Professor Jyri Manninen presents first results of the BeLL survey in Bonn, 22nd January. Photo: Tapio Kujala

BeLL project: almost all benefit from liberal adult education

Research now confirms what many know from experience: studying improves quality of life.


Research now confirms what many know from experience: studying improves quality of life. The first results of the BeLL project were published last week in Bonn, Germany by the project’s research team. BeLL is a ten-country survey on the benefits of liberal adult education – the first such survey.

– Adults experience mostly positive effects after taking part in liberal non formal adult education, says Jyri Manninen, the researcher behind the idea of BeLL.

Nine out of ten benefits

BeLL stands for “benefits of lifelong learning”. The study focused on  “liberal adult education”, i.e. education that has no direct degree or professional orientation and is often undertaken as a hobby and for personal development. The survey charted not only learning outcomes but all possible effects adult education has on the learner.

BeLL recorded various benefits. As many as nine out of ten survey respondents felt that, as their studies progressed, their study motivation and their image of themselves as a learner improved and their social interaction and networks got better. At the same time they felt their wellbeing and satisfaction with life improved.

– Benefits related to work or active citizenship were less frequently mentioned but nevertheless 31 to 42 percent of respondents reported improvement in these areas as well, explains Manninen.

Learners with lower qualifications such as compulsory basic education reported most increase of learning motivation. People with university degrees experienced least improvement in motivation.

– This is a logical result as motivation levels are higher for more educated people.

Social interaction breeds wellbeing

The study found that participation, group cohesion, interaction and expansion of social networks generate an array of benefits – in addition to being a benefit in itself.

– Interaction brought about especially mental wellbeing, a sense of one’s life having a meaning. This had a link to physical health and health-related behavior, explains Manninen.

Country differences were a surprise

The researchers were surprised to discover that there were country differences in how learning benefits were perceived. The differences are small but statistically significant.

– Statistical analysis reveals that Romanian, Slovenian and Spanish learners perceive slightly bigger changes than people in other countries. This occurs even when respondents’ background factors such as educational level, gender and education course type are standardized.

Policy makers are a tough audience

Manninen wants policy makers to listen to BeLL’s message but sees them as a hard-to-convince target group. Policy recommendations form a part of the survey. These include, among others, making liberal non formal adult education equal to non formal vocational education and subsidizing liberal adult education for those with low qualifications, as they stand to benefit the most.

– An education ministry official of an unnamed country already labelled BeLL as “wishful thinking of a bygone era”. But has vocational education been any more successful in solving unemployment problems? Manninen asks.

According to the results of BeLL, participating in low-threshold liberal adult education would motivate people to take up also vocational education later on. This is particularly true for people with low qualifications, young, marginalised and passive people.

The anatomy of BeLL

  • Survey material was collected from ten European countries: Finland, UK, Spain, Germany Slovenia, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Romania, Serbia and Italy.
  • The material was collected with a questionnaire, filled in by 8646 adult learners. Each respondent had taken part in at least one liberal non formal adult education course within a year. Jyri Manninen, based in the  University of Eastern Finland, coordinated the survey.
  • In addition to the questionnaires, eight interviews were carried out in each country.
  • The survey produced information also on the nature and organizations of liberal adult education in different European countries.
  • The European Commission funded the research.
  • The European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) acted as a project partner.
  • The German Institute for Adult education (DIE) coordinated the research project.
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