Tackling the "huge discrepancies" across Europe in the number of adults accessing education is critical to the future prosperity of the continent, education leaders have warned.
The European Union is working towards a target of at least 15 per cent of adults (aged 25-64) in learning by 2020, but figures show that participation actually fell between 2006 and 2011.
Speaking at a major event in Cardiff, Wales, last week, Martina Ni Cheallaigh of the European Commission said that adult learning was the "weak link" in EU education. "The situation is very varied: some countries are doing well but there are huge discrepancies," she added.
In 2011, the average participation rate was 8.9 per cent, down from 9.5 per cent in 2006. The proportion of adults engaged in learning varied from as low as 1.2 per cent in Bulgaria to 32.3 per cent in Denmark. Participation also decreases substantially in the case of low-skilled and older adults.
Ms Ni Cheallaigh, who is responsible for implementing EU policy on adult learning, said there was a mismatch between the skills available in the adult workforce and the skills that new jobs would require. Unless member states prioritised the issue, they would be overtaken by other countries, she warned.
"The bottom line is we won't have the skills the EU needs to be competitive in global markets. Countries such as China, India and Brazil are developing fast. At the moment we outsource low-paid jobs to those countries but in the near future they are going to be reviewing their skills policies and workforce profiles."
A major demographic challenge also exists: last year the European working age population (15-64) started to shrink for the first time. During the next few decades, the percentage of the population over the age of 60 will continue to grow and is forecast to reach 30 per cent by 2060.
The Learning for a Better World conference, attended by delegates from across Europe, was hosted by adult education body Niace, which is responsible for promoting the European Agenda for Adult Learning in the UK. The UK is one of only six EU member states that have reached or exceeded the 15 per cent benchmark.
David Hughes, chief executive of Niace, said that a European plan of action was urgently needed. "Across the EU, access to education, learning and training and participation is very unequal. We think everybody should have the chance to learn and to see themselves as a learner," he said.
"Too many people in the EU do not have the skills they need to play a full part in society. But it's worse than that: not only do they not have the skills now but they don't have the skills to learn for the future. They will need to learn again and again to stay relevant and productive."
The EU has drawn up a set of priorities for member states to concentrate on, including a focus on targeted learning for those groups that need it most, such as older people, the unemployed and the low-skilled.
However, although countries can apply for extra funding from the EU's social funds, no specific pot of cash has been set aside for adult learning and budgets are tight.
Mr Hughes said that governments and employers should be encouraged to invest more money in adult learning and improving skills. However, he added, if cash-strapped governments facing austerity measures could not afford to invest money, they should try to change employer behaviour instead.
In England, for example, the Employer Ownership of Skills pilot scheme has encouraged companies to invest in their current and future workforce. Employers develop proposals to create jobs, raise skills, and drive enterprise and economic growth, and they seek co-investment from government to meet the costs.
"If governments could persuade more employers to develop their own workforces, it would make a tremendous difference," Mr Hughes said.
Policymakers should have a more up-to-date and detailed picture of the situation across Europe and in the wider world this October, when the long-awaited Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Survey of Adult Skills is published.
It is the largest and most comprehensive survey of adult skills ever undertaken, with responses from 165,000 adults between the ages of 16 and 65 in 33 countries.
The survey will measure the key cognitive and workplace skills needed for adults to participate in society and for economies to prosper, and will allow detailed international comparisons.
The EU has set a target of 15 per cent of the adult population (aged 25- 64) participating in formal or non-formal learning by 2020. The EU average in 2006 was 9.5 per cent but by 2011 it had dropped to 8.9 per cent.
Only six countries exceeded the target in 2011: Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Finland, Sweden and the UK. Denmark recorded participation of 32.3 per cent; Bulgaria recorded only 1.2 per cent.
Photo credit: Reuters