Not a place of quiet: a conference in Moldova highlights the role of adult learning centres in local development

The International Conference on the Role of Adult Learning and Education in the Development of Local Communities, which took place on 9-10 November in Chisinau, Moldova, brought together participants from Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Turkey and Ukraine.

Co-organised by DVV International in collaboration with EAEA, the event focused on shared issues in local development of adult learning and education. From governance and financing to increasing participation of vulnerable learners, participants addressed key challenges and benefits of collaborations between adult learning providers and local authorities. The meeting also provided an opportunity for EAEA members to discuss issues of shared interest during a side meeting.

Building an adult learning ecosystem

“If there is no support for adult learning at the national level, then the local stakeholders take up the task,” said Prof. Dr. Michael Osborne from the University of Glasgow, who is also the Director of PASCAL Observatory.

New European and global frameworks for adult learning, such as the New European Agenda for Adult Learning and the Marrakech Framework for Action, underline the potential of learning in communities. One of the focal areas of the Marrakech Framework for Action is a “culture of lifelong learning”, described as a “public endeavour that serves not only the world of work, but also individual well-being and the common good”.

Also the Sustainable Development Goals, introduced by Prof. Osborne, give ample potential for underlining adult learning across different policy agendas.

As discussed during the event, ideally the ambitious objectives set out at the European and global level translate into adult learning being a priority at the national level. This, unfortunately, is often far from reality: in many countries adult learning and education still lacks any political recognition and consequently adequate financing.

“Most of the world’s population are adults – but the funding for their education is very low, as demonstrated in the Global Education Monitoring Report. Financing for adult education needs to be increased dramatically,” said Prof. Dr. Heribert Hinzen, former Director of DVV International and UIL honorary Fellow, who introduced a wider policy aspect to cooperation between local authorities and adult education centres.

Throughout the two conference days, we heard several examples that demonstrated the ways in which adult learning providers and local authorities can collaborate, against very different backgrounds. It was especially inspiring to see the extent to which adult learning organisations can successfully establish an ecosystem of adult learning.

A case in point is the Adult Education Centre in Norden, Germany, which in addition to classrooms hosts an exhibition hall, gym, café, restaurant and kindergarten, among others. Such a diversity of activities is possible thanks to a structured approach at the management level, which operates along four directions: general training, professional training, social services and intergenerational services. In addition, the centre enjoys a successful collaboration with the Autrich’s district organisation, running refugee assistance and support since 2015.

Victoria Furhalo speaking at the event

Victoria Furhalo speaking at the event

A place of gathering, not a place of quiet

Several case studies brought forward by the speakers and participants showcased how a successful collaboration at the local level can foster participation in adult learning, and encourage especially vulnerable groups to take part in learning. In Potlava, Ukraine, training centres collaborate with local authorities in the implementation of projects, with an expanding circle of partners. This has led to a steady increase in the number of learners, especially 3rd age learners, which more than doubled between 2018 and 2021.

Also elsewhere in Ukraine, local collaborations have already borne fruit. In Lviv, libraries have become an important space for non-formal adult learning, as part of the Strategy for Culture Development, which will be in place up to 2025; one of the priorities of the strategy is to encourage non-formal education.

“We see a contemporary library as a new place, which is not a place of quiet – it’s a place of gathering; a third place, after your home and workplace,” explained Victoria Furhalo from City Institute Lviv and Education Centres’ (CE) Network Ukraine.

The activities organised by libraries are diverse, and include a dancing club for older citizens, a Ukrainian language speaking club or art therapy for Internally Displaced Persons, to only name a few. Some libraries have been established with the aim of supporting specific target groups, such as Cencoteka, which works with visually impaired citizens.

Since 2019, the activities are coordinated by the CE Network, which includes eight libraries. “Our vision is to provide a quality non-formal education experience for everyone,” said Furhalo.

“Life in war highlighted the importance and power of non-formal education,” she continued, providing examples of activities launched after the war broke out in February 2022, such as a gardening course organised for refugees and local citizens, or psychological support that is offered by libraries.

Refugees are also a primary target group for organisations in Moldova. At the Chisinau Municipal Youth Centre, which the participants visited as part of the conference programme, refugees from Ukraine not only participate in the activities, but also become volunteers themselves.

Municipal Youth Centre in Chisinau - participants in a semi-circle with a "Media Hub" sign behind them

Participants visiting the Municipal Youth Centre in Chisinau

Making the benefits visible

If the benefits of local collaborations are clear to adult learning providers, is it the case for public authorities? During the event, participants looked at different challenges that make it difficult for adult learning providers to collaborate with municipalities, such as lack of long-term investment in adult learning and education, lack of legal frameworks guiding adult learning policy, or the power imbalance between local authorities and civil society. In this context, it is even more important for adult learning organisations and civil society to highlight the benefits of adult learning and education and to increase their advocacy work.

According to Dato Jikia from DVV International Georgia, a collaboration between local authorities and adult learning providers brings benefits to both sides, making the arguments for advocacy clear. “Adult learning providers can play an important in identifying educational needs of the local population, of the local self-government or of local businesses,” said Jikia.

In Georgia, adult learning organisations provide capacity-building to municipalities, by organising study visits in and outside of Georgia, by lobbying educational needs of municipalities towards the central government, or by offering a structured annual training programme for municipalities.

In addition, adult learning centres are clearly important for local citizens. They can provide a meeting space which is free of political tensions, instead accumulating creative, cultural and social energy.

Investment in adult learning as a political choice

“We live in such difficult times, I can’t think of anything more important than investing in educated and empowered citizens,” said Gustav Fridolin, teacher at the Stockholm City Mission, former Minister of Education in Sweden and member of the EAEA Executive Board.

As a country with a long-standing tradition of popular adult education (folkbildning), participation rates in Sweden are high; over one million adults take part in study circles annually for a total of a 10 million population.

He described the principles of folkbildning as free and voluntary (which means learning provision is funded by the state, but not state controlled); with meetings in an atmosphere of equality; formed by and around the participants. The aim of folkbildning is to not only understand the world but also to change it.

“Everyone should try to be an activist in their own life,” said Fridolin.

Participants of the conference sitting in rows

Participants of the conference

As of 2022, as many as 156 folk high schools are running in Sweden, most of which are managed by civil society organisations. Some of the courses are organised by municipalities and are eligible for public loans, especially those that aim at second chance education for adults.

While the concept remains popular among citizens, it is increasingly contested, with fears of folkbildning losing the political support it has enjoyed for more than a century.

“If we want to support vulnerable groups, we first have to discuss democracy”, said Dimitris Degiliannis, deputy mayor of Larissa, adding that education is first and foremost a political choice. It was the city’s decision to address economic and social issues in 2015 by becoming the first Greek Learning City of UNESCO.

Since then, the city organised conferences, educational programmes and actions aimed at socially vulnerable groups, such as refugees, the Roma community or citizens with mobility problems. For example, the city established a Municipal White Taxi for free transportation of citizens with mobility problems and set up book production studios for the visually impaired.

From 2017 onwards, the city has addressed adult learning and education more explicitly by running the “Citizens’ University of Larissa”, with 12 learning cycles, including language courses for refugees and immigrants, disability awareness program for municipal councilors and services, computer courses for the third age, the training of teachers for the use of art in education.

“It is a learning task for cities to continue to move forward, be more resilient, healthy and support the view that a core value of a learning and healthy city’s identity is democracy, which is a way of living together,” concluded Degiliannis.

For more information about EAEA’s work with members outside the EU and its working group “Europe is more than the EU”, please visit EAEA’s “Why Join” page.