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EU Steers Adult Ed Toward Training, Away From Learning

The EU Agenda for Adult Learning, conceived within the context of its master concept of Lifelong Learning, is all about employability and not much about

The European Union has been very busy promoting internationally, and especially within its member states, its EU Agenda for Adult Learning, conceived within the context of its master concept of Lifelong Learning. This emerged almost 10 years following the publication of its much-discussed Memorandum on Lifelong Learning. [1] This memorandum was often criticized for being somewhat too economistic in tenor. [2] A follow-up report was expected to be produced 10 years after, evaluating the tenets of the document in light of critiques and observed practice. This did not materialize, and instead, we have had a short document on adult learning indicating priority areas.

The issue of lifelong learning has had quite an international resonance and has been debated in various parts of the world. I will not rehearse this literature here. It has taken over from the earlier United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) master concept of Lifelong Education. It would not be amiss to state that it constitutes one of the dominant doxa in education policy-making worldwide, particularly in the Western world. At face value, it seems like a relatively neutral concept, although very few concepts, if any, are really neutral in policy making. A closer look at its basic tenets and the way the discourse evolved from the time of UNESCO and the so-called Faure report, “Learning to be,” by Edgar Faure and others, indicates that it might well encapsulate all the basic aspects of modern market-oriented conceptions of education, given much space in debates in outlets such as this one.

There is one worrying aspect of the current discourse that often makes it a far cry from the UNESCO espoused concept of Lifelong Education. The switch from lifelong education to lifelong learning is not innocent. It places less emphasis on structures and entitlement, and more on individuals taking charge of their own learning, often at considerable expense. It is an insidious discourse that minimizes the role of the state and leaves everything to the market. Education is therefore turned from a social into an individual responsibility. Policy documents promoting these fashionable ideas should be the subject of constant critical scrutiny by discerning educators.

In many uncritical but widely available discourses around the concept, we are bombarded with all sorts of platitudes. Though some critical voices are available, [3], rarely is education presented as a public good rather than the consumption good that the shift in discourse, from that of UNESCO to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and, to a certain extent, the EU (triggered by the European Roundtable of Industrialists), has brought about. What is most worrying is the by-now very conventional emphasis on “employability,” on “learning to earn,” which renders what was once an expansive concept of education (lifelong education), albeit individualistic and liberal for the most part, rather reductionist in scope. This prevails throughout the educational discourse worldwide.

I find it disheartening to hear certain present-day trade union representatives speak more of investment in training of “human resources,” that is, “learning to earn” and become employable, than of revitalizing that long-standing and historically rich trade union tradition of adult education known as workers’ education. To my mind, this area represents one of the richest dimensions of the field. It was rich enough to attract quite a range of leading 20th century UK-based intellectuals such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and Edward P. Thompson to engage in and write about the field, notably in such defunct outlets as the Tutor’s Bulletin for adult educators, some remaining specimen copies of which can be perused at the TUC archives housed in the library of the London Metropolitan University on Holloway, London. They wrote not of “employability,” but of employee empowerment and access to various types of knowledge, which allow them to develop beyond being simply producers and, I would add, consumers, these days, to social actors, fully capable of contributing, individually, and most likely collectively, to changing the world around them.

“Employability” is at the heart of the agenda in the discourse on lifelong learning, never mind the fact that employability does not necessarily mean employment. In Europe, it is particularly fueled through ESF (European Social Fund) funding on which many organizations in adult learning are increasingly becoming dependent. This type of funding places the emphasis squarely on employability. Rather than admitting to the failure to create sustainable employment, spokesmen for industry and policy makers place the emphasis on people lacking the necessary skills – a ‘jobs crisis’ couched in terms of a ‘skills crisis.’ The truth is that, in many parts of Europe, youngsters are gaining greater qualifications than their parents ever dreamed of obtaining and yet cannot enjoy their standard of living. This has been a recurring battle cry of the many indignados occupying various parts of the diminishing public spaces in Europe and across the Atlantic. The whole idea of lifelong learning, as currently promoted, gravitates around the notion of a “knowledge economy” which might not lead to the level of employment and financial rewards being anticipated, given the global competition for the few high-paying middle class jobs available. [4]

That there should be some link between adult education and the economy is understandable. It is however still worrying to see the dominant, all-pervasive discourse regarding adult education, in the context of lifelong learning worldwide, reduced to simply learning for work. If anything, what we really need are forms of education that enable people to learn to engage critically with work, the kind of education I would expect trade unions to be providing and which has been the staple of workers’ education in the past. The narrow “employability” view of lifelong learning – which attaches lots of importance to old and new basic skills (most laudable), but which ignores the very important notion of “critical literacy,” that is, learning to read the word and the world, as well as its construction through the media (critical media literacy) – ignores the larger, albeit repressed, tradition of adult education that emphasizes the role of the citizen as social actor. It also ignores the role of adult learning as a vital activity within social movements, including labor movements. There is more to adult learning than is internationally celebrated at present.

Furthermore, the discourse is being promoted with great vigor and vehemence in industrially developing countries. There seems to be little recognition of the fact that an increase in investment in adult education or all education for that matter, with economic returns in mind, without a corresponding reciprocal investment in the economic sector, perpetuates, and probably exacerbates, the situation of “education for export” that has been a characteristic of colonial and neo-colonial policies to date.

CEC (Council of European Communities). Commission staff working paper. “A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning, European Commission on Education and Communication, Brussels, 2000.”

See Zygmunt Bauman’s chapter “Learning to Walk on Quicksand” in his book Liquid Life, Polity Press, 2005.

See for instance Mark Murphy, “Capital, Class and Adult Education: The International Political Economy of Lifelong Learning in the European Union.” In P. Armstrong, N. Miller, & M. Zukas (Eds.) and “Crossing borders. Breaking boundaries: Research in the Education of Edults,” Proceedings of the 27th Annual SCUTREA Conference, Birkbeck College, University of London, 1997; Bill Williamson, Lifeworlds and Learning. Essays in the Theory, Philosophy and Practice of Lifelong Learning, NIACE, 1998; Ian Martin, “Reconstituting the agora: Towards an alternative politics of lifelong learning,” Concept, 2(1), 4–8., 2001; Roger Boshier, “Lifelong learning,” In L. M. English (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Adult Education, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005; John Field. “Lifelong learning.” In P. Peterson, E. Baker, & B. McGaw (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (3rd ed). Elsevier, 2010; Carmel Borg and Peter Mayo, “Learning and social difference. Challenges for public education and critical pedagogy,” Paradigm, 2006; Kenneth Wain, “The learning society in a postmodern world. The education crisis,” Peter Lang, 2004.

See Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton’s The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes. Oxford University Press, 2010.

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