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Adult learning: It is never too late to learn

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Adult learning: It is never too late to learn

Raising citizens' overall level of skills means increasing their career opportunities and helping to fight poverty and social exclusion. To this end, the Commission's Communication analysing adult learning encourages Member States to increase and consolidate learning opportunities for adults and make them accessible to all.


Communication of 23 October 2006 from the Commission to the Council - Adult learning [COM (2006) 614 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


Promoting lifelong learning is part of the Lisbon Strategy, which sets targets for economic growth, competitiveness and social inclusion. Although the Member States recognise the importance of lifelong learning, the number of adult learners in Europe today remains below the target set by the Member States. In this Communication the Commission encourages Member States to ensure the quality of their adult learning systems and their overall skills levels.

Better adult learning can play a key role in vocational training in Europe and in the social inclusion of groups which are at a disadvantage on the labour market, such as migrants and older people, who are growing in number in Europe. Moreover, improvements in adult learning are a considerable advantage for both individuals and society. Raising overall skills levels helps to improve economic indicators, such as productivity and unemployment, and social indicators, such as civic participation, criminality and healthcare costs.

Responding to the challenges

With a view to consolidating lifelong learning, the Commission identifies the following challenges:

  • economic competitiveness: raising general skills levels in all Member States is important for the economy, as it helps to achieve the growth, employment and social cohesion objectives set by the Lisbon Strategy. The positive results achieved by other countries which have invested in their education systems confirm that this is a reliable prediction. The economic objective is becoming even more urgent in view of the developments expected in the labour market. According to a Eurostat survey, by 2010 half of all new jobs will be for workers with higher skills levels, whereas today a third of the labour force in Europe remains low skilled and many still lack the ability to employ printed information in daily activities;
  • demographic change: education and training systems must take into account the ageing of the European population and the growing role of the immigrant population. According to the OECD, in thirty years a third of the EU population will be over 60 years old. This means that measures need to be taken to extend the working life of older workers and increase the number of young workers. To this end, Member States must undertake to reduce the number of early school-leavers and improve the skills of low-skilled workers over the age of 40. Immigration is a major challenge for education and training systems in Europe yet at the same time offers enormous human potential which can counterbalance the ageing of the European population and the lack of skills in certain sectors;
  • poverty and social exclusion: adult learning can play a key role in tackling poverty and social exclusion, which marginalise a significant number of people in all Member States. This problem stems mainly from low levels of initial education, unemployment, rural isolation and reduced opportunities. New forms of illiteracy exacerbate social exclusion: for example, adults who are not computer literate are deprived of essential information and facilities.

By improving the provision of education and training for adults, Member States can help to consolidate the linguistic, cultural and vocational skills of those who are often at a disadvantage in the labour market. The Member States must implement these projects, using existing resources to the full. In order to achieve this they need to establish better coordination between the groups involved in these projects: the public authorities, which make decisions at different levels, and all partners involved in drafting and implementing the policies. Coordination can play a key role in identifying priorities, drafting policies and communicating with potential learners. The European Structural Funds can help to improve infrastructure and the adult learning programmes offered.

Types of action

The Commission identifies five types of action to enable Member States to meet the above challenges.

  • setting up more equitable adult learning programmes and increasing the number of participants: Member States must undertake to ensure participation in adult learning activities in order to make it more equitable and to move closer to the 12.5 % objective to be achieved by 2010. They need to encourage everyone, especially those with fewer qualifications, such as older people, those with disabilities and people living in rural areas. They must increase targeted public investment, widen the dissemination of information on adult learning opportunities and make better use of the potential of educational institutions which already exist;
  • ensuring the quality of adult learning programmes: Member States must ensure that teaching methods and teaching staff are efficient and meet the needs of adult learners. With a view to promoting quality of learning, the Commission identifies four factors to be taken into consideration:

- teaching methods: methods and materials must be adapted to the needs of learners, who must agree explicit objectives and learning support resources with teaching staff;

- quality of staff: the profession of adult learning practitioners needs to be recognised and valued, promoting their development and ensuring fair pay;

- quality of providers: the public authorities must undertake to ensure the quality of teaching by means of quality assurance mechanisms and standards;

- quality of delivery: a series of parallel measures, such as availability of learning sites and childcare facilities, and flexible teaching arrangements, can significantly improve the delivery of adult learning;

  • developing systems for the recognition and validation of learning outcomes: Member States must develop systems based on common principles which enable them to measure and value learning. These systems facilitate self-evaluation and encourage students to continue to learn. To this end, the Education Council identified common principles in 2004 and some Member States have put in place mechanisms to serve as a basis for creating the evaluation systems. In an effort to ensure that these systems are developed efficiently, the Commission highlights the challenges to come, such as the inclusion of all stakeholders in the validation process, the improvement of the systems and the clarification of learning programmes' objectives;
  • investing in education and training for older people and migrants: Member States must ensure that education and training programmes target older people and migrants, two categories which represent enormous human potential in today's societies and economies but are often disadvantaged in the labour market. Member States need to take a two-pronged approach to older people: older workers can and must extend their working lives in the context of active ageing, and retired people must have the opportunity to make learning an integral part of their lives, and can in turn become educators. With this in mind, the Commission wants universities to offer courses to meet the needs of adult learners, but most countries have not yet done so. Member States must also promote the integration of immigrants by making the most of their skills. Accordingly, the Commission supports actions which include education and training programmes in neighbouring countries, the development of systems to recognise skills already acquired and opening up effective learning opportunities;
  • promoting research and analysis in relation to adult learning activities: indicators such as databases play a key role in observing and evaluating adult learning activities. Such data are currently quite limited but international organisations such as the OECD and the European Commission, including the research unit recently set up in Ispra, are working on this.

By the end of 2007, the Commission intends to draw up an action plan based on this Communication.


In the framework of the Lisbon Strategy, which aims to promote a knowledge-based society, the Commission supported the creation of a European area of lifelong learning by means of an initial Communication in 2001.

The Council contributed to the Lisbon Strategy objective by means of a 2002 Resolution. By the end of 2007, an action plan will be drawn up in line with this Communication, taking account of the experience gained from the Socrates and Grundtvig programmes.

Last updated: 17.05.2007