Lifelong learning: Cultivating free minds in free societies

Adult learning is a vital aspect of European integration at a time when enlargement is once again at the centre of the debate, and a value to be preserved and constantly reformed in the EU Member States and partner countries through a holistic system approach. These were the key messages presented yesterday at the European Committee of the Regions in Brussels by the European Training Foundation (ETF), the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) and DVV International, the international branch of the German Adult Education Association. 

Manuela Prina, Head of Unit at the ETF, welcomed the many speakers from EU institutions, civil society and representatives from Eastern and South-Eastern European countries, recalling the central role of lifelong learning (LLL) in the current European Year of Skills. "Maybe young people don't know it, but in 1996 there was the European Year of Lifelong Learning," said Koen Nomden, Team Leader at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL). "For almost the last 30 years, the focus on education and training has become much broader," he added, before giving the audience an in-depth overview of current EU policies and participation trends in adult learning, lifelong learning and skills. 

What has not changed is the link between these dimensions in addressing the needs of EU member states and candidate countries. If the European Year of Skills is at the heart of the modern enlargement process, lifelong learning was developed in the previous EU enlargement process. Indeed, the two successful cases of Slovenia and Estonia were presented as an inspiring example of innovative institutional attitude to stakeholders and policymakers from Eastern and South-Eastern Europe.  

Representatives shared success stories and challenges in two different groups, chaired by Gina Ebner, Secretary General of the EAEA, and by Siria Taurelli, Senior Expert in human capital development governance at the ETF. The stories of change showed that public systems are able to regenerate themselves when there are challenges. There are weaknesses too, including a lack of long-term vision, issues of quality assurance, underfunding, fragmented institutional arrangements, and motivation of adults with low education or exposed to vulnerability. 

"Before I start, I would like to say that Armenia is still not a candidate country, and I hope it will be after this meeting," joked Avetiq Mejlumyan, director at the NGO Institute of Public Policy, to laughter and applause from the audience. His optimism signalled a willingness to accelerate the path towards EU standards for all countries, not just the current candidates, while the atmosphere at the conference was further reinforced by the European Commission's announcement on the previous day, initiating the EU accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina

Another moment that led to heartfelt applause was when Amina Isanović Hadžiomerović from the University of Sarajevo remarked that "it is an honour to be here at such a historic moment for my country". In this regard, the event had a welcome surprise guest, the Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Belgium, Erol Avdovic. This was a clear sign that the interest in lifelong learning does not stop once candidate status has been achieved, but even increases. 

Hoa-Binh Adjemian, Acting Head of Unit at European Commission’s Directorate General for the European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), highlighted the European Union's unwavering commitment to supporting partner countries through tailored initiatives, of which the Ukraine Facility programme is the most prominent. By highlighting that this support goes beyond immediate assistance and includes alignment with the EU acquis in various sectors, Adjemian pointed to lifelong learning policies as a pillar that can sustain all other sectors. 

Following an overview of international best practice in financing mechanisms in the adult learning sector, led by Patricia Navarro-Palau, Labour Market Economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it was noted how many of the participating countries – Estonia, Georgia, Kosovo, Serbia, among others - are already using these frameworks to finance adult learning and education, while there is ample scope to extend their use more widely. Most country stakeholders in fact pointed to the current underfunding of adult learning policies. 

Discussions followed with much enthusiasm as Jasna Jovanović, Acting Director General of the Directorate for Lifelong Learning, Ministry of Education, Science and Innovation of Montenegro, noted the joy and optimism of her country's new team, formed just two months ago showing the priority attributed to adult learning. 

"Adult education is especially important for non-EU countries where there are shortages in the labour market and migration issues," stressed Felicia Bechtold, State Secretary of Labour and Social Protection of Moldova. "And our perspective is not to limit our initiatives to a narrow definition of adults. We are proud to be piloting the University of the Third Age for older people, and it was touching to see people really crying when they found out they had not been selected," she said. 

"Adult education and lifelong learning could be a cornerstone for advancing both the human rights agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals," said Isabell Kempf, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL). "South-Eastern Europe is the region with the highest number of female scientists in the world. The 52% are women, compared to an EU average of 34% and a global average of 32%," she noted, highlighting how education serves as a catalyst for social change and equitable progress. 

The closing session wasn't static. Instead, it was an interactive session with the audience, incorporating different stakeholder voices. "I would like to emphasise that lifelong learning policy should not be a top-down approach where society should fulfil whatever is decided," said Uwe Gartenschlaeger, Director of DVV International & President of EAEA. "And, as we can see today, it's also mutual learning among countries from all regions," he said, after deepening the focus on the "joy of learning" raised by Hugues Moussy, Head of Unit at the ETF. 

"I will return to Turin with one word in my head: lifestyle. Lifelong learning must become a normal part of life, like basic education for children. One thing we may never learn enough is how to love to learn," said Moussy, adding that "empowering people also refers to things that cannot be sold immediately on the labour market".

In other words, lifelong learning also relates to broader notions of citizenship, critical thinking and innovation: "We need free minds for free societies," Moussy concluded. 




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