What can we learn from successful adult learning reforms?

By Anna Vindics

Policy-makers have long recognised that participation in adult learning is key to unlock benefits of a changing world of work. While much has been written about the need for progress in this area, many good initiatives struggle to translate into real change on the ground, as they get stuck in the difficulties of policy implementation. Drawing on the experience of six countries (Austria, Estonia, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and Singapore) that have significantly increased participation over the past decades, the OECD has identified the main factors behind successful policies and programmes. The findings are published in the report “Increasing Adult Learning Participation: Learning from Successful Reforms“, which is released today. Based on an analysis of 17 reforms deemed the most important for the observed increases in participation, five key lessons emerge on the design, implementation and evaluation of adult learning reforms.

1. There is no magic bullet for increasing adults’ participation in education or training

Selected reforms cover a wide variety of measures with diverse aims and objectives. They provide different types of training, address multiple barriers to participation and engage various target groups. Most countries introduced both universal measures for the entire adult population and targeted ones, typically focusing on the low-skilled, unemployed or older individuals. The reach of the policies under review varies widely, from covering between less than 1% of the adult population in most cases to more than 15% in one case (Italian Training Funds). This stresses the need for comprehensive approaches when tackling adult learning participation, because it is likely to be the combination of reforms, rather than each reform in isolation, that contributes to the increase in country level participation rates. Estonia’s Lifelong Learning Strategy, launched in 2014, is a good example of a comprehensive strategy to set priorities and guide funding decisions, which are then implemented through nine different programmes.

2. Stakeholder involvement is crucial in both the development and implementation of adult learning reforms

While the impetus for reform often comes from the central administration, the involvement of a range of stakeholders in the development and/or the implementation of reform turns out to be essential. The vast majority of successful reforms analysed in the OECD report are governed through a network approach, most often in the form of advisory or supervisory bodies that are composed of a broad range of stakeholders. These advisory bodies most frequently include social partners and public employment services, in addition to the relevant Ministries. In Singapore, the Future Economy Council oversees the implementation of all SkillsFuture measures. It brings together high-level stakeholders to participate in the governance of the skill development system including ministers, social partners and, unusually by international comparison, education providers and a large number of individual employers.

3. Increasing adults’ participation in learning does not have to come with a high price tag

The direct costs of the programmes examined by the OECD ranged from 200 to 2 500 euros per participant (Chart 1). The Austrian paid educational leave also covered the indirect costs of training by compensating individuals for foregone wages. Tax funding, social security contributions and levies are the most common ways of paying for adult learning reforms. Many reforms in European countries are co-funded by the European Union through the European Structural Funds (ESF). While ESF funding facilitates the implementation of more wide-reaching reforms, it poses a risk for their sustainability beyond the ESF funding cycle. In Estonia, this risk is decreased by using ESF funds to first trial different aspects of the Training-Related ALMP reforms before making them permanent and financed through the public employment services when deemed successful.

4. Adapting policies and programmes based on lessons from implementation is important for success

The majority of the successful reforms were adapted compared with their initial design. Incorporating lessons learnt along the way provides an opportunity to overcome barriers to take-up, identify bottlenecks and improve the overall effectiveness of the new measures. Adaptations are often based on information generated through monitoring progress, evaluating results or bringing together providers of adult learning to share experiences. Since its introduction in 1998, the Paid Educational Leave in Austria has developed from attracting less than 2 000 participants to reaching over 15 000 people every year by adapting the programme based on evidence from evaluations. Two of the bottlenecks identified after the introduction of the reform were the low benefit amount and the long minimum duration of the training; both were subsequently amended to increase take-up.

5. High participation rates are not sufficient for a well-functioning and future-ready adult learning system

To improve participants’ labour market outcomes, reforms must not only focus on participation rates, but also on training quality, inclusion of disadvantaged groups and alignment with individual and labour market needs. For the Hungarian Open Learning Centres, tailoring education to adults is considered a key aspect of quality: teaching content relates to adult’s everyday lives and focuses on instantly usable aspects; teachers are experienced in working with adults; and courses are short and delivered in a relaxed atmosphere surrounded by modern technology. Adult Education Centres in Italy achieve inclusiveness by raising the competencies of adults with low skills or low qualifications. They provide courses to develop basic literacy, ICT and national language skills. To access the Dutch Training Vouchers individuals have to sign up for training that would increase their employment opportunities to ensure alignment with skill needs. They can either submit an agreement, where an employer commits to hire them after completing the training, or pursue training related to a ‘shortage occupation’ in their region.

Policy design is only half the battle

Good policy design is only half the battle to increase participation in adult learning. Anticipating and taking concerted, co-ordinated action to overcome inevitable implementation difficulties are just as important for successful reforms. Over the course of 2020 and 2021, the OECD will explore implementation difficulties related to adult learning reforms through two regional peer-learning workshops, one in Latin America and one in Europe.


The launch of the report is accompanied with an online webinar, which will discuss the key lessons that emerge on the design, implementation and evaluation of adult learning reforms.

Please join the webinar today at 2 pm CET through this link: https://meetoecd1.zoom.us/j/312142211

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