Major efforts are needed to make high-quality adult learning and education a reality worldwide

By Werner Mauch, Team Leader Monitoring and Assessment of Lifelong Learning, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

GRALE 4 coverEvery three years, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning publishes the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE) to monitor the extent to which UNESCO Member States are putting their international commitments into practice. Last week’s new Report, the GRALE 4, includes input from 159 countries – an exceptionally high number in compared to previous years –  and therefore draws a very comprehensive picture of the state of adult learning and education worldwide.

What are our main conclusions? In short, we urgently need to take action to make adult learning and education (ALE) a reality for all. The report calls for a major change in approach to ALE. It requires adequate investment to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access and benefit from ALE and that its full contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is realized. The publication stresses the need to increase national investment in ALE, reduce participation costs, raise awareness of benefits, and improve data collection and monitoring.

Not yet reaching the disadvantaged

The GRALE 4 data show that in almost one-third of countries, fewer than 5 per cent of adults aged 15 and above participate in education and learning programmes.


A closer look at the data makes clear that adults with disabilities, older adults, refugees and migrants, minority groups and other disadvantaged segments of society are particularly under-represented in adult education programmes and find themselves deprived of crucial access to lifelong learning opportunities. And this is despite the fact that support to disadvantaged and marginalized groups represents the investment with the highest return potential.

Progress in participation in adult learning and education is insufficient

Despite low participation rates overall, there are also many pleasing signs of progress. More than half of responding countries (57% of 152) reported an increase in the overall participation rate in adult learning and education between 2015 and 2018. A larger share of low-income countries (73%) reported increase in ALE participation pper middle income (62%) or lower middle income countries (61%). This shows that progress is ongoing – it is simply not happening fast enough.

When looking at individual regions, we found that the highest proportion of countries that reported increases in adult learning and education participation were in sub-Saharan Africa (72% of responding countries), followed by the Arab region (67%), Latin America and the Caribbean (60%) and Asia and the Pacific (49%). North America and Western Europe reported fewest increases (38%) though starting from higher levels.

It is worrying to see such persistent and deep inequalities in participation and that key target groups such as adults with disabilities, older adults, minority groups as well as adults living in conflict-affected countries are not being reached.

Women’s participation must improve further

While women’s participation in ALE has increased in 59% of the reporting countries since 2015, in some parts of the world, girls and women still do not have sufficient access to education. In particular, their access to vocational training is lacking, leaving them with few skills and poor chances of finding employment and contributing to the societies in which they live. This represents an economic loss for their countries. For countries to live up to their obligations to provide lifelong learning for all, they need to focus more on interventions directed at women.

Quality is improving but not fast enough

Only high-quality adult learning and education can contribute effectively to sustainable development. GRALE 4 shows that three-quarters of countries reported progress in the quality of adult learning and education since 2015. Qualitative progress was found in curricula, assessment, teaching methods and employment conditions of adult educators. That is a promising development. However, progress in citizenship education, which is essential for promoting and protecting freedom, equality, democracy, human rights, tolerance and solidarity, was negligible. No more than 3% of countries reported qualitative progress in this area. Hence, work remains to be done.

Increase in funding for adult learning and education needed

As always, even the best policies and strategies will not fly if they are not backed by adequate funding. In this regard, we do have a long way to go. GRALE 4 shows clearly that, over the last 10 years, spending on adult learning and education has not reached sufficient levels, not only in low-income countries but also in lower middle income and high-income countries. Nearly 20% of Member States reported spending less than 0.5% of their education budgets on ALE and a further 14% reported spending less than 1%. This information demonstrates that many countries have failed to implement the intended increase in ALE financing proposed in GRALE 3 and that ALE remains underfunded. Moreover, under-investment hits socially disadvantaged adults the hardest. Lack of funding also hampers the implementation of new policies and efficient governance practices.

The report makes it very clear: We need to act now. Governments and the international community must join our efforts and take action to ensure that no one is left-behind. Only then can we make adult learning and education a key lever in empowering and enabling adults to achieve sustainable development.

Download of the UNESCO Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (full report, summary)


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