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Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in Europe and Beyond

Comparative Perspectives from the 2015 Würzburg Winter School


Edited By Regina Egetenmeyer

This volume presents comparisons of adult education and lifelong learning with a focus on educational policies, professionalization in adult education, participation in adult learning and education, quality in adult education, and educational guidance and counselling. The essays are based on comparisons discussed at the international Winter School «Comparative Studies in Adult and Lifelong Learning», held in Würzburg, Germany, February 2015. Sub-topics of lifelong learning were chosen for an in-depth comparison and analysis of the situation in various European countries and beyond.
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Adult education and its key actors in academic professionalisation – a comparison between China, India and the European Union

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Verena Liszt, Mina Toko & Xiaojin Yan

Adult education and its key actors in academic professionalisation – a comparison between China, India and the European Union


Understandings of adult education and its academic professionalisation vary by country. In this paper, China, India, and the European Union will be compared regarding the meaning of adult education and the ways in which these understandings have been developed. The focus is on academic professionalisation, which is also going to be clarified for all three countries. After discussing each country separately, the comparison will focus on similarities and differences. This includes the analysis of the key actors in academic professionalisation at the macro, meso, and micro levels. The results provide an overview of the three countries and lead to the final conclusion that even though the topics are similar, the country-specific ways of development offer different opportunities.


Each country has a different understanding of adult education: To be able to compare and discuss the future of adult education, it is necessary to discuss different understandings. This paper presents different countries and their definitions and meanings of adult education. To be able to understand a country and its education system, the historical development of the education sector, with a focus on adult education, needs to be considered. The historical development shows its impact on the education systems as well as on academic professionalisation in each country. In this article, we not only discuss the adult education sector as a whole but also identify the most important actors in adult education in each country.

Academic professionalisation is, on the one hand, understood as an ongoing improvement process with high-level indicators for adult education as a whole, for example, a focus on the implementation of quality assurance systems in the institutions, as well as the improvement of programme structures. On the other hand, academic professionalisation can be understood as a biographical approach focusing on the individual development of adult educators or students. Egetenmeyer und Schüssler (2014) describe academic professionalisation as a development of structural factors, including university-based degree programmes, which have ← 87 | 88 → changed through the Bologna reform and are now diverse all over Europe. An important issue for academic professionalisation at universities is the connection to the field of work of adult education. The biographical approach is focused on the individual development of competences. This cannot be identified as a specific development because it could happen in different ways: for example, first theoretical and then practical professionalisation, or via continuing education after people already started working as adult educators, and so on. But it is not just academic training that matters for individual professionalisation; other programmes and field experiences, including informal learning processes, need to be considered as well (cf. Egetenmeyer & Schüssler, 2014, pp. 29, 32ff.).


Definition of adult education and its purpose

The ancient idea, and hence the original understanding, of adult education in China was founded in the Han dynasty. Adult education was created to teach people how to become a politician or leader. Modern adult education started with the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In the face of the illiterate population, which accounted for more than 80 per cent of the nation’s population, the government issued a call for ‘developing literacy education and gradually reducing the illiterates’. (Adult Education, online) The Guidelines for Educational Reform and Development in China promulgated in 1993 pointed out: ‘Adult education is a new education system which plays an important role both in the development of conventional school education toward lifelong education and in the continuous enhancement of the national quality and in the promotion of economic, social development.’ (Adult Education, online) The systems of adult education are: adult primary education (including literacy classes), secondary education, adult education, and higher education, providing remote, correspondence, and academic instruction (Education in China: A Survey, online).

Historical development of academic professionalisation in adult education

2,500 years ago, China established a tradition of an education system mainly based on the ideas of Confucius, which has influenced the Chinese people. This was the first idea for adult education in China. Chinese ancient official education was called taixue, which means ‘greatest study or learning’, sometimes called ‘imperial academy’ or ‘imperial university’ (cf. Ban, 1962, p. 56). Unlike classic European universities, they were influenced by Confucius and Chinese literature ← 88 | 89 → and designed for high-level civil service, so the ancient adult education was created for training politicians (cf. Wang, 2013, p. 7).

As Hayhoe points out: ‘In conscious reaction to the narrow fragmentation and exclusivist orientation towards expertise of Soviet patterns, Mao directed in 1957 that “our educational policy must enable everyone to develop morally, intellectually, and physically and become a worker with socialist consciousness and culture”. Furthermore, “education must serve proletarian politics and be combined with productive labour.”’ (Hayhoe, 1989, p. 72)

This education system is not suitable for human-oriented education. And the educational content very easily falls behind the times. The old system no longer lived up to professional needs. China’s educational system is gradually reforming these years. The academic degree system now features bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, as well as post-doctoral research. As Ouyang points out, ‘a relatively rational higher education system was set up with different subjects, different aspects, and different levels’ (Ouyang, 2004, p. 143).

Since 1980, China has formulated a series of laws and regulations. Such laws and regulations to promote the development of education, to protect the rights of citizens to receive education, and to promote universal education is an important safeguard. And in recent years, government expenditure on education continues to increase, establishing a sound mechanism to ensure the priority of education development. Government is controlling education by kind of playing a supporting role (cf. Chen, 2013, p. 105).


Definition of adult education and its purpose

India has a special definition of adult education, which has grown from different social, economic, political, and historical conditions. Although the definition of adult education has changed as the concept of adult education has undergone significant changes over time, adult literacy remains the core concern on which Indian adult education is defined to this day (cf. Shah, 1999, p.4). In India, the term adult education normally refers to adult literacy promotion activities. The variations in the definition of adult education in the Indian context can be understood in three phases: ancient India, British India, and contemporary India.

In ancient Indian society, adult education followed a traditional approach to literacy. It was a process of learning, which was in the form of religious and other community activities such as storytelling, religious operas, reading of religious scripture, village markets, and different forms of traditional performing and arts. ← 89 | 90 → The process of learning was largely oriented to the needs of the community and aimed at making an individual a fit member of the community (cf. Syam, 1981, p. 1).

During British rule (eighteenth and nineteenth century), as a colonised nation, India had a vast illiterate, poor, and marginalised population. Therefore, the main thrust of adult education during colonial rule revolved around basic literacy. The purpose of basic literacy was to educate illiterate adults using the core curriculum of the 3R’s – that is, reading, writing, and arithmetic – to make them aware of their rights, to eradicate poverty, and to disseminate scientific knowledge. Most significantly, adult education was planned and designed as a community development programme. It was also a chief instrument to motivate the masses to fight against colonial rule and for the freedom of India (cf. Shah, 1999, p. 3).

Adult education in contemporary India is considered to encompass more than imparting the 3Rs to illiterate adults and community development. During the past century, adult education in India absorbed several national and international theories, practices, and approaches, leading to the emergence of broader concept. So, in the context of such global influences, adult education in India has adopted a new nomenclature, purpose, and definition. Nowadays, adult education is defined as lifelong education to broaden the horizon of the people (cf. Batra, 1980, p. 3). It is a process of acquiring knowledge, learning from daily living, and developing work-oriented skills (vocational education) to overcome economic deprivation and to create awareness of social disparities and political engagement (Adult Education India, online). Moreover, it has become a discipline of research and study. Thus, it is possible to think of the distinctiveness of adult education in a pluralist country like India, where it is defined primarily in relation to basic literacy, as acquiring desirable knowledge pertaining to civic needs and adopting political and occupational skills to become a productive part of the system (cf. Paintal, 2006, p. 56).

Historical development of academic professionalisation in adult education

India developed a variety of adult education programmes in the past, with continuous shifts in focus and content. Along with universal elementary education, adult education always had a place in India’s national discourse and policy deliberations due to the importance and overriding priority of literacy (cf. NLM, 2008, p. 6). But there has barely been any serious initiative for academic professionalisation in adult education. In fact, adult education remained outside the domain of professionalisation (cf. Shah, 2006, p. 263). However, there are certain milestones that contributed to the development of academic professionalisation in adult education, which varies depending on the political circumstances in India. ← 90 | 91 →

During the phase of the Indian National Congress (INC), the Indian Adult Education Association (IAEA) was established in 1939 to promote adult education in India through seminars, conferences, workshops, training programmes, publications, and the dissemination of relevant information pertaining to the subject. In 1949, the Central Board of Education suggested a new and comprehensive concept of adult education known as Social Education, which included literary work, cultural and recreational activities, and civic education. The Union Minister of Education provided supporting services to the programme by making a budget allocation. India’s ‘Five-Year Plan’ (1951–1956) and the 1968 National Policy of Education (NPE) made recommendations to emphasise the planning, implementation, and supervision of adult education programmes. Departments of adult education were set up in universities, and certificate courses were offered. In 1956, the National Fundamental Education Centre (NFEC) was established with a grant from UNESCO to produce research and professional literature (cf. Shah, 1999, pp. 343–44).

But soon after the Janata Party (JP) took over the premiership in 1977, the highest priority in educational planning was assigned to adult education along with the universalisation of elementary education. In 1978, the first nationwide adult education initiative, National Adult Education Programme (NAEP), was launched. The main objective of NAEP was to organise adult education programmes, with literacy as an indispensable component (cf. Batra, 1980, pp. 8–9).

With the change in government and the return of INC in 1980, the Government of India (GoI) formulated NPE-1986, which was a turning point as it became a strategy document to rekindle the literacy movement in India. Consequently, the GoI launched the National Literacy Mission (NLM) in 1988 for the purpose of imparting functional literacy to the 80 million illiterate adults by 1995 (cf. Shah, 1999, p. 347). Most of the adult education programmes were made more professional to some extent after the launch of the NLM by conceiving a standardised training curriculum for the functionaries acting at various levels in terms of content, duration, certification, and so on. A few universities started offering regular courses leading to certification, graduation, post-graduation, and doctoral degrees in adult education. This promoted basic standards for adult education professionals. Besides, large numbers of adult educators got involved in diverse activities such as teaching, training research counselling, and programme planning and management to professionalise adult education with a view to its effectiveness. In 2009, based on a reformed vision to create Literate India, a new adult education programme named Saakshar Bharat was formulated with four broader objectives: imparting functional literacy and numeracy to non-literates; acquiring ← 91 | 92 → equivalency to formal educational system; imparting relevant skill development programmes; and promoting a learning society by providing opportunities for continuing education (MHRD-Saakshar Bharat, online).

European Union

Considering the history of the European Union countries, with all their wars against each other, the goal of the European Union itself is easier to understand. This is because the European Union was created to achieve the political goal of peace, but its dynamism and success springs from its involvement in economics (cf. Lima & Guimarães, 2011, pp. 3–7). The following paragraphs are an attempt to discuss a corporate understanding of adult education in the European Union.

Definition of adult education and its purpose

In the eighteenth century, adult education emerged; since the twentieth century (mostly after World War 2), adult education has been growing (cf. Lima & Guimarães, 2011, pp. 18–19). But adult education is and will continue to be widely diverse in nature, involving a rich assortment of actors trying to influence the idea of professionalisation in their own countries or throughout the European Union.

There are regional differences in Europe, but there is also overlap. The Council of the European Union states that ‘adult learning is a vital component of the lifelong-learning continuum, covering the entire range of formal, non-formal, and informal learning activities, general and vocational, undertaken by adults after leaving initial education and training’ (Council Resolution 2011/C 372/01, p. 3). According to the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), adult education is key for enhancing skills, competences, and social participation in Europe. It includes general and liberal adult education as well as vocational education and training; the focus is not only on basic skills but also on personal development and active citizenship (cf. EAEA-Report, 2013, p. 10). CEDEFOP papers show a similar definition, where adult education includes general or vocational education provided for adults after initial education and training for professional and/or personal purposes (cf. CEDEFOP, 2008, p. 25). Overall, the definitions are different but the meaning is similar.

Historical development of academic professionalisation in adult education

The European Union and its strategies and corporate developments need to be mentioned shortly to give an overview of the discussion about adult education in ← 92 | 93 → the EU context. The 1957 Treaty of Rome mentions ‘assistance for occupational re-training to ensure productive employment’, which goes in the direction or can be part of adult education. During the 1970s, the EU discussion on adult education was started indirectly by the influence on education through programmes like the European Social Fund and so on. In 1992, the Treaty of Maastricht mentioned quality assurance as an important focus for cooperation, as well as harmonisation in education between the member states. In 1996, the European Union concentrated on lifelong learning as a specific topic. The 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam included the restructuring of established education programmes. This treaty was supported by the Luxembourg Summit (1997) and Vienna Summit (1998), which espoused the goals of employability, entrepreneurship, adaptability, and equal opportunities (cf. Lima & Guimarães, 2011, pp. 69ff.). In 1999, the Bologna Process started, with all ministries of education from all member states working together to implement a European Higher Education Area. The most important regulations are 1) a three-cycle structure of postsecondary degrees (bachelor–master–PhD), which should be comparable between all signing states, 2) the European Credit Transfer System to make different classes, courses, and study programmes comparable all over Europe, 3) mobility opportunities for students, researchers, and teachers, and 4) stronger visibility of European Union topics at all European universities to foster European thinking (cf. Bologna Process, 2013/C 251 E/04, online).

The Lisbon Strategy (2000) stated the objective that the European Union become the world’s most dynamic and competitive economy by 2010 through the modernisation of the European social model, a decentralised approach concerning its member states, and transparency in the education sector, for instance through implementing the European Qualification Framework, which enables all member states to compare the outcomes of the different formal education systems. Following the key ideas of the Lisbon Strategy, the Memorandum on Lifelong Learning aimed to foster active citizenship and to promote employability. Other supportive documents are the 2010 European Commission document about Education and Training, the 2006 document Adult Learning: It is never too late to learn, and the 2007 Action Plan on Adult Learning: It is always a good time to learn. From 2007 to 2013, lifelong learning programmes where implemented in EU member states (cf. Lima & Guimarães, 2011, pp. 77–110). The Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth acknowledges lifelong learning and skills development as key elements (cf. Council Resolution, 2011, pp. 1–2). The European Agenda for Adult Learning (2012) builds on the Europe 2020 strategy, the Action Plan on Adult Learning 2008–2010 and the ET2020. The priorities are: 1) to make lifelong learning and mobility reality, 2) to improve the quality and efficiency of ← 93 | 94 → education and training, 3) to promote equity, social cohesion, active citizenship through adult learning, 4) to enhance the creativity and innovation of adults and their learning environments, and 5) to improve the knowledge base and monitoring of the adult learning sector (EAEA-Priorities, online).

Functioning of key actors in adult education at the macro, meso, and micro levels

When discussing different understandings of adult education and the historical development of academic professionalisation in adult education, it is also important to talk about the key actors. The following table gives a short overview of key actors in the three countries and shows that the structure and the included institutions are similar although the function and the power of the institutions are different.

Table 1: Comparison of Key Actors in China, India, and the European Union

At first glance, the key actors look similar, but there are important differences and background information that need to be mentioned, for instance regarding the ways in which the levels can influence each other. The information about the influence of the levels can help us understand the development of adult education and its difficult and long-lasting process of professionalisation.


At the macro level, the government plays an important role. China is home to about one-fifth of the world’s population. To rule such a big country, the government should have very strong controlling powers. Based on this power, the ← 94 | 95 → government can decide over the education system. All the efforts are aimed at further improving the modern national education system, developing the system of lifelong education, and building a modernised socialist education system with Chinese characteristics (cf. National report, p. 8).

In earlier years, after the founding of communist China, the government had the power to micro-manage all Chinese universities, which didn’t have any right to decide themselves. Nowadays, Chinese universities have more development space, but they are still under the control of the government. From the Chinese universities’ point of view, the easiest way of managing the different disciplines is to establish academic professionalisation, which would function like a frame. The contemporary social division of labour is getting smaller and becoming more professional. Employment trends have diversified. According to the diversity of career needs, Chinese universities have established and divided their disciplines by different occupations. At the micro level, students are the main participants. Given China’s strong economic development, the number of college students is increasing rapidly. For example, from 1998 to 2001, the number of master’s students in China increased from 150,000 to 290,000, meaning an increase of 93 per cent. From 2001 to 2003, PhD students increased from 45,000 to 77,000, meaning an increase of 71 per cent (cf. Ouyang, 2004, p. 146). Every individual will influence the professionalisation of adult education. More and more students are participating at this level, making rapid advances towards the development of academic professionalisation.


At the macro level, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) works through the Department of School Education & Literacy (SE&L). The department of SE&L is responsible for upholding the essence and role of adult education as articulated in the 1986 and 1992 National Policies on Education (NPE). It undertakes various adult education schemes, programmes, and initiatives, and promotes the same along with universal elementary education. Secondly, the University Grant Commission (UGC), a statutory body of the Government of India and the only grant-giving agency in the country, supports the institutionalisation of adult education programmes, such as the establishment of university departments and the development of accredited courses at certificate and degree level (MHRD-UGC, online). However, the progress of academic professionalisation in adult education varies depending on the policy adopted by UGC (cf. Shah, 2013, p. 6). On the other hand, IAEA, a pioneering national-level voluntary organisation, promotes adult education as a field of practice and discipline of study. ← 95 | 96 →

At the meso level, the universities, institutes of peoples learning such as JSS, SRCs, and NGOs are the key actors to promote academic professionalisation in adult education. The universities are pioneers in the process of professionalisation. Certain universities in India made efforts to strengthen adult education as a professional field of practice before the UGC intervention, such as the Department of Adult Continuing Education and Extension (DACEE) at Delhi University. Besides, there are 20 more universities in India that have departments of adult education, including SNDT Women’s University, NEHU, and so forth. Likewise, the SRCs are mandated to provide academic and technical resource support to the ongoing adult and continuing education programme through the development and production of material and training modules (MHRD-Resource Centre of State, online). Vocational training for non-literates, neo-literates, and school dropouts is provided by JSS. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which are neither part of the government nor conventional for-profit businesses, are funded by governments to work in the field of adult education (MHRD-Voluntary Agencies, online).

The micro level includes adult educators, students, individual institutions, and social workers. Efforts are made at the individual level to promote the professionalisation of adult education. Likewise, adult educators play a crucial role in the development of professional courses and several other initiatives in designing a quality adult education programme, but not much attention is paid to enhancing the professional qualification of adult educators. There is no separate professional training programme for adult educators. There is a need to set up basic qualification and employment conditions to validate adult educators (cf. Shah, 2010, pp. 4–6).

European Union

At the macro level, the European Union and its institutions are able to influence the meso and micro levels. There are many regulations and guidelines governing the relations between the European Union and its member states. One guiding principle is called subsidiarity, which ensures that decisions are made close to the citizens. That means that the European Union takes action when it is more effective than a national government (Europa – Subsidiarity, online). As an example of the work done by the EU institutions, the EAEA and the CEDEFOP are mentioned. The mission of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA) is to promote the integration of the individual in society through professional and civic development (EAEA-Mission, online). The mission of CEDEFOP is to develop VET policies and contribute to their implementation (cf. CEDEFOP, n.d.). ← 96 | 97 →

At the micro level, there are, on the one hand, the universities focusing on adult education and the adult education institutions. Both of these key actors play a major role in the academic professionalisation in adult education, because they educate or train the adult educators and enable institutions of further development. Universities are able to decide on their own because of their autonomy. The universities are able to define their institutional profile, decide whom they are going to employ, make direct connections to sponsors, and so on (cf. Europe – University Autonomy, online). The economy, the labour market, and the government also have an influence on the academic sector. When concentrating on academic professionalisation in adult education, it is important to mention the different adult education institutions, which are also interested in professionalisation. Austria is a good example, featuring an institution responsible for the professionalisation of these adult education institutions. Quality management of adult education institutions is a special focus here. A certificate including an assessment has been implemented (Ö-Cert = ‘Austrian Certificate’), which functions like a quality certificate (Ö-Cert 2014, online). Professionalisation programmes for individual adult educators were redesigned as well. The Academy of Continuing Education, (Weiterbildungsakademie) was established in corporation with the University of Klagenfurt to professionalise prospective and current adult educators via a certificate programme and give them the opportunity to join a master’s programme afterwards (Prokopp & Luomi-Messerer, 2010).


There are many different meanings to adult education in China, India, and the European Union. However, in all of these countries, the academic professionalisation of adult education is taking global significance despite changing concepts and the introduction of various policies and programmes.

Considering the different definitions of adult education a comparison is possible (see table 2).

Table 2: Comparison of Definitions of Adult Education

European Union‘Adult learning is a vital component of the lifelong-learning continuum, covering the entire range of formal, non-formal, and informal learning activities, general and vocational, undertaken by adults after leaving initial education and training.’ (Council Resolution 2011/C 372/01, p. 3) ← 97 | 98 →
China‘Adult education is a new education system which plays an important role both in the development of conventional school education toward lifelong education and in the continuous enhancement of the national quality and in the promotion of economic, social development.’ (China Embassy, online)
IndiaAdult education today is considered to encompass more than imparting the 3R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) to illiterate adults and community development. Nowadays, adult education is defined as lifelong education to broaden the horizon of the people (cf. Batra, 1980, p. 3).

The comparison of the definitions makes similarities in wordings visible; for example, lifelong learning is mentioned in all three definitions. Altogether the countries focus on lifelong learning as a new attitude of living. A difference can be noticed in the way the terms adult education or adult learning are used. In EU countries the term adult learning seems to be synonymous with the term adult education. In China, the main focus of adult education is on professional development for everyone, whereas adult education is seen in the same way of understanding education as a whole. In India, the emphasis is on growth and development in all of adult education, not only in the area of literacy. The countries of the European Union concentrate on personal development besides professional development and informal learning as a new challenge.

Although China, India, and the European Union are facing different challenges, all of them focus on the development of the adult education sector, which seems to be underestimated in all countries. In India and China, it can be inferred that the concept, purpose, definition, policy, and practices of adult education as an academic profession vary, depending on the prevailing political system and the country’s socioeconomic development. In India, earlier adult education was designed for societal and community development. It has only been in recent times that adult education is associated with individual growth and viewed as a discipline to be studied. Learning used to take place through religious and community institutions in India and China. And the aforementioned institutions had a stronger influence in China and India than in the European Union.

The multi-level analysis of key actors shows that in spite of centralised governmental regulations, India has a decentralised level of policy and institutions that govern and influence the development of adult education as an academic profession. Government regulations in China are much stronger than in the EU countries. The governmental structure seems to be much more centralised in China, whereas in EU countries, the organisation of academic professionalisation is decentralised because of the autonomy enjoyed by European universities. In some EU countries, especially in Germany, regulations for further development, ← 98 | 99 → including professionalisation as a process, were also created by adult education institutions themselves. Maybe the Bologna-Process can also be seen as an influence from policy makers and as a centralising factor. Finally, it can be stated that the structure of the levels and their key actors seem to be similar, although the power of the key actors in each country varies.

Comparing countries and their ideas helps each country to become more creative when developing their own adult education systems. Development is comparable but not transferable. The discussion shows different ways of dealing with the challenges. Further opportunities are seen in cross-country collaborations to learn from each other and understand different developmental ways of living. However, professionalising adult education in India, for example, continues to be challenging because adult education still remains as programme to eradicate illiteracy, unlike in European countries, where adult education is recognised as a profession.


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