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Adult Education and Work Contexts: International Perspectives and Challenges

Comparative Perspectives from the 2017 Würzburg Winter School


Edited By Regina Egetenmeyer and Monica Fedeli

Adult education has deep connections with employment contexts. This volume discusses interrelations within transnational contexts studied during the Würzburg Winter School on Comparative Studies in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning (COMPALL). The book shows that adult education and work contexts are influenced by international and transnational developments. The findings are presented in three chapters: Lifelong Learning Policies Targeting Employment Contexts; Transnational Perspectives on Lifelong Learning Policies; Employment Perspectives and Professionalisation in Adult Education.

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The influence of PIAAC results on (inter-)national adult education policy: A critical discussion of Austria and Estonia (Reinhard Lechner / Mari Liis Räis / Nitish Anand / Ahmet Murat Yetkin / Paula Guimarães)

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Reinhard Lechner, Mari Liis Räis, Nitish Anand, Ahmet Murat Yetkin & Paula Guimarães

The influence of PIAAC results on (inter-)national adult education policy: A critical discussion of Austria and Estonia

Abstract: This article compares and analyses the results of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) in Austria and Estonia, as well as the reaction to these results in national adult education policies and in the scientific community. By the comparison, tendencies of an international influence can be recognised, namely the influence of human resources management guidelines in national policies.


In 2012, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) performed several rounds of surveys of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). 23 European countries took part in this evaluation of adults’ (16–65-year-olds) basic functional learning skills for workplace and everyday problem-solving in literacy, numeracy, and information and communication technology. The results fostered political discussions in these countries’ national political institutions, and adult education scholars responded to the ranking of competencies.

Stressing policy on the national and European level, this article analyses and compares the results of the PIAAC surveys carried out in Austria and Estonia. After presenting and discussing selected data on the socio-economic background of the two countries, we compare the results and their impact in Austria and Estonia concerning policy reactions and reactions by adult education scholars. Given the similarities and differences of the two countries, the research question is: How has PIAAC influenced adult education policy in Austria and Estonia?

To answer the question and to accomplish a comparison, it is important to understand the main idea behind the OECD’s development goals concerning adult education policy. As a second step, we address some methodological aspects about comparisons. Further, we take account of the methodological conditions of comparison concerning cultural similarities and differences of adult learning in different countries. We then present and compare selected PIAAC results from ← 83 | 84 → Austria and Estonia and discuss responses of relevant parties. As a conclusive statement to these results, we point out some discursive and methodological aspects of PIAAC that need to be researched further.

Lifelong learning according to the OECD

The OECD aims at promoting the economic and social well-being of people around the world (OECD, 2017). It is primarily concerned with economic policy. However, education has taken on increasing importance within that mandate: education has been reframed as central to national economic competitiveness and linked to an emerging ‘knowledge economy’ (Grek, 2009, p. 24). The success of OECD in shaping the public discussion on education policies in Europe can be assessed through surveys in national education systems and the international comparison of their results, such as PIAAC, even if national differences can be noticed (Jakobi, 2012). According to Jones (2007, p. 94), ‘[s]ince the middle of the last century, international organisations have been increasingly playing an influential role as “purveyors of ideas” and as leading participants in the struggle over education policy content’. One of the main ideas brought to the political discussion by international organisations like OECD is lifelong learning (Field, 2006). In recent definitions, the term stresses the role of the individual, who is primarily responsible for his or her education and training. Additionally, individuals have to learn over the whole life span in order to be able to participate in the everyday workplace and social life and to cope with fast changes (Field, 2001).

Lifelong learning was first adopted by the OECD in the 1990s (Rubenson, 2015), and in 2002, education and training became the main issue of a separate directorate. Since then, strategies to influence education and training policies have been made more visible, for instance with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The Survey of Adult Skills of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is an initiative of the directorate, designed to assist governments in assessing, monitoring, and analysing the level and distribution of skills among their adult populations. It is referred to as ‘an unparalleled source of evidence for policy makers’ (OECD). PIAAC is directed at providing internationally comparable data on key skills under three domains: numeracy, literacy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. It allows for comparing statistical data on adult education for many different countries. Up until now, PIAAC includes three rounds of data collection: 2008–2013, 2012–2016, and 2016–2019.

As critics point out, the OECD has favoured an economistic approach to lifelong learning (Rubenson, 2015). National education and training systems are ← 84 | 85 → understood as crucial factors in improving economic growth as well as the prosperity of individuals and society. PIAAC helps to find key cognitive skills and workplace skills based on the idea that there can be a mismatch between education and training and the needs of the economy, thereby pushing nations into policy reforms for the attainment of desired results. Therefore, PIAAC allows more accurate measurement of the stocks of human capital than standard and traditional indicators of educational attainment, years of work experience, and occupational classifications. In this sense, PIAAC may help to identify areas where the greatest growth returns are likely to be had for different overall education and training investment strategies. As such, it can be understood as ‘governing by numbers’ (Ozga & Lingard, 2007, p. 69) in order to foster competitiveness and growth of the economy (Grek, 2010).

Theoretical framework for analysis and comparison

The analysis and the comparison of PIAAC results in Austria and Estonia will be discussed according to three social policy analytical models referred to by Lima and Guimarães (2011). The first model – the democratic emancipatory model – is based on polycentric education and training systems in a framework of participatory democracies characterised by a range of social struggles and conflicts. Policies tend to favour decentralisation and bottom-up dynamics, to the detriment of top-down ones. State programmes prefer local support for self-governing and self-managed projects and activities, promoted by civil society organisations, particularly non-profit ones, and social movements. The priorities of adult education policies are to construct more inclusive, just, egalitarian, democratic, and participatory societies, in which all the action of all the social actors matters. Social, economic, and political change is an essential purpose; education and training are regarded as empowering processes, mechanisms for social emancipation and basic social rights.

The second model – the modernisation and state control model – includes guidelines that are geared towards valuing education and training as support for social and economic modernisation. In this context, the state is a key player in defining and providing education, and its intervention in ensuring free education for all is essential. These guidelines set out to plug the gaps and social and educational needs of people singled out by various government departments. In addition, adult education and lifelong learning, especially the basic and vocational components, help to train citizens and workers, fostering social, civic, and political participation within the framework of formal public authorities and labour organisations. The policy priorities emphasise basic education projects and initiatives, namely ← 85 | 86 → functional literacy, adaptive literacy, and second chance education (such as evening courses for adults).

Finally, in a third model – the human resources management model – profit-making organisations are central and the individual is seen as a rational, strategic actor. The policy priorities preferred in this model are driven by economic growth through increased productivity, competitiveness, and employability of working adults, since education and training are at the service of the development of human capital. Adult education is concerned with social, economic, and educational adaptation, where citizens are regarded as enjoying freedom of choice and being responsible for their education and training options. Education and training (in formal, non-formal, and informal forms) are gaining market value since they can be translated into investments with an economic return.

Comparing PIAAC results in Austria and Estonia

Methodological considerations

With a population of 8.6 million and 1.3 million, respectively, Austria and Estonia belong to the smaller members of the European Union. Both countries have several qualities in common and hence can be compared internationally (Reisch­mann, 2008): Both are rather small countries belonging to the European Union with developed, albeit differing adult education systems. Additionally, Austria and Estonia are active members of the OECD in the sense that they are some of the fastest growing skill-based economies with well-developed adult educations systems and high rates of lifelong learning participation (Eurostat 2017). Considering adult education policy commonalities and differences in the developments of the two countries, we therefore aim to describe the instances where PIAAC has been part of policy development and to provide explanations for the differences in the countries’ responses.

Having in mind that ‘care is needed in reading reports of international surveys’ (Evans, 2014) and considering the difficulties and problems of international comparison, the research question is directed at identifying and interpreting similarities and differences in terms of how the PIAAC results influenced Austria’s and Estonia’s adult education policy and how these results reflect characteristics of the analytical models. We hypothesise that there are tendencies of an international influence of PIAAC on adult education policy. We will try to show this using methodological guidelines proposed by Reischmann and Bron Jr (2008). Accordingly, the comparison should focus on interpreting lifelong learning and adult education in a way ‘in which one or more aspects in two or more countries ← 86 | 87 → are compared’ (Reischmann, 2008, p. 9). The criteria established for our analysis with an emphasis on comparison include: a) main conclusions from the PIAAC results from a national (Austrian and Estonian) point of view; b) national political reaction referring to the definition and development of lifelong learning and adult education policies and programmes; c) reception by researchers, including the discussion that developed based on the PIAAC results at the national level. These criteria were established due to their relevance for understanding the influence of PIAAC results in Austria and Estonia.

Data were collected separately for the two countries, using written sources such as policy documents, research reports, and public statements of officials in the media; the main criterion for data collection was their relevance to the PIAAC study or its results. The gathered data had to be either in English or in the official languages of the countries. The selected data was analysed using content analysis, a research technique that ‘seeks to analyse data within a specific context in view of meanings someone attributes to them’ (Krippendorf, 1989, p. 403). Thereafter, the two countries are compared by highlighting the similarities and differences in their education policies to show tendencies of an international influence of PIAAC and the extent to which characteristics of the abovementioned policy analytical models apply.

Data discussion


For the analysis of Austria’s results, a main database was the Statistik Austria report (Statistik Austria, 2013). Its data as well as public documents and research papers were analysed according to the three models (Lima & Guimarães, 2011).

The most important PIAAC results were: Austrian adult learners showed above average competences in daily life mathematics; they are under average in literacy tasks and average in dealing with digital competence (Statistik Austria, 2013, p. 71). The results showed that persons with low formal education, especially non-native speakers of German, unemployed people and older people had lower basic and workplace competences and did not take part in adult education as frequently (Gruber & Lenz, 2016, p. 88). These results confirmed a status quo of Austrian adult education and problems still to solve. A closer view showed some in-depth results (ibid.): Only 8.4 per cent of adults in Austria reached the highest levels of literacy competence in PIAAC. At 11.8 per cent, the OECD average was significantly higher. About one million adults in Austria had problems reading and understanding different kinds of texts. About 11.4 per cent scored low in all of the ← 87 | 88 → three tested competencies. This risk group included especially older people and women, who presented deficits in basic mathematics and in digital competencies.

The political reaction in Austria to the PIAAC results was on the one hand optimistic, as Austria’s numeracy results were above the OECD average and its digital skills were average. On the other hand, it was concerned, as Austria’s literacy skills were below average. Schmied, Austrian’s minister of education in 2013, stated that Austria was on track with reforming the national education system towards a more comprehensive system that fosters lifelong learning. She emphasised the importance of early interventions in language learning at kindergarten and elementary school, the expansion of all-day schools, the provision of basic skills for migrants and educationally disadvantaged people, and the possibility to improve educational attainment through adult education (Bundesministerium für Bildung, 2015).

Since 2011, Austria has followed a ‘Strategy to Support Lifelong Learning in Austria – LLL: 2020’ (Knett, 2014, p. 104), which includes goals of modernisation and state control as well as human resources management guidelines (Lima & Guimarães, 2011). The strategy was approved by the federal government, and the ministries were entrusted with its implementation. Some of the action items from this lifelong learning strategy are similar to the OECD’s ‘central approaches for policy-making’ (Knett, 2014, p. 108). With the present PIAAC results, it became clear that many of the OECD policy approaches related to PIAAC were also central for LLL: 2020. New tasks to be performed involve the following: a comprehensive school system of lifelong learning; the transfer of learning results to the economy; accessible further education opportunities for educationally disadvantaged people; and the recognition of non-formal knowledge (Knett, 2014, p. 108). From the ministry’s reaction to PIAAC and the adjustment of the LLL strategy, it is evident that Austria’s adult educational policy follows an economistic approach based on human resources management characteristics (Lima & Guimarães, 2011).

Researchers voiced a more pessimistic view on PIAAC. Titelbach criticised the validity of the results, stating that literacy skills – in terms of writing and interaction – could hardly be researched using standardised international surveys like PIAAC (Titelbach, 2014, p. 45). He also noted the restricted validity of PIAAC in terms of measuring the individual and collective economic outcome of a country, especially when comparing it to another.

For Schmid, Tölle, Steinklammer, and Lichtblau (2014), PIAAC was a warning sign for Austria to take its problems with illiteracy and basic competencies more seriously (p. 114). As the results showed, about one million people had trouble reading a text and understanding its content. Furthermore, many of these ← 88 | 89 → people only had a lower school degree, a low income and tended to be older people, women, and migrants (p. 114). Schmid et al. underline the necessity to start literacy in kindergarten; furthermore, they argue that primary schools need to do more team teaching and literacy intervention; adult education needs to offer more low-threshold classes for educationally disadvantaged people to cope with the problem.

Knett points to the ongoing international competitiveness of Austria’s companies, asking whether PIAAC really matters for them. Nevertheless, he stressed the importance of the PIAAC key competences for shaping a sustainable knowledge-based society and economic prosperity. He also believes that Austria’s strategy LLL: 2020 is a good base to be implemented courageously (Knett, 2014, p. 104). Regarding the three analytical models, the criticism by Austria’s researchers reveals a more humanistic view towards a democratic model on adult education policy.


Estonia’s results for functional literacy and numeracy (both above OECD average) were found to be satisfactory, but problem-solving in ICT-rich environments was somewhat disappointing (Halapuu & Valk, 2013, p. 8), especially considering the importance of such competences for the labour market following a human resources management trend (Lima & Guimarães, 2011). Altogether, two major issues were raised in response to the results: ICT proficiency and a skills mismatch among older adults. ICT skills are seen as important basic skills for participation in Estonian society, because the country has some of the most advanced Internet-based systems for interacting with public and private institutions. From this perspective, it is very worrisome that large parts of the population lack these ICT skills (Halapuu & Valk, 2013, p. 130), reflecting concerns related also to the modernisation and state control model characteristics (Lima & Guimarães, 2011).

Another problematic issue was the loss of skills over time. While young people perform very well on the literacy and numeracy tests, older people tend to ‘lose’ the skills over time. This is related to the fact that Estonia also ranks high in over-education, especially among older adults. A likely cause for this are the sweeping changes in the labour market since re-independence, which have made some previously widespread occupations (and the related education) redundant. Therefore, the critical issue is mismatch between skills and labour market needs, which could be addressed by increasing adult education and training for these groups, revealing human resources management concerns (Lima & Guimarães, 2011). PIAAC also showed that Estonians wish to participate in adult education more often than the OECD average (Saar, Unt, Lindemann, Reiska, & Tamm, 2014). ← 89 | 90 →

Based on a review of the major news outlets at the time, the reaction to the publication of these results was modest. The PIAAC results were mainly promoted and discussed by the ministry itself. The ministry also tendered research reports based on the PIAAC data, which are available to all on the ministry’s website (see also Ministry of Education and Research, 2015). The results were presented publicly at a conference in 2015 and it was broadcast over the Internet (Postimees, 2015), but no significant public discussion followed. This can be attributed to the mostly uncontroversial nature of the results.

Since the publication of first results in 2013, a number of policy documents have been put into action. The most important of these is the Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020, which guides the entire field of educational policy. The influence of PIAAC is clearly visible in the recent documents, even though there are few direct references. The clearest link can be seen in how well the aims of the lifelong learning strategy and its programmes are in concordance with the OECD (and EU) guidelines and aims in accordance to human resources management orientations (Lima & Guimarães, 2011). The main priorities of the current LLL strategy include (Estonian Government, 2014):

  1. change in the approach to learning,
  2. competent and motivated teachers and school leadership,
  3. the concordance of lifelong learning opportunities with the needs of the labour market,
  4. a digital focus in lifelong learning,
  5. equal opportunities and increased participation in lifelong learning.

The strategy is accompanied by programmes that specify the actions to be taken. The strategy’s programmes for achieving the main goals of adult education (Estonian Minister for Education and Research, 2016b) are all in line with the EU’s general target to increase participation in adult education by including disadvantaged groups and increasing access to different types of education. The programme references PIAAC directly, saying that the PIAAC study showed that people who do not speak the official language have less security on the labour market and need to develop vocational skills alongside language skills (ibid, p. 8).

The programme for the concordance of labour market needs and education includes the target of participating in the next round of the PIAAC survey to assess the results of the LLL strategy programmes (ibid, p. 13), thereby indicating human resources management characteristics (Lima & Guimarães, 2011). The programme text also states that participation in the survey must be followed by in-depth analysis along with policy recommendations that address skills, education, and their use on the labour market. The programme for competent and motivated ← 90 | 91 → teachers is also based on the PIAAC input, as mentioned in a previous thematic analysis of teachers’ skills according to PIAAC (Valk, 2013, p.1).

The influence is likely wider than can be deduced from public documents: it cuts across multiple policy fields (labour market, education, and communications) and is often implicit rather than explicit. Multiple ministries are involved in providing adult education in specific fields with the clear aim to a) increase participation in adult education and training and b) increase the supply of specific skills needed on the labour market (Estonian Minister of Education and Research, 2016; Estonian Minister of Economic Affairs, 2015). This can all be linked to the international influences as well as to the PIAAC results. It is difficult to distinguish the influence of the OECD agenda from the EU influence on policy development, but there is no doubt that it has been significant.

Figure 1: Main PIAAC results for Estonia and Austria.


Source: OECD Education GPS, 2017, compiled by authors ← 91 | 92 →



Both Austria and Estonia have elaborate systems of adult education, which are partly state-financed and guided by scientific principles. The systems cooperate with the national ministries, the universities, and business organisations, and they are responsive to the European Union’s education policy guidelines. As EU members, both countries follow the European Commission’s Programmes of Lifelong Learning, which have guidelines that can be easily related to OECD and PIAAC aims (Bieber & Martens, 2011).

In PIAAC, both Austria and Estonia ranked above the OECD average. Although Austria reached good results in numeracy and satisfying results in digital literacy, the national results in literacy were disappointing. Estonia was satisfied with adults’ performance in literacy and numeracy but disappointed with results in ICT skills. After PIAAC, the countries put efforts into reframing their existing education policies according to these results. A common consequence was the emphasis on adult education in the national LLL 2020 strategy goals. Both Austria and Estonia focused on a human resources management strategy stressing a) the need for concordance between school education and labour market needs, b) better support of disadvantaged groups like migrants or older people, c) development of a comprehensive system of lifelong learning, and d) the need for making informal learning results more visible.

In Austria and Estonia, the PIAAC results were mainly promoted by the ministries of education, which dictated the public discussion around the subject. Both ministries ordered research reports based on the PIAAC data, showing great interest in the practical use of this data. In Austria, Statistik Austria was responsible for the report (Statistik Austria, 2013). In Estonia, reports were prepared by researchers at public and private research institutions as well as compiled by the ministry itself. Although the official reaction was quite positive in both countries, the researchers asked some critical questions about what was being measured (Halapuu & Valk, 2013) and highlighted the analytical limitations of the data (Anspal, Järve, Jürgenson, Masso, & Seppo, 2014, p. 87; Titelbach, 2014, p. 45).

Both countries also lacked a significant public discussion, as the main economic actors and other interest groups remained silent. This can in part be attributed to the ambiguity and versatility of the adult education field, where it is difficult to identify the ‘responsible’ parties. Although the PIAAC results showed important tasks for Austria to be developed in the future – tasks that also concern the job market – there were no reactions from the business community. One possible ← 92 | 93 → reason might be Austria’s nevertheless satisfying economic growth, which gives companies a feeling of safety (Knett, 2014, p. 105).

Currently, attention has been turned towards disadvantaged groups in both systems (e.g. migrants in Austria; older people and non-Estonian speakers in Estonia). Different target groups require special attention to their specific skills deficits. With this task in mind, both countries are working towards improving their adult education systems (Estonian Minister for Education and Research, 2016b; Schmid et al., 2014).


Like the OECD, Austria and Estonia consider skills and competencies to be systematically learnable, measurable, and of high practical use, which is why they are of importance for the labour markets in both countries. From among our analytical models, human resources management seems to be dominant here (Lima & Guimarães, 2011). Aligning people’s skills and the needs of the labour market has become a high priority. However, differences in the reactions in policy and the programmes being implemented have to be stressed. In Estonia, this can be seen through the importance given to it in the Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020, which includes an entire programme for enhancing the concordance between education and labour market-relevant competencies. The Ministry of Economic Affairs, which coordinates the area of ICT, has in fact directed €8.5 million (in the years 2014–2020) to support organisations and enterprises in increasing the ‘digital literacy’ and ICT skills of the working population (Estonian Minister of Economic Affairs, 2015). In Austria, this is evident from the fact that the country now holds a lively discussion about how to provide adult learners with ICT skills and that it develops training programmes. For example, ‘EBMOOC’ (Adult Education Massive Open Online Course) is a six-week online school offered by CONEDU, an Austrian service provider for adult education (Aschemann, 2017, p. 91). The curriculum, which includes a digital tools programme for adult educators, contains different tasks in adult education training and management; participants receive a certificate and ECTS points.

Estonia and Austria also differ markedly in their response to PIAAC due to the differing conditions in the countries. Austria’s performance in literacy, unlike Estonia’s, was disappointing. Just 8.4 per cent of Austrian adults reached ‘good’ or ‘satisfying’ results in literacy, which means that a lot of people have difficulties in understanding texts of any kind; they only understand information if it is explicit and if the grammar is simple. These people with lower literacy skills are massively disadvantaged at the workplace and in everyday life (Gruber & Lenz, 2016, p. 88). ← 93 | 94 → A call for action may involve an extended and free offer of adult literacy classes through the ‘Adult Education Initiative’, a nationwide programme, financed by the state and the regions (Schmid et al., 2014, p. 116), reflecting a modernisation and state control strategy (Lima & Guimarães, 2011).

Estonia faces problems with ICT skills and widespread insecurity in dealing with computers. This is seen as a serious barrier to participation in society. For this reason, the importance of ICT skills has been given even more importance, and the goals of teacher education and training have been modified to make certain that all teachers have the necessary competences to educate the younger cohorts and to be able to work in the changing economy (Estonian Government, 2014). Unlike in Austria, little attention has been paid to literacy and numeracy, because mass immigration has not (yet) affected Estonia, hence there are few illiterate people.

Another aspect in which the countries differ is the number of follow-up studies. Especially in Austria, researchers have reacted with further studies to analyse in depth the weak results in literacy and to provide some advice for national adult education policies. Lassnigg, Steiner, and Vogtenhuber (2014) identified a large group of adults who have to be provided with basic literacy offers through the ‘Adult Education Initiative’ (p. 95). The study revealed a strong uneven distribution of this group according to demographic characteristics. While gender was no strong factor for belonging to this group, age was significant: Among 6–24-year-olds, 12.9 per cent belonged this group, which is relatively low compared to 27.6 per cent among 55–64-year-olds (p. 94). These results can be seen as a first marker to improve the national situation in terms of teaching literacy skills. In Estonia, there have been no large-scale follow-up studies so far, but Estonia has made it a goal to keep participating in the PIAAC studies.

Another notable difference between the countries was in the critical response of the scientific community. In Austria, the scientific critique gained a lot of attention and included discussions on the lack of methodological validity and the difficulties that come with researching skills and competencies of national labour markets in standardised international surveys (Knett, 2014). Estonian researchers were more reserved in this regard, and there was no public critique of the methodology, although researchers working with the data were aware of its limitations (see e.g. Anspal et al., 2014; Halapuu & Valk, 2013).

Final remarks: Results and reflections on the comparison

In recent years, international organisations have become prominent actors in lifelong learning and training policy. It is believed that transnational adult education might improve the competitiveness of national economies with regard to the ← 94 | 95 → wealth of nations. Therefore, adult education now matters for decision-making in international settings (Grek, 2010), as international organisations are considered to be ‘key agencies for change’ (Evans, 2014). These matters are dealt with by a wide set of tools, including processes of ‘soft law’ performed by the OECD (Marcussen, 2004; Bieber & Martens, 2011) and benchmarks set by the European Union (i.e. the lifelong learning participation rate). Owing to these reasons, adult education policies are currently being developed on a transnational scale, following mainly human resources management guidelines. Increasing globalisation phenomena and competitive economic environments are forcing national governments to seek a competitive advantage, which is defined through evaluating the performance of national education and training systems according to international standards.

As Rubenson (2015) points out, PIAAC is strongly related to this trend, as many of the survey questions concern activities such as learning undertaken for job-related reasons. The PIAAC guidelines fall in between a human resources management model and the modernisation and state control model. The guidelines claim the need to adjust workers to the job, to promote adaptability and productivity growth. As a result, education and training in all forms gain market value, since adult learning can be translated into investments with an economic return. Complementarily, following OECD aims and according to several authors, even without having a direct impact, PIAAC results influence policy-making, because they stress the need to develop the education and training system for economic modernisation and the production of skilled labour (Jones, 2007; Grek, 2009). The influence of PIAAC in national (Austrian and Estonian) adult education policies was made clear in this article. Our research has shown that PIAAC survey results have had an impact on national policy discussions, on official documents, and/or on research in the field of adult education. This influence was similarly visible in both Austria and Estonia.

On a national and a transnational level, PIAAC encourages participating countries to work on standardised areas and goals of adult education. Taking international best practices into account is an important part of improving future policies on both levels. But we have also seen that harmonisation through standardisation does not necessarily mean strong convergence – as different national and local situations imply the need for differing approaches.

In Austria and Estonia, current adult education policies emphasise aims that follow human resources management guidelines, combined with modernisation and state control ones (Lima & Guimarães, 2011). These aims have the purpose of making the two countries’ economies competitive on a transnational scale. As stated by Rubenson, with the aim of ‘promoting the relationship between lifelong ← 95 | 96 → learning and economic and social prosperity as a production function’ (Rubenson, 2015), PIAAC had a relevant influence on the definition of national policy programmes. This influence was and is directed at improving adults’ knowledge by upskilling them for current and future labour market requirements.

Questions regarding the process of including international evaluations in national policy making and public discussions remain pertinent. Although we identified influences that were written down, we did not focus on behind-the-scenes processes. Another question worth exploring is how and/or how much the PIAAC influences real changes in (adult) education practice. In addition to this, another question concerns the validity and the comparison of the results: The development of the survey methodology remains an open issue.


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