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Policy-makers have long recognised that adults’ participation in learning is key to unlocking the benefits of a changing world of work. However, only two in five adults across the EU and OECD participate in education and training in any given year, according to the OECD Survey of Adults Skills (PIAAC). While much has been written about the need for progress in this area, it is less clear how adult learning participation can be increased in practice. Comparative research on adult learning policy has focused on identifying lessons from countries with highly developed adult learning systems and high participation rates, such as the Nordic countries. This report takes a different approach by analysing what made adult learning reforms succeed in six countries where participation in adult learning was not necessarily high, but did increase significantly over the past decades, i.e. Austria, Estonia, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and Singapore.

The analysis is based on a sample of adult learning reforms in these countries, i.e. the expansion of Active Labour Market Policies (ALMPs), the Initiative for Adult Education and Paid Educational Leave for Austria; the expansion of ALMPs, the Lifelong-Learning Strategy and State-Commissioned Short Courses for Estonia; the Free Second Vocational Degree, the Basic Skill Courses and Open Learning Centres for Hungary; the Adult Education Centres and the Training Funds for Italy; the Network Training, Training Vouchers and Sector Plans for the Netherlands; and the SkillsFuture Credit, SkillsFuture Mid-Career Enhanced Subsidy and SkillsFuture Series for Singapore. This report seeks to understand the factors that made these reforms succeed. It is based on desk research and 58 expert interviews with government stakeholders, social partners, adult education providers, NGOs, academics and other relevant stakeholders involved in the design, delivery and evaluation of adult learning policies. Key findings include:

  • There is no magic bullet for increasing adults’ participation in education or training. The countries vary significantly with respect to the types of reforms implemented. Typically, the set of reforms implemented in a given country encompassed different types of training, addressed multiple barriers to participation and engaged multiple target groups. In most cases, single adult learning reforms reached less than 1% of the adult population, although in some coverage of the population was much more significant (e.g. the Italian Training Funds). It is hence unlikely that any one reform was solely responsible for the observed increase in overall level of adults’ participation in learning. Where reforms focused on a specific target group, their contribution to raising the participation levels of this group was likely higher. Comprehensive approaches, covering broad sections of the population and addressing the multiple challenges faced by adults are needed if the objective is to raise participation levels population-wide.

  • Stakeholder involvement is crucial in both the development of adult learning reforms and their implementation. In the vast majority of reforms under review, the impetus for reform came from the central administration. Yet, in many cases, a range of other stakeholders subsequently co-developed the reforms and were involved in their implementation. Advisory or supervisory groups that involved multiple stakeholders governed several reforms. In light of their proximity to the demand for training, social partners were the stakeholders most frequently involved. In many cases, public employment services were also involved, particularly in the implementation of reforms. Despite their strong involvement in adult learning on the ground, individual employers, learning providers and regional administrations were less frequently involved in the design and implementation of the reforms under review.

  • Reforms to increase adults’ participation in learning do not have to come with a high price tag. Among the reforms under review, the direct costs of delivering education and training to adults ranged from an estimated EUR 200 to 2 500 per participant. Reforms that covered indirect costs of training, such as paid educational leave, were more expensive. Domestic funding sources for the reforms were typically taxes, or, in some cases, social security contributions or training levies paid by employers. Public and private providers who delivered the reforms accessed funding through calls for proposals in most cases. Several reforms were co-funded by the EU through the European Structural Funds (ESF). While ESF funding facilitated the implementation of more wide-reaching reforms than using only domestic resources, it posed a risk for their sustainability beyond the ESF funding cycle.

  • Adapting reforms to changing circumstances or in response to results from monitoring and evaluation can be important for reaching the reforms’ objectives. The vast majority of selected reforms were altered with respect to their initial design based on monitoring and evaluation results, exchanges of good practices between providers, or the results of skills assessment or anticipation exercises. Incorporating lessons learnt along the way provided an opportunity to overcome barriers to take-up, to identify bottlenecks and to improve the reform’s overall effectiveness. Moreover, taking into account updated results from skills assessment and anticipation exercises helped policies stay relevant, even in a context of changing skill needs.

  • High participation in adult learning is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a well-functioning and future-ready adult learning system. To enable more adults to reap the benefits of participating in learning activities, policy-makers must not only focus on participation rates, but also on training quality, participants’ subsequent labour market outcomes, and the alignment of programmes with individual and labour market needs. Moreover, to identify potential deadweight losses and (re-) design policies to limit them, policy-makers should provide funding for continuous monitoring and evaluations, which are required to identify the causal effect of different adult learning programmes, and are a fundamental component of any cost-benefit analysis.

This report is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 outlines the approach to this study including the methodology for the selection of countries and reforms. Chapter 2 investigates what other countries can learn from the nature of the reforms, how they were designed, funded and implemented, as well as how policy learning took place. Chapter 3 discusses adults’ participation in the selected reforms, and what other factors could have contributed to the observed increases in adult learning participation. Chapter 4 reviews indicators of success of adult learning reforms beyond participation.


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