Executive summary

A confluence of global megatrends such as globalisation, technological progress and population ageing are changing the types of jobs that are available and the skills required to perform them. Many analysts argue that the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated these changes, especially in the area of digitalisation and the adoption of new technologies. In this context, more than ever adult learning plays a crucial role in helping workers to update their skills and acquire new ones in order to match labour market needs. This is particularly important for adults with low skills. Not only are low-skilled jobs at high risk of being automated, but many of the emerging occupations require high-level cognitive skills. The potential benefits of adult training are numerous and include greater employability and access to better quality jobs, increased productivity, improved civic participation, and – most importantly – a greater sense of individual fulfilment and well-being.

Yet, in order to achieve these positive gains, education and training needs to be of high quality and ensure successful learning outcomes for all participants. In the context of tight public and private budgets following the COVID-19 emergency, guaranteeing quality provision of training will become even more important to ensure that investments in training provide value for money. Quality provision is also seen as a key tool to create trust in the adult training system, especially for non-formal training, as well as a marker of prestige and credibility for providers. Whether their funding is private or public, providers’ efforts towards greater training quality help them remain accountable to their stakeholders and students. Overall, a culture of continuous programme improvement contributes to promoting providers’ future performance and creating a virtuous circle in the whole education and training sector.

This report addresses the crucial question of how quality can be enhanced in the field of adult learning. It provides an overview of quality assurance systems across Europe, highlighting their implementation features, governance structures and success factors. In particular, the study focuses on non-formal adult learning, which is “institutionalised, intentional and planned by an education provider” outside of the formal education sector and which does not lead to a formal qualification that is recognised by the national or sub-national education authorities. In fact, compared to formal education – which is supervised by national or sub-national governments – non-formal learning is typically less regulated, and its quality remains highly variable, not only across countries but across providers within a country. At the same time, in all OECD countries, non-formal training plays a leading role for upskilling adults, in particular those with low levels of skills, who are usually reluctant to enter a formal education pathway. In any given year, about 40% of adults participate in at least one non-formal training activity, compared with just 8% engaging in formal training.

The report shows that the landscape of quality assurance systems in non-formal adult learning varies considerably. Overall, it is possible to identify three approaches to quality assurance:

  1. 1. The regulatory approach imposes minimum quality requirements that providers need to meet in order to be allowed to operate or access public funds;

  2. 2. The advisory approach uses guidelines and examples of good practices to inspire providers engaging in quality development efforts;

  3. 3. The organic approach leaves it completely to providers to define their own quality needs.

To operationalise these approaches, two categories of quality assurance tools seem to prevail in the European context: quality certificates and labels, and (self-)evaluations. Quality certificates and labels impose minimum requirements that training providers need to fulfil in order to be certified, with the objective of guaranteeing a standard, uniform level of quality of services. Evaluations – done either by providers themselves or by external bodies – aim at assessing the current quality of training through subjective measures of satisfaction with training or objective measures of training processes and outcomes, with the ultimate goal of setting up a plan to improve it in the near future, if necessary.

Given their nature, quality certificates and labels are mostly used by countries following a regulatory approach to quality assurance. These tools have the potential of guaranteeing consistently good quality training services, ensuring customers’ protection and satisfaction by providing them with straightforward, standardised information about providers’ quality. However, their ability to correct market failures associated with asymmetries of information is effective only if the information conveyed is valuable, credible and accurate. If labels are not perceived as reliable by the wider public, they can only have a marginal or even counterproductive impact. Quality labels and certificates are also costly for providers, both in terms of money and time, and they become of little value if they encounter resistance to change from within the business.

In contrast to labels and certificates, evaluations – especially self-evaluations – may help create a longer-lasting quality culture, by ensuring that providers internalise the rationale for putting in place quality efforts. For this reason, evaluations have been widely used in countries with an advisory approach to quality, whose core is really to create a bottom-up, self-standing interest of providers in quality improvements. Yet, this feature of evaluation is particularly important also when countries adopt a regulatory approach to quality assurance, to ensure that organisations do not think their actions towards quality improvements should end after obtaining a certificate. Quality assurance is an ongoing, dynamic process, since there is always something to improve. The drawback of self-evaluations, however, is that both governments and prospective learners have no assurance of getting good-quality services, but must partly rely on trust in the providers, especially when evaluations’ results are not published on a regular and comparable basis across providers. Moreover, it typically takes some time for quality assurance systems based on (self-) evaluations to produce some quality improvements, which can create a sense of the futility of this approach in providers.

This report also stresses the importance of establishing a wide and holistic quality approach, where typical quality assurance tools – such as certification and evaluations – are complemented with additional support structures. Some of the most frequent support initiatives are reviewed: provision of support for the validation of prior learning and lifelong guidance, professionalisation of teaching staff, involvement of social partners, but also provision of best practices and guidelines and consumer protection in terms of publication of information on quality.


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