The benefits of investing in adult education are often visible on a mid-term or long-term perspective.
15.03.2018

Why invest in adult learning?

Everyone working in adult learning will have an answer to this question: because it promotes skills and competences in a wide range of fields, particularly of those who are furthest away from learning, because it fosters social inclusion, and “simply” because it means joy and contributes to people’s well-being, to name just a few. However, as the sector is affected by decreasing public funding and structural changes in the way it is financed, there is a growing need to raise awareness of the benefits of adult education and the reasons why it should be better funded.

Gerhard Bisovsky, Director of the Association of Austrian Adult Education Centres, lists a wide range of benefits of adult learning for individuals, the economy, and society in a paper prepared for the FinALE project. These benefits include a higher income and better employability of individuals, a higher general well-being and health, a greater social inclusion and engagement in volunteer activities, a greater capacity for innovation and a higher competitiveness. The benefits also include developing democracy and ensuring tax payments from citizens.

Together, the many benefits of adult learning lead to a return on investment for governments. It means that money can be saved in other areas, such as medical treatments, policing of problematic parts of cities, or paying unemployment benefits.

Nicholas Fox is a member of the expert group on Financing Adult Learning that was established in the framework of the project and that recently met in Berlin on the invitation of another member of the expert group, Dieter Dohmen. Mr Fox notes that the return on investment can be used as an indicator to measure the effectiveness of adult education systems.

He says that introducing indicators for adult education could create arguments for a better funding of the sector. Yet he acknowledges that there is a “fear that any move towards a better appreciation of the return on investment in adult learning will result in the opposite of that intended, that is, to a further erosion of funding rather than an increase.”

Together, the many benefits of adult learning lead to a return on investment for governments. It means that money can be saved in other areas, such as medical treatments, policing of problematic parts of cities, or paying unemployment benefits.

This does not mean that adult education systems are not performing well. Rather, it could mean that only profitable courses would be financed, or only those courses of which the outcome is relatively easy to measure.

Long-term impact instead of quick fix

However, the benefits of adult education are often only visible on a midterm or long-term perspective or only indirectly or together with other factors.

The FinALE Policy Recommendations state: “If, for example, one family member starts learning, there will be an impact on the other family members. Particularly smaller children in the household tend to benefit from their parents’ learning. The range of potential benefits is very wide, and often includes, among many others, a better family well-being as a result of the higher self-fulfilment of the learning family member, increased health of the family due to higher health awareness, better family finances and career options, as well as a better capability to support other family members with their learning. Often, the learners become role models for other family and community members who then follow with their own learning pathways.”

Evidence – such as the BeLL study – shows that these benefits really exist. Still, adult education remains the most underfunded sector of education.

Recommendations

The FinALE project therefore recommends to collect more data on the impact of adult education, but also that any evaluation of adult education returns should cover a full range of personal, community and economic benefits, and to include the use of social rate of return techniques. Learner stories can be an effective tool to raise awareness about the benefits of adult education as they take a long-term perspective into account.

The financing of adult learning remains a key topic. The FinALE project has approached it from various angles, focusing on the why and where to invest. The advocacy toolkit developed in the project will help policy-makers to inform their decision-making and enable adult education professionals to do more effective advocacy for a better funding at the local, regional, national and European levels. It will soon be available on the project website.

Text: Raffaela KihrerPhotos: Pixabay / Pexels

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