acquire a minimum level of literacy, numeracy and digital skills and/or acquire a broader set of skills by progressing towards an upper secondary qualification or equivalent (level 3 or 4 in the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), depending on national circumstances).
Adult learning increases inequalities?
There is however, another perspective on the role of adult learning in relation to inequalities, namely – that it actually increases them. Let us explore this further.
Many studies have affirmed that levels of educational attainment have an effect on adult participation. People, who have completed at least upper secondary education, are three times more likely to participate in adult learning. This is referred to as the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage: those who have opportunities gain more of them, while those who do not have opportunities are deadlocked.
The case of automation
The OECD conducted an analysis on the share of jobs that are potentially at risk of automation:
- 15% of jobs could be done by computers and machines
- 30% of jobs face at significant risk of potentially becoming fully automated.
This seems alarming, but it is not unusual – workers have always adapted and will continue to do so.
To be able to adapt, workers need to be equipped with the right skill sets and here lies the problem of adult learning increasing inequalities.
The OECD analysis (done on the basis of PIAAC) shows that automation is more likely to cause further polarisation of the labour market than mass unemployment. Those who do not have the skills and competences to get higher level jobs, will have less opportunities to progress in their career and life.
We all know that low-qualified adults participate less in training compared to those who are highly qualified. In addition, SMEs provide less training to employees than larger firms. With this in mind, training possibilities for the low-qualified tend to widen the polarisation instead of solving it. This is also due to the fact that it is more cost-effective for employers to invest in already trained people than to train staff from scratch.
How do we ensure that new policies are part of the solution and not the problem? This is a question that national policymakers and adult learning stakeholders need to answer when designing their Upskilling Pathways approach. But there are other questions that they need to consider, such as:
- How accessible is adult learning for all adults? What are the barriers for learners to start a learning pathway?
- How are those in need of learning encouraged to learn? What support structures are in place for disadvantaged learners?
- How effective are outreach policies in reaching out to those who need learning the most?
- To what extent is learning tailored to the needs of those who need it the most?
To conclude, the objective of Upskilling Pathways is to provide all adults with opportunities for upskilling; however this means that policies need to target groups that are difficult to reach and engage, which is a costly process with uncertain results. This is why we need to challenge policies not to settle for harvesting only the low-hanging fruit, but also to reach out a bit further to establish systems in which adult learning is indeed the solution for inequalities.
Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.