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The right to lifelong learning: Why adult education matters

Right to lifelong  learning

There are 771 million illiterate adults globally today, according to UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics. And many more do not have the adequate skills and knowledge needed to navigate through our increasingly digital 21st century demands. How is this still possible in this day and age?

While participation in adult education is improving in some places, access to learning opportunities remains profoundly unequal, and millions continue to be left out.  

From the pandemic to the climate crisis, to the digital revolution and mass movements of populations around the world, we know that today, more than ever, it is critical to ensure access to quality education and learning opportunities throughout life for everyone, everywhere.

Here’s what you need to know about adult education and learning.

Why is adult education crucial?

The speed of today’s changes calls for opportunities to learn throughout life, for individual fulfilment, social cohesion, and economic prosperity. Education can no longer be limited to a single period of one’s lifetime. Everyone, starting with the most marginalized and disadvantaged in our societies, must be entitled to learning opportunities throughout life both for employment and personal agency. 

In order to face our interconnected global challenges, we must ensure the right to lifelong learning by providing all learners - of all ages in all contexts - the knowledge and skills they need to realize their full potential and live with dignity.

This call was highlighted in UNESCO’s flagship Futures of Education reportReimagining our futures together: A new social contract for education published in November 2021. The right to lifelong learning will also be echoed at the Transforming Education Summit in September 2022, building upon the UN Secretary-General’s call for formal recognition of a universal entitlement to lifelong learning and reskilling in his report “Our Common Agenda”.

What is the situation of adult learning and education today?

The main challenge for adult learning and education across the globe is to reach those who need it most. That is the core message of UNESCO’s latest Fifth Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE).

The report shows that while there is progress, notably in the participation of women, those who need adult education the most – disadvantaged and vulnerable groups such as Indigenous learners, rural populations, migrants, older citizens, people with disabilities or prisoners – are deprived of access to learning opportunities.

About 60% of countries reported no improvement in participation by people with disabilities, migrants or prisoners. 24% of countries reported that the participation of rural populations declined. And participation of older adults also decreased in 24% of the 159 surveyed countries.

How can we guarantee the right to lifelong learning?

The GRALE report details the crucial steps needed to guarantee the right to lifelong learning.

Greater participation and inclusion are key: Vulnerable groups, such as migrants, indigenous learners, older citizens and people with disabilities, are too often excluded from adult education and learning.

More financing is needed: Investment in adult learning and education is currently insufficient. Countries must live up to their commitment to seek investment of at least 6% of GNP in education, increasing the allocation to adult learning and education. There is wide diversity in terms of public funding devoted to adult learning and education, with only 22 out of 146 countries spending 4% or more of their public expenditure for education on adult learning and education, and 28 spending less than 0.4%.

Stronger policies are essential: Effective policies are key for adult learning and education across the globe. 60% of countries have improved policies since 2018. But we need further efforts to transition education systems to lifelong learning systems.

Progress in governance: Partnerships and cooperation between ministries, the private sector and civil society are essential for adult learning and education to thrive. Almost three-quarters of countries reported progress in governance, particularly in low-income and upper middle-income countries, and in both sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and the Pacific.

Improved quality: Effective teacher training and the professional standards for adult educators are essential to the quality of earning. Most countries reported progress in relation to quality of curricula, assessment and the professionalization of adult educators. Over two-thirds reported progress in pre-service and in-service training for educators, as well as in employment conditions, though this progress varies considerably by region and income group.

The importance of citizenship education: Responding to contemporary challenges, such as climate change and digitalization, demands citizens who are informed, trained and engaged, active, who recognize both their shared humanity and their obligations to other species and to the planet. Citizenship education is a key tool in this endeavour to empower learners to take action and help transform our collective future.

What has been the impact of COVID-19 on adult learning?       

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most countries reported rapid transitions to online, digital and distance learning or modifications of in-person learning arrangements. The widespread adoption of digital technology, including televisions, radios and telephones, has supported educational continuity for millions during lockdowns.

There are many examples of countries responding innovatively to the crisis to ensure the continuation of adult learning by adopting new policies and regulations to support this process, or by adjusting existing quality standards and curricula.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused some regions and population groups, particularly in parts of the world where resources and infrastructure are scarce, to lag even further behind.

How does UNESCO support adult education and learning?

The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning strengthens the capacities of Member States to build effective and inclusive lifelong learning policies and systems, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 4. It aims to develop learning ecosystems that work across life, in every setting and benefit everyone through building capacity at local and national levels, strengthening partnerships, and offering data and knowledge.

To advance the world’s commitment to the right to lifelong learning, UNESCO is convening the Seventh International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII) in Marrakech, Morocco from 15 to 17 June 2022. Participants from across the globe will come together to take stock of achievements in adult learning and education, discuss challenges, and develop a new framework for action to make adult learning and education a reality around the world. CONFINTEA VII is hosted by and co-organized with the Kingdom of Morocco.