'Lack of political will' blights adult education globally

13th September 2013 at 01:00
Unesco report reveals ongoing chronic underinvestment

Global investment in adult education is still too low despite pledges by many governments to improve the situation, a major international study has revealed.

Back in 2009, the first Global Report on Adult Learning and Education, published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), highlighted "chronic underinvestment" in most countries of the world. It found that very few countries committed even 1 per cent of their gross domestic product to educating their adults, with that figure even lower in some developing countries.

Now a progress report has found that the sector remains a low investment priority for governments and international development agencies.

In fact, between 2009 and 2010, only 56 per cent of the 64 countries that provided survey data increased investment in adult education, while 34 per cent reported a decrease and 10 per cent showed no change.

Of the 32 countries that provided specific data for adult literacy spending, just half showed an increase in investment between 2009 and 2010.

Although local issues and global problems such as the 2008 economic crisis and its aftermath have had an impact, the report says: "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that lack of political will plays a significant role."

Unesco said that investment levels did not meet international targets and fell a long way short of meeting demand.

One of those targets is among Unesco's six internationally agreed Education for All (EFA) goals and aims for "a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults".

However, out of 118 countries that responded to that part of the survey, only 35 said they were likely to reach that goal, while 54 could reach it with additional effort and 29 were unlikely to.

The lack of investment contrasts sharply with the growing demand for adult education and the need for improved literacy in some of the world's fastest-developing economic regions.

A recent study in the Asia and Pacific zone estimated that it would cost about $45 billion (pound;29 billion) to achieve the EFA literacy goal for the 256 million adults lacking those skills.

Some countries in particular will face a major challenge in mobilising such resources. It is estimated that Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan would need to allocate between 15 and 30 per cent of their education budgets to reach the goal.

Irina Bokova, director-general of Unesco, said: "This report shows that, while there has been progress, more resolute action is required to provide all young people and adults with access to varied high-quality learning opportunities.

"The benefits of adult education are uncontested, for individuals and societies as a whole, but this report shows that gaps remain in reaching many young adults, especially from marginalised groups. It is clear that adult education does not get enough investment, either at the national or international levels."

Unesco's findings were familiar to adult education campaigners and others working in the sector. Adult education body Niace, which is responsible for promoting the European Agenda for Adult Learning in the UK, has led calls for more investment.

Its chief executive, David Hughes, said: "It's extremely worrying that countries are cutting spending in adult learning at a time of worldwide economic and social crisis. Unfortunately, this reflects a short-sighted view on the returns that investment in adult learning brings both economically and socially."

Mr Hughes said that the positive benefits of adult learning were clear, but a short-term focus on issues such as youth unemployment often diverted resources from investments that yielded longer-term benefits.

"That focus is understandable but Niace would always urge policymakers and governments across the world to consider the medium- and long-term implications of what is needed to secure a sustained recovery and create more tolerant and just societies," he said.

Photo credit: Alamy

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