Three worrisome facts about adult learning and one proposal

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Credit: FEPS

By David Rinaldi, Director of Studies and Policy at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS)

The Commission’s has just presented a proposal for a Council Recommendation on Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs), one of the pivotal initiatives to boost adult learning in Europe and reach the ambitious target set by the European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan which aims at 60% of all adults taking part in training by 2030. Research proves that public intervention is urgently needed.

”We see that participation in training is not only too low but also unequal”  commented Commissioner Schmit during an event organised by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and the Jacques Delors Institute ahead of the presentation of the initiative on Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs). “Making the right to lifelong learning a reality for all is not only a European social fundamental right, it is also a smart economic investment” he stressed.

The proposal by the Commission is to establish ILAs at member states level and allow Europeans to accumulate entitlements overtime to finance training activities. ILAs hold the potential to create a change of mindset when it comes to developing skills throughout one’s life. They enable the creation of a tangible training right for Europeans, with entitlements that cumulate does not matter how many times one may change job and can be utilised regardless of one’s working status. The plan is to offer a universal but differentiated approach, in line with addressing limited access of the least skilled part of the population.

FEPS and the Jacques Delors Institute have contributed to this reflection and important step towards modernizing the European approach to education with two analyses by Sofia Fernandes and Klervi Kerneïs: (i) Towards an individual right to adult learning for all Europeans provides a survey of lifelong learning policies in different member states, sets out the rational for European intervention and, building on the French experience of the ILAs put forward guidelines for European action. (ii) Towards a European Individual Learning Account reviews the shortcomings of current adult learning systems in the EU and discusses the main features for successful ILAs.

The research highlights clearly the necessity and urgency of public intervention and points out three worrisome facts revealing that doing more of what we have done so far may not be enough.

Credit: FEPS

(1) Still about 80% of adults that are not in training believe that there is no real need to continue with formative efforts even when they realize it could be beneficial to their career. This reinforces the idea that what is needed is a big change of mindset; in such context the establishment of a proper entitlement to lifelong learning for all Europeans, operationalized via individual learning accounts, may make a difference in promoting not only awareness but participation too.

(2) Those that need training the most are those less involved. Take up of adult learning is around 58% for the high-skilled and close to 70% for managers; but it drops to 18% and 31% for the low-skilled and those with elementary occupations, respectively. While the European target for 2030 is to reach 60% of adults in training. The system shall, therefore, be as universal, portable and inclusive as possible.

(3) Investment in adult training is insufficient given the massive need for reskilling and upskilling. EU member states invest 4.6% of their GDP, on average, for education; 0.5% of GDP is allocated to adult learning programs, which is very little given that adults are the largest group of learners. Not only the public sector should do more though; also the private sector needs to step up its efforts. Specific arrangements for SMEs need to be thought out as they offer considerably less training although they employ two-third of the EU total workforce. On average across the EU, 88% of large-size enterprises – those with more than 250 employees – offer training opportunities whilst more than half of SMEs with less than 50 employees provide no access to training. The problem is particularly acute in Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece and the Baltics where only 2 out of 10 small enterprises offer access to formative paths.

The proposal put forward by the Commission should be seen by member states as the opportunity to set a new course for national adult learning programs. Europe – most of its member states – need to re-design the adult learning system.

It has become apparent that people’s careers are more fragmented, job changes are more frequent and with the twin transitions advancing, there is a rising need of reskilling workers employed in sectors that are phasing out as well as an urgency of upskilling and closing skills shortages in crucial areas for the European health and economic development. In this context, learning systems based on professions or working status become obsolete.

As expressed by MEP Alicia Homs, President of the Young European Socialist: “In a world where change is becoming the norm, lifelong learning must also become the rule for all and not just for a few privileged ones”.

It is now up to the Member States to recognize the urgency of public intervention, take ownership of these proposals and harness the financial power of the recovery funds to engage in deep reform of their adult learning systems in line with the Commission’s recommendation.

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