Dieter Dohmen discussed the impact of adult education on the economy.

Adult education has long-term impact on the economy and society at large

In spite of the many best practices that showcase the benefits of adult learning, little research has been done yet to investigate the correlation between adult education and its impact on the economy. However, more and more often, funding for adult learning schemes depends on the availability of data that gives clear indications on the cost-benefit-ratio of learning. At the same time, people warn that focusing on the economic outcomes of adult education might lead to neglecting the intrinsic value of non-formal adult learning. A workshop in Porto on 5 April 2017, organised in the framework of the FinALE project, spotlighted these issues.

Adult education has a long-term impact on the economy,” emphasised Dieter Dohmen, expert in the financing of adult education in Europe and director of the Institute for Education and Socio-Economic Research and Consulting.

“Specifically, there is a clear correlation between innovation and learning at the workplace.”

The data, compiled for study on learning and innovation in enterprises commissioned by Cedefop (2012), suggests that countries with a high rate of workplace learning also score highly in terms of innovation.

Measuring the benefits of adult education comes with a catch

Measuring the overall impact of adult education, however, proves to be a very difficult undertaking. Adult education can have many benefits, from a better health and higher personal well-being to more social inclusion, to more support for democratic systems, to a greater chance of finding a new or improved employment. These benefits can ultimately also have a positive impact on the economy. People who are healthier and happier are less likely to need costly medical treatments or therapies and will be more active in their private and professional environment. Those who can improve their employment situation or ameliorate their working conditions through trainings and courses may contribute more to the public welfare system, to name only a few benefits. But here comes the crux.

“Measuring only shows a picture of reality,” said Trine Bendix Knudsen, Danish Adult Education Association.

“Secondly, measuring with the use of indicators only shows a part of the picture.”

The question on which indicators we choose for measuring the impact of adult education takes central stage.

“While adult education has multiple purposes and benefits, there might be many other factors as well that contribute for example to the better health of a person. You can say that non-formal adult education contributes to health, but you can’t say that poor health is caused by poor or non-existent adult education. There are many other individual and societal factors that also play a role for poor health.”


Participants of the FinALE project workshop.

Capturing the intrinsic value of adult education?

Focusing too much on the benefits of adult education can become problematic, too.

“The learning goals in non-formal adult education are as diverse as the baselines,” said Ms Bendix Knudsen. “There might even be quite a few learners who are happy to go to adult education classes and improve their skills in a certain area without any specific goals other than the joy of learning.” This does not impair the benefits of non-formal adult education; rather, it moves the discussion towards looking at its intrinsic value.

“System indicators such as the percentage of the GDP invested in adult education can tell us more about the value that governments or public authorities give to adult education,” said Nicholas Fox from Individual Learning Company.

The partners in the FinALE project aim to develop a set of indicators that measure the state of the financing of adult education in Europe. The system indicators will be complemented by policy indicators that look at the various areas on which adult education can have a positive impact, such as health and well-being.

Need for more investment in adult education

Taking into account that adult education cannot be reduced to its potential measurable benefits, the figures obtained through these indicators can help to build arguments for a better financing of adult education in Europe. Hence, the work on the indicators is accompanied by a research into where to invest. A small research team around project partner AONTAS has been working on a study using quantitative and qualitative methods, with the first results expected to be released in June 2017. It includes an analysis of existing funding tools and their usefulness, efficiency, usability and sustainability.

“We need more investment in adult education,” said Mr. Dohmen in the closing remarks of his presentation. A group exercise in a later part of the programme echoed this observation. The participants, many of whom were from Southern European countries, reiterated the need for a better financial support of adult education and improved adult education policies.

A participant asked, “adult education practitioners and learners alike perceive the importance of adult education for the individual and the community. So how can we change the narrative of non-formal adult education also at policy-maker and funder level?”

The final results of the FinALE project will be presented at an event in Brussels on 6 or 7 December 2017.

More information


Text: Raffaela KihrerPhotos: Jugatx Ortiz (EARALL), Raffaela Kihrer, Susana Oliveira (EPATV)

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