Adult learning statistics

Data extracted in June 2017. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: October 2018.
Table 1: Adult participation in lifelong learning, 2011 and 2016 (1)
(% of the population aged 25 to 64 participating in education and training)
Source: Eurostat (trng_lfs_01)
Table 2: Participation rate in education and training, 2011 (1)
Source: Eurostat (trng_aes_100), (trng_aes_101) and (trng_aes_102)
Table 3: Obstacles to participation in education and training, 2011 (1)
Source: Eurostat (trng_aes_176)
Table 4: Providers of non-formal education and training activities, 2011 (1)
Source: Eurostat (trng_aes_170)

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 lifelong learning.

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

Main statistical findings

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 2016, the proportion of persons aged 25 to 64 in the EU-28 who participated in education or training was 10.8 %; a share that was 1.7 percentage points higher than the corresponding share for 2011 (see Table 1). The reference period for the participation in (formal and non-formal) education and training 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 one quarter to one third. The Netherlands, France, Luxembourg and Estonia were the only other Member States where the participation rate in 2016 already exceeded the 15 % benchmark. By contrast, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, Poland and Greece reported adult learning rates of 4.0 % or less.

The proportion of the population who had participated in adult learning was higher among women (11.7 % in 2016) in the EU-28 than among men (9.8 %); the shares for men and women were both higher in 2016 than they had been five years earlier.

In 2016, women recorded higher participation rates than men in all EU Member States except for Croatia and Germany (where rates for men were higher) as well as Greece and Romania (where the rates for men and women were the same). The largest gender differences, in percentage points, were in Sweden and Denmark, where the participation rates for women were at least 10 percentage points higher than for men.

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 education and training 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. However, it is carried out less frequently (every five years). The most recent wave of the survey was conducted between July 2011 and June 2012 (and named the 2011 AES). According to this survey, in 2011 40.3 % of persons in the EU-27 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.

For the EU-27 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 the Netherlands and Germany, men were considerably more likely than women to have participated in education and training, whereas the reverse was true in Finland, Latvia and Lithuania.

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 workers (aged 55–64) in 2011. Participation in education and training among older workers 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 (61.3 % for the EU-27 in 2011), while those having completed at most lower secondary education were the least likely to have participated (21.8 %).

The three most commonly cited obstacles to participation in education and training among those who wanted to participate but did not do so were, according to the 2011 adult education survey: no need of training (50.0 % in the EU-27); lack of time due to family responsibilities (20.9 %); and conflict with work schedules (18.0 %) — see Table 3.

Employers were the most common providers of non-formal education and training activities, providing close to one third (32.0 %) of such activities in the EU-27 according to the 2011 adult education survey (see Table 4). Employers provided more than 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-27 as a whole, the relative importance of non-formal education and training institutions was particularly high in Poland (53.6 %) and Slovenia (45.7 %), formal education institutions were frequent providers in Lithuania and Estonia, and commercial institutions (where education and training is not the main activity) in Estonia and Sweden.

Data sources and availability

Formal education corresponds to education and training in the regular system of schools, universities, colleges and other formal educational institutions that normally constitute a continuous ‘ladder’ of full-time education for children and young people (generally completed by the age of 25). Nevertheless, adults can still participate in formal education.

Non-formal education and training is defined as any organised and sustained educational activities that do not correspond to the definition of formal education. Non-formal education and training may or may not take place in educational institutions and cater to persons of all ages. It may cover educational programmes to impart adult literacy, basic education for out-of-school children, life skills, work skills, and general culture. Note that the statistics on adult learning presented in this article do not cover informal learning, which corresponds to self-learning (for example through the use of printed material, computer-based learning / training, (internet) web-based education or visiting libraries).

The target population for adult learning statistics refers to all persons in private households aged between 25 and 64 years. Data 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 question concerning participation in (formal and non-formal) education and training.

Additional information is available from the adult education survey (AES) which was carried out by EU Member States, EFTA countries and candidate countries. Surveys were carried out between 2005 and 2008 as a pilot exercise (referred to as ‘2007 AES’). The second wave of AES was carried out between July 2011 and June 2012 (referred to as ‘2011 AES’); Croatia did not implement the adult education survey in 2011-12 and therefore, participation rates based on this source are not available for Croatia; accordingly EU values are based on the 27 Member States (EU-27) for which data are available. The third wave of AES (named the 2016 AES) was carried out between July 2016 and March 2017; results are expected to be available towards the end of 2017. The reference period for AES is the 12 months prior to the interview. The survey uses a model questionnaire covering participation in learning activities whether formal, non-formal or informal. Learning activities are defined as activities with the intention to improve an individual’s knowledge, skills, and competences. Intentional learning (as opposed to random learning) is defined as a deliberate search for knowledge, skills, competences, or attitudes of lasting value. Organised learning is defined as learning planned in a pattern or sequence with explicit or implicit aims.


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.

See also

Further Eurostat information


Main tables

Participation in education and training (t_educ_part)
Adult participation in learning (tsdsc440)


Participation in education and training (educ_part)
Adult learning (trng)
Continuing vocational training in enterprises (trng_cvts)
Past series (trng_h)
Adult education survey 2007 (trng_aes_007h)
Lifelong learning - LFS ad-hoc module 2003 (trng_aes_005h)
Continuing vocational training in enterprises - reference year 2005 (trng_cvts3)
Continuing vocational training in enterprises - reference year 1999 (trng_cvts2)

Dedicated section

Methodology / Metadata

Source data for tables and graphs (MS Excel)

Other information

External links