The "Building Bridges" conference, reconnecting national adult education professionals in former Yugoslav countries was a success. Organizers hope it will become a tradition. / Photos: Črt Lipej

Building bridges in ex-Yugoslavian adult education

Former Yugoslav countries are rebuilding regional collaboration in adult education. Darijan Novak reports from a groundbreaking regional conference. Its spirit: "We must change the system!"


Existing systems produce existing results. If we want something different we must change the system”.  That was one of the conclusions when some hundred adult education stakeholders from the countries of the former Yugoslavia met at a conference.

“National teams” getting together

Building Bridges in Adult Education” was the title of the conference that took place in December 2015 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Five Slovenian organisations hosted the conference that included participants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The conference was the first formal occasion bringing together adult education representatives of all former Yugoslav countries.

The national coordinators from each of the countries were asked to form a national team, which would consist of different stakeholders working in adult education coming from universities, ministries, public institutions and agencies, private providers and NGOs. They were joined by local Slovenian experts. In all there were 95 professionals participating in the two-day conference.

Establishing former collaboration

In the past the Yugoslav republics, now countries, collaborated very actively on different areas, also in adult education. For example, the first Association of folk high schools of Yugoslavia was established already in 1935. In socialist times these were renamed as workers’ universities, and are nowadays mostly known, in different languages, as peoples’ universities, and still represent, at least in some countries, an important part of adult learning in the region.

After the split of Yugoslavia, the network crumbled down, some of it literally, so the newly established countries inherited very different levels of infrastructure. The national experts started to develop their own national agendas and legislation on adult learning. Even though the development has taken somewhat similar direction, the differences between the countries may be bigger than before the split.

Maybe the greatest difference between the countries concerns membership of the EU: Croatia and Slovenia are members, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are on the road to membership, and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates. At the same time all of the countries experience similar challenges: the economic crisis causes further marginalisation of education in general with adult education on its margin. Other troubles include bleak levels of unemployment, and lately the migrant and refugee crisis.

One of the ways of dealing with these crises may be strengthening adult education networks, preferably at the same time on local, national or international level. The main aim of the conference was quite optimistic, namely to re-establish the once-active collaboration in order to support the networking of stakeholders in the field and foster the exchange of experience, ideas and good practices.

Validation, inclusion and state-civil society cooperation most important

I participated in the “Building Bridges” conference: in the next chapters I offer a short account of the content and results of the event.

The first day was intended for delegates to get to know each other better. Each delegation prepared a presentation of the current situation in their country, namely to present the contours of the adult education system with main activities in the area of formal, non-formal and informal learning, to recognize the main stakeholders in adult education and their primary target groups. We also shared thoughts on key challenges in adult education and examples of good practices.

The second day had a more practical orientation. We held three parallel workshops on those topics that we believe have most hidden value for the development of individuals and regions: non-formal and informal learning with validation, inclusion of vulnerable target groups and the importance of collaboration of state and civil society in the area of adult education.

Conference workshops were dedicated to discussing those areas of adult education with most potential impact on society and wellbeing. 



The first group, non-formal and informal learning and validation, divided the theme into three subthemes: policy, research & development and practice, with participants trying to find mutual challenges in them. The result of each of the subthemes was a list with around 15 points, therefore around 45 for the whole group.

A quote from British linguist Sir Christopher Ball sums up the spirit of the discussion: “Existing systems produce existing results. If we want something different we must change the system”.


The second group, including vulnerable target groups, finished up with another maxim: “Let the challenges become the motivation”, and started with the listing of the seemingly ever growing list of already detected vulnerable groups.

An ever greater portion of population could be understood as vulnerable, bearing in mind that new such groups appear continuously. The important starting point for the work with these groups is to include them in the whole educational process. Nothing should be done or planned for vulnerable target groups without them. Also, the process should start with their strengths and not their weaknesses, with the bulk of energy invested into their self-esteem.

The group summed up the possibilities for further work like this: for best results all the stakeholders on the local level should cooperate, NGOs should be included in the process and adult educators should cooperate on all levels. Guidance and counselling are important, and also collaboration on an international level was put forward.

State and civil society

The third group discussed the power and responsibility of the state and civil society regarding adult education. The moderator structured the discussion around six points: the balance of power between the state and civil society; the system of adult education; the importance of adult education for empowerment of citizens; the impact of globalization and Europeanization of adult education; the impact of neoliberal ideology on adult education; and listing of key issues on the theme.

On the second day there was also an internal meeting of the national coordinators for implementation of the European Programme for Adult Learning and representatives of the national support service of EPALE, the adult education portal.

Us organisers are delighted that so many partners responded to the invitation and that every single country was present. It must be that educators do still believe that education is the key to solve our existing differences, to overcome difficult times, and that the greatest struggles are easier to deal with together. Such a conference deserves – that was our silent wish – to become a tradition. The colleagues from Bosnia and Herzegovina will find a way to organise it in Mostar in 2016.

“Building Bridges” – a group effort, supported by Erasmus +

The organisers of the conference were the national partners in adult education – the Slovenian Institute for Adult Education (SIAE), Adult Education Society of Slovenia (ADS), the Centre for Mobility and European Educational and Training Programmes (CMEPIUS), which is the National Support Service for EPALE, the Association of Organisations for Adult Education at Secondary Schools (DOIO) and the Association of Educational Institutions (ZII).

The conference was co-financed by the Slovenian Ministry of Education and the European Commission Erasmus+ programme.

In addition to the partners these institutions made their experts available for conference duties: The Faculty of Arts at the University of Ljubljana, Education and Adult Education Department, the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport, the Slovenian University of the Third Age and ZIK Črnomelj.

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