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Photo by Laura Kotila

Continuous learning as a right and a necessity

Authors: Sari Pohjola Published:

Photo by Laura Kotila

Following Finland’s EU-presidency, we talked to the Finnish Minister of Education, Li Andersson, about the strengths and challenges of the Finnish non-formal adult education and the role of adult learning in surviving the global crisis.

In autumn 2019, the Finnish EU-presidency put the topic of continuous learning at EU-level on the agenda. The discussion on continuous learning has continued since then and has also led to an increased priority for non-formal education.

In July 2020, the European Commission published its new Skills Agenda and later in the year 2020, the European Commission plans to publish a Communication on the European Education Area, potentially including the new priorities for the European Agenda for Adult Learning.

We asked the Finnish Minister of Education, Li Andersson (The Left Alliance), how the political discussion on continuous learning has developed since the Finnish EU-Presidency and what she thinks is the role of non-formal adult education in surviving the current health and economic crisis.

Fostering continuous learning

The term continuous learning was introduced in Finland to emphasise the importance of upskilling and reskilling over the course of people’s careers. The Finnish government launched a reform on continuous learning in 2019 to respond to the educational needs arising from changes in the world of work and to seek solutions to combine work and study.

Some of the key questions are how non-formal and informal learning could be better exploited in competence development and how the learning outcomes could be made more visible.

The reform is being prepared in a group comprising members from all parliamentary parties. New policies are to be published by the end of 2020. However, Andersson emphasizes that the reform is not a project that one government will complete.

“The challenge is that it’s a huge task. We can look at education provision, guidance services, student income, validation and recognition of learning. There is a lot of work to be done in creating a coherent system,” says Andersson.

The conversation was the reason for people to attend the study circle, not the guest speaker.

According to Andersson, researchers are strongly involved in the dialogue on the reform and the creation of a situation picture. She also stresses that continuous learning entails many different interests and discourses.

One can look at the increased skills requirements, both in the labour market and in using public services. Secondly, we can talk about people’s right to education and equal opportunities. The third discussion is about the rapidly changing world, ecological and other issues we must solve, and about how we can give people tools to understand the world.

Changing population structure and outreach as challenges

Andersson sees the extensive regional network of education providers and a wide range of learning opportunities as the strengths of the Finnish non-formal adult education system.

“Historically, Finland has a strong tradition of non-formal adult education which is reflected in our participation rates. This has created a culture of learning,” she says.

One of the current challenges of the Finnish education policy is the changing population structure.

Li Andersson

  • Minister of Education, Finland
  • Leader of the Left Alliance since 2016
  • Received the second highest number of votes in the Finnish parliament elections in 2019

For instance, the number of young people in many municipalities is decreasing while at the same time, the educational needs of other people are increasing. New ways are needed to increase the participation of underrepresented groups, such as migrants.

Andersson believes that interesting approaches to outreach are often developed in the non-formal sector. As an example, she tells about her visit to a study circle that was organised at a petrol station in a small municipality in Finland:

“The idea was to reach people who gathered at the petrol station for social reasons but would not typically attend courses at adult education centres. The conversation was the reason for people to attend the study circle, not the guest speaker.”

More profound dialogue needed at the European level

As Finland and other EU countries share a lot of these challenges in non-formal adult education, Andersson sees a need for a deeper and more frequent dialogue about adult education policies at the European level.

Increasing the participation of underrepresented groups and strengthening educational equality are examples of shared concerns.

Besides the political level, dialogue with researchers, civil society and education providers is essential. Personally, Andersson would like to learn more about well-functioning adult learning policies in other countries.

For instance, in Norway there is an administration structure fostering continuous learning. In Finland, however, the service systems for education and employment are separate entities.

If we want to have lifelong learning, we need lifelong guidance as well.

According to Andersson, the question of where to find guidance is crucial. If you are not in education, information about education opportunities is provided by the employment offices. However, many people are not aware of these services.

“This may be an exaggerated example, but if you are a working person who wants to know about education opportunities, you will not think of going to the employment office. If we want to have lifelong learning, we need lifelong guidance as well”, Andersson points out.

Revamping bureaucratic structures and bringing education and labour market services closer together may be required to ensure that people can find their way to and in continuous learning.

Adult education can bring safety in the midst of uncertainty

The value of non-formal adult education is often reduced to the question of what kind of skills it can offer to the labour market. Adult education providers and researchers would like to promote a more holistic view according which non-formal learning can help people adjust to new realities and acquire the life skills needed in the context of their lives.

Life skills are also connected to the German concept of ”Bildung” , which European Bildung Network defines as as “having the education and knowledge necessary to thrive in your society, and the moral and emotional maturity to be both a team player and have personal autonomy”.

The education system should always offer an opportunity for learning, and there should be no closed doors.

We asked Andersson how she understands Bildung in the everyday context.

“The first thing that comes to mind is how to deal with other people in society; communication skills and empathy. These are things we all need but sometimes need training for,” suggests Andersson.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made globalisation – global connections and interdependencies – real and tangible for everyone. In many EU-countries, the crisis has led to increased unemployment and the need to learn new skills.

“My party used to have a slogan that that the alternative of employment should not be unemployment but education”, says Andersson.

These words could resonate with politicians from other EU countries too. Andersson believes that non-formal adult education can provide people with the tools to understand global citizenship, their place in the world, and how everything is connected.

Besides giving something meaningful to do, education can foster well-being and social connections.

“In major turning points such as now, participating in adult education can bring content and safety to everyday life amidst uncertainty. The education system should always offer an opportunity for learning, and there should be no closed doors.”

This article was published in partnership between European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) and Elm Magazine. The EAEA communications unit is located at the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation and receives financial support from the Ministry of Education and Culture of Finland.

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Sari Pohjola is the Communications Officer of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), a partner of Elm Magazine. EAEA Communications unit is based at the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation (KVS) in Helsinki. Contact: Show all articles by Sari Pohjola
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