Economic turmoil over the past five years has had a devastating impact on much of Europe, with almost a quarter of under-25s in the eurozone currently unemployed.
But as the need for adult education grows, provision across the European Union has become fractured, according to new research by the European Commission (EC). Ten countries, including Germany and crisis-hit Greece, increased spending on adult education between 2011 and 2012, whereas other nations such as the UK, Ireland and Portugal made cuts.
Gina Ebner, secretary general of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), said that the divisions highlighted by the EC showed a lack of solidarity between countries that needed to be addressed urgently.
Speaking at the European Year of Citizens 2013 conference in Leicester, England, earlier this month, Ms Ebner said that many countries had "gone back to their old principles".
"There has been a shift in emphasis to specific target groups like young adults and the young unemployed, a shift to vocational training and a change in the language, with more talk of employability," she said.
Ms Ebner added that wider adult education was increasingly being viewed by governments as a luxury, as they failed to consider its "transformative and emancipatory" power.
"A lot of people are living in a situation of personal crisis. Adult education plays a role in providing a voice to those people. We need to provide more evidence for the wider benefits of learning, and focus on learners and their needs," she said.
Per Hansen, the new president of the EAEA, agreed that adult learning should be defended, with a greater emphasis placed on learners' requirements. "We need a new agenda for adult education," he said. "What is the role of adult education in the EU today? We must influence the agenda and raise the position of adult education."
But Tapio Saavala, head of the EC's unit for vocational training and adult education, said that there may be some good news. The EC is carrying out a study of adult learning and its benefits, and Mr Saavala suggested that early findings were positive. As reported in TES last month, the EU is aiming to get at least 15 per cent of adults (aged 25-64) into learning by 2020, but recent figures showed that participation fell from an average of 9.5 per cent in 2006 to 8.9 per cent in 2011.
Mr Saavala said that an increase in participation in non-formal education, such as community courses and workshops, had compensated for the drop in formal adult learning.
However, he acknowledged that finance for adult education across the continent was often unsustainable, and said that more data were needed so that governments could make evidence-based policies.
"Adult learning in general increases life chances and brings many benefits for individuals and society," he said. "We must look at how spending and investment is distributed between individuals, employers and the state."
David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the UK body that hosted the Leicester conference, said it was disappointing that funding for adult learning was often one of the first casualties of government cuts. "We talk about the impact of adult learning on issues of citizenship, tolerance, inclusion, jobs, helping people get on in life," he said. "Politicians nod and say, `yes, all these things are important', but they still can't quite put their names to the cheques."
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