“Creating jobs is the best way to promote learning”

Most of nonformal learning occurs in the working place, argues EU Commission's Jens Fischer-Kottenstede, policy officer for evidence-based policy.


“Creating jobs is the best way to promote learning”
Interview with Jens Fischer-Kottenstede of the European Commision

The upcoming March issue of LLinE will focus on PIAAC.

Photo: Jens Fischer-Kottenstede


The PIAAC study, measuring adults’ working life skills is a fundamental improvement in the toolkit of EU education experts.

-PIAAC provides comprehensive evidence of the basic skills of most EU citizens for the first time. This is a major step forward towards evidence-based policy making, says EU Commission’s Jens Fischer-Kottenstede.

He is a policy officer at the DG for Education and Culture, responsible for PIAAC and, more generally, evidence-based policy and adult learning. In this interview he encourages adult education advocates to campaign about benefits of learning. However, in his view, the working place might after all be the best learning environment.

EU counts on workplace learning

LLinE: PIAAC reinforces the view that non-formal learning is important. Do we need European and national campaigns underlining the personal and social benefits of non-formal learning?

Jens Fischer-Kottenstede: First and foremost PIAAC shows that a lot, if not the most, lifelong learning takes place in the workplace by simply practising and improving the skills. Thus, reasonably qualified jobs in which people use their skills each and every day are the best learning space. The best way of promoting skills development among adults is to provide and create these jobs.

Nevertheless, promoting learning is always a good thing to do. But people have to see the added value of continuing learning, which then automatically creates the desire to learn. Other surveys such as the ‘Adult Education Survey‘ show that there are many obstacles that prevent people from learning; priority should be given to removing these obstacles.

Country analyses on the way

L: Following PIAAC, the Commission has announced plans to both increase cooperation and synergy with OECD in surveys and skills strategies.

What could the synergy with OECD mean in practice for educational policy makers?

F-K: The closer cooperation will first result in better knowledge for national policy makers of their countries’ education system through targeted OECD country reviews which the Commission is going to support. These reviews will provide policy makers with better comparative analysis for designing and implementing policies.

Second, the cooperation will help EU members participate in OECD surveys such as PIAAC and TALIS by easing the financial burden of participation through Erasmus+ and hence improve many countries’ evidence base for policy making.

And thirdly, cooperation in the field of skills strategies should help Member States to better match the existing skills of their workforce with the skills demand of the labour market in order to make a more efficient use of their investment in education.

Measure your skills online

L: You are supporting OECD in preparing an online assessment tool that gives everyone the chance to measure their own PIAAC-style score with an internet test. It has already been nicknamed “online PIAAC”. (Editor’s note: The online tool is not online at the time of writing and is behind schedule but should be available soon) What potential, and on the other hand, what limitations will this tool have?

F-K: The tool will inform people about their actual levels of skills and how these compare to, for example, the PIAAC results in their country. This way people can identify their strenghts and weaknesses and know where they stand. Thus, the tool will support people in taking better and more targeted decisions about which additional learning courses might help to for example re-enter the labour market. And the tool will as well help informing adult learning providers about the skills of participants, if they let them take the test.

At the same time, the tool cannot pre-empt someone’s decisions about which courses to take and how to develop his or her skills further, because this depends very much on an individual’s situation and preferences.

Also, the tool is not expected to be an on-going PIAAC, because it is unlikely that those using the tool will constitute a representative sample of the population.

Make noise about learning benefits

L: PIAAC results showed that there are significant skills gaps between e.g. immigrant and native populations in most participant countries, as well as between older and younger people. How can we best reach out to low-skilled adults and under-represented groups with policy?

F-K: It is important to remove very practical barriers that keep these groups from participating in continuing learning, for example that they cannot afford it, the place of learning is too far away or they simply have no one to take care of their children while they are away.

And for those who do not see the need for continuing learning, the possible benefits have to be outlined, for example that it will enable them to find a job with better pay. If we do not succeed in raising the participation of the low skilled, they will remain in a low skills trap.

Cohesion and skills -what relation?

L: Are the low skills levels in some parts of Europe a threat to national or European democracy?

F-K: One very interesting result of PIAAC is that the level of an individual’s skills is closely and positively related to political efficacy and trust in others, as well as to health and income. In that sense, having low skills increases the likelihood of feeling excluded from society.

But we should be careful in drawing conclusions about the actual impact of low levels of skills, because that might depend very much on the context in a specific country. Moreover, we know that there is a correlation, but we hardly know anything about causalities, meaning whether low skills cause social exclusion, whether it works the other way round or whether there are other factors which influence both.

EU sets targets and shares good practice

Each EU country makes its own education policy: the role of the EU is limited to supporting member states by setting joint goals and sharing good practice. In practice this task is largely handled by the European Commission and its Directorate General (DG) for Education and Culture.

The Commission played a supporting role also in the PIAAC study. It supported the participation of countries in the survey by providing financial contributions from the Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP). The Commission also directly funded the OECD secretariat.

Europe in a nutshell in PIAAC


EU countries can be roughly grouped into three categories based on their PIAAC performance: countries with high shares of top performing adults and low levels of low performers like the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden; countries with varying patterns but whose results are not significantly different; and, thirdly countries with few top scores and very high shares of low performers such as Spain and Italy.

Apart from the top performer of PIAAC, Japan, non-European countries do not perform very differently than European countries. Japan outperforms all other countries with its high share of top performers and very few low performers, while for example the US scores clearly below OECD average.


European Commission, MEMO/13/860, retrieved from http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-13-860_en.htm