Adult learning statistics

Data extracted in September 2018.

Planned article update: May 2019.


Among adults aged 25-64 in the EU in 2017, 10.9 % participated in education and training during the last four weeks.

Among adults aged 25-64 in the EU in 2016, 45.1 % participated in education and training during the last 12 months.

About 60 % of adults in the EU report participation in informal learning activities such as guided visits to museums or self-learning in 2016.

Participation rate in education and training (last 4 weeks), 2017

This article provides an overview of adult learning statistics in the European Union (EU), on the basis of data collected through the labour force survey (LFS), supplemented by the adult education survey (AES). Adult learning means the participation of adults aged 25-64 in education and training, also referred to as lifelong learning. For more information about this subject, please also see the article Adult learning statistics - characteristics of education and training.

In general, lifelong learning encompasses all purposeful learning activities, whether formal, non-formal or informal, undertaken on an ongoing basis with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competences. The intention or aim to learn is the critical point that distinguishes these activities from non-learning activities, such as cultural or sporting activities.

Full article

Participation rate of adults in learning in the last four weeks

The strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training adopted in May 2009 sets a number of benchmarks to be achieved by 2020, including one for adult participation in learning, namely that an average of at least 15 % of adults aged 25 to 64 years old should participate in lifelong learning. In 2017, the proportion of persons aged 25 to 64 in the EU-28 who participated in education or training was 10.9 %; a share that was 1.7 percentage points higher than the corresponding share for 2012 (see Table 1). The adult learning indicator refers to participation in formal and non-formal education and training and the reference period for the participation is the four weeks preceding the interview as is usual in the labour force survey.

Denmark, Sweden and Finland stood out from the other EU Member States as they reported considerably higher proportions of their respective adult populations participating in lifelong learning in the four weeks preceding the interview, ranging from over one quarter to almost one third. The Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, Estonia and Austria were the only other Member States where the participation rate in 2017 already exceeded the 15 % benchmark. By contrast, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia and Poland reported adult learning rates of 4.0 % or less.

The proportion of the population who had participated in adult learning was higher among women (11.8 % in 2017) in the EU-28 than among men (10.0 %); the shares for men and women were both higher in 2017 than they had been five years earlier.

In 2017, women recorded higher participation rates than men in all EU Member States except for Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Germany (where rates for men were higher). The largest gender differences, in percentage points, were in Sweden and Denmark, where the participation rates for women were at least 9 percentage points higher than for men.

Table 1: Adult participation in learning, 2012 and 2017 (1)
(% of the population aged 25 to 64 participating in formal and non-formal education and training in the last 4 weeks)
Source: Eurostat (trng_lfse_01)

Participation rate of adults in learning in the last 12 months

In addition to the data from the labour force survey which provides information on participation in education and training in the four weeks preceding the survey interview, information on education and training is available from the adult education survey (AES). The AES measures participation in learning activities with a longer reference period (12 months preceding the survey interview) and therefore is likely to cover more learning activities, resulting in higher participation rates in formal and non-formal education and training. However, it is carried out less frequently (every five years). The most recent wave of the survey was conducted between July 2016 and March 2017 (and named the 2016 AES). According to this survey, in 2016 45.1 % of people in the EU-28 aged 25 to 64 took part in education and training (during the 12 months preceding the interview), the majority of which participating in non-formal education and training (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Participation rate in education and training (last 4 weeks - 2017 - and last 12 months - 2016)
(% of persons aged 25-64)
Source: Eurostat (trng_lfse_01) and (trng_aes_100)

For the EU-28 as a whole, participation rates in education and training in the 12 months preceding the interview were almost the same for men and women. In Czechia, Italy, Cyprus and Hungary, men were considerably more likely than women to have participated in education and training, whereas the reverse was true in Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Sweden and Lithuania (see Table 2).

An analysis by age shows that the participation of younger persons (aged 25–34) in the EU-28 was nearly twice as high as that of older ones (aged 55–64) in 2016. Participation in education and training among older persons was particularly low in Romania and Greece.

The likelihood of participation in education and training was related to the level of educational achievement: persons with a tertiary level education reported the highest participation rates (65.7 % for the EU-28 in 2016), while those having completed at most lower secondary education were the least likely to have participated (24.0 %).

Table 2: Participation rate in education and training, 2016 (1)
(% of the population aged 25 to 64 participating in formal and non-formal education and training in the last 12 months)
Source: Eurostat (trng_aes_100), (trng_aes_101) and (trng_aes_102)

Providers of non-formal education and training activities

Employers were the most common providers of non-formal education and training activities, providing one third (33.9 %) of such activities in the EU-28 according to the 2016 adult education survey (see Table 3). Employers provided almost two thirds of non-formal education and training in Bulgaria, and three fifths of such activities in Hungary. Among the less common providers of non-formal education and training in the EU-28 as a whole, the relative importance of non-formal education and training institutions was particularly high in Poland (48.7 %) and Slovenia (36.7 %), formal education institutions were frequent providers in Lithuania and Finland, and commercial institutions (where education and training is not the main activity) in Sweden (see Table 3).

Table 3: Providers of non-formal education and training activities, 2016 (1)
(% share of all non-formal learning activities of adults aged 25–64)
Source: Eurostat (trng_aes_170)

Participation in informal learning activities

Next to information on participation in formal and non-formal education and training, the adult education survey also collects information on informal learning. Typical forms of informal learning are taught learning via coaching or guided visits to e.g. museums. Informal learning can also take place as non-taught learning, e.g. as self-learning or as learning in a group with friends or colleagues. In 2016, 60.5 % of adults aged 25-64 in the EU-28 reported participation in any informal learning in the 12 months preceding the interview (see Table 4). Participation in informal learning ranged from below 35 % in Lithuania and Poland to over 90 % in Croatia and Cyprus. In the majority of countries women were more likely than men to participate in this type of learning. Not very surprisingly, informal learning by using a computer (or similar devices) is reported to be the most frequent form of informal learning in most countries.

Table 4: Participation rate in informal learning by sex and learning form, 2016
(% of the population aged 25 to 64 participating in informal learning in the last 12 months)
Source: Eurostat (trng_aes_200)

Source data for tables and graphs

Data source

The target population for adult learning statistics refers to persons aged between 25 and 64 years. Data for adult participation in (formal and non-formal) education and training during the 4 weeks preceding to the interview are collected through the EU labour force survey (LFS). The denominator used for the ratios derived from LFS data consists of the total population of the same age group, excluding those who did not answer the questions concerning participation in (formal and non-formal) education and training.

Additional and more detailed information on adult learning is available from the adult education survey (AES). The AES covers adults’ participation in education and training (formal, non-formal and informal learning) and refers to any education and training in which respondents may have participated during the 12-month period preceding the interview. The AES is implemented in EU Member States, EFTA countries and candidate countries. Three waves of the AES have been implemented so far, in 2007, 2011 and 2016. The first was a pilot exercise and was carried out on a voluntary basis, while the 2011 and 2016 AES were underpinned by legal acts (Commission Regulation (EU) No 823/2010 and Commission Regulation (EU) No 1175/2014).


Key concepts

The fundamental criterion to distinguish learning activities from non-learning activities is that the activity must be intentional (and not by chance — ‘random learning’), in other words, a deliberate search for knowledge, skills, competences or attitudes.

Learning activities may be defined through a classification which provides operationalization and guidelines in particular for non-formal education and training - named classification of learning activities (CLA) - as follows:

  • Formal education and training is defined as ‘education that is institutionalised, intentional and planned through public organisations and recognised private bodies and — in their totality — constitute the formal education system of a country’ [1];
  • Non-formal education and training is defined as any organised and sustained learning activities outside the formal education system. The CLA further distinguishes the following broad categories of non-formal education:
    • non-formal programmes;
    • courses (which are further distinguished into classroom instruction, private lessons and combined theoretical-practical courses including workshops);
    • guided-on-the-job training.

Non-formal education therefore takes place both within and outside educational institutions and may cater for people of all ages. It covers educational programmes and training to impart literacy, life skills, work skills, and general culture.

  • Informal learning is less organised and less structured. It may include learning events that occur in the family, in the workplace, and in the daily life of every person, for example, coaching/informal tuition, guided visits, self-learning, learning groups or practice. Note that only the AES collects information on informal learning.

Tables in this article use the following notation:

  • Value in italics: data value is forecasted, provisional or estimated and is therefore likely to change;
  • ':' not available, confidential or unreliable value.


Lifelong learning can take place in a variety of environments, both inside and outside formal education and training systems. Lifelong learning implies investing in people and knowledge; promoting the acquisition of basic skills, including digital literacy and broadening opportunities for innovative, more flexible forms of learning. The aim is to provide people of all ages with equal and open access to high-quality learning opportunities, and to a variety of learning experiences.

The integrated economic and employment guidelines were revised as part of the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Guideline 8 concerns developing a skilled workforce responding to labour market needs, and promoting job quality and lifelong learning.

The Copenhagen process, established in 2002, lays out the basis for cooperation in vocational education and training (VET) between 33 European countries. The overall aim is to encourage more individuals to make wider use of vocational learning opportunities, whether at school, in higher education, in the workplace, or through private courses. The actions and tools developed as part of the process aim to allow users to link and build on learning acquired at various times, in both formal and non-formal contexts.

In June 2010, the European Commission presented a 10-year vision for the future of vocational education and training in a Communication titled ‘A new impetus for European cooperation in vocational education and training to support the Europe 2020 strategy’ (COM(2010) 296 final). In December 2010, in Bruges (Belgium) the priorities for the Copenhagen process for 2011 to 2020 were set, establishing a vision for vocational education and training to be reached by the year 2020: attractive and inclusive VET; high quality initial VET; easily accessible and career-oriented continuing VET; flexible systems of VET based on a learning outcomes approach which cater for the validation of non-formal and informal learning; a European education and training area; substantially increased opportunities for transnational mobility; easily accessible and high-quality lifelong information, guidance and counselling services. Based on this vision a total of 11 strategic objectives were set for the period between 2011 and 2020 as well as 22 short-term deliverables for the first four years.

The economic crisis, the need for new skills and the demographic changes facing Europe have highlighted the role that adult learning may play in lifelong learning strategies, contributing towards policies that seek to boost competitiveness, employability, social inclusion and active citizenship: a framework for education and training (ET 2020).

An analysis of adult education and training in Europe is available in a report produced by the European Commission and the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency.

There are a number of initiatives to enhance the transparency, recognition and quality of competences and qualifications, facilitating the mobility of learners and workers. These include the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), Europass, the European Credit System for VET (ECVET), and the European Quality Assurance Reference Framework for VET (EQAVET).

The launch of the EQF aims to help employers and individuals compare qualifications across the EU’s diverse education and training systems: it encourages countries to relate their national qualifications systems to the EQF so that all new qualifications issued from 2012 carry a reference to an appropriate EQF level. The EQF also represents a shift in European education as it is based on an approach which takes into account learning outcomes rather than the resources which are put into learning. In other words, it is a framework based on what learners are actually able to do at the end of a course of education, rather than where the learning took place and how long it took.


The EU’s programme for education, training, youth and sport, referred to as ‘Erasmus+’, was adopted in December 2013. This programme covers the period 2014–20 and has an overall budget of EUR 14.7 billion. Erasmus+ replaces (and integrates) several programmes, including the Leonardo da Vinci programme which provided support in the fields of vocational education and training, and the Grundtvig programme which provided adults with ways of improving their knowledge and skills. Erasmus+ activities in the field of vocational education and training provide opportunities for vocational students, trainees and apprentices to undertake placements abroad, as well as providing opportunities for staff to undertake professional development activities. In this field Erasmus+ also provides opportunities for cooperation between institutions and with business, for example to design and deliver curricula to meet the needs of the labour market. Erasmus+ activities in the area of adult learning offer opportunities for the exchange of staff, cooperation between institutions and organisations and with business, and support the platform for adult learning in Europe.

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  1. International Standard Classification of Education 2011, paragraph 36, page 11.