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Adult Learning Worldwide Not Keeping Pace with Need

A worldwide study of adult learning has found that those who most need it have the greatest trouble getting it. According to a report on the research, adults (defined as people over the age of 15) with disabilities, who are older, who are refugees or migrants, who live in areas of conflict, who are part of minority groups or other disadvantaged segments of society are "particularly under-represented" in education programs intended to deliver lifelong learning opportunities.

The findings shared in "Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE 4)," published by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, reflected data provided by 159 countries in five "action areas": policy, governance, financing, quality and inclusion and equity. The intent is to monitor the extent to which UNESCO member states put their international commitments regarding adult learning and education into practice. The results are tied to tracking progress against UNESCO's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Among the results were these:

The overall rate of participation in adult learning and education grew between 2015 and 2018. The greatest increases were seen in low-income countries (73 percent reported more progress on the adult learning front), followed by lower middle-income and upper middle-income countries (61 percent and 62 percent participation). Of particular note were countries in sub-Saharan Africa (72 percent), followed by the Arab region (67 percent) and Latin America and the Caribbean (60 percent). Although countries in North America and Western Europe started from higher levels of participation, they also reported the least amount of gain (38 percent) overall. Where high-income countries have seen dramatic increases, it's been largely due to a surge in "employer-supported" adult education.

Women, in particular, are being left behind. While women's participation has jumped in nearly three in five countries (59 percent), in certain parts of the world, women still lack "sufficient access to education," especially in the area of vocational training. As a result, the report noted, they're left with few skills and poor chances of finding employment or contributing to the societies where they live.

The quality of education is on the rise, but "not fast enough." Researchers found boosts in the quality of curricula, assessment, teaching methods and employment conditions of adult educators. They haven't seen improvements in citizenship education, where just 2 percent of countries have made qualitative progress.

Also, around the globe, adult education and learning receives a pittance. That's true for low-income, lower middle-income and high-income countries. Almost a fifth of nations reported spending less than half a percent of their education budgets on educating adults. Another 14 percent said they spend less than 1 percent. In 17 percent of countries, spending had decreased since 2015, with the greatest impact being felt by "socially disadvantaged adults."

The report offered a number of recommendations, including the obvious one of increasing national investment in adult education, with focused investment for the least advantaged; reducing participation costs, "particularly for poorer members of society"; raising awareness of benefits for all of society; and improving data collection and monitoring, especially among sub-groups.

"We urge all governments and the international community to join our efforts and take action to ensure that no one — no matter who they are, where they live or what challenges they face — is left behind," wrote UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, in her endorsement of the report. "By ensuring that donor countries respect their aid obligations to developing countries, we can make adult learning and education a key lever in empowering and enabling adults, as learners, workers, parents and active citizens."

The report and a summary report are openly available on the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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