Achieving the aims of lifelong learning

The Lisbon Treaty has identified lifelong learning (LLL) as a means to increase jobs, improve social cohesion and gain economic competitiveness. However, the concept has a range of meanings and engagement in LLL varies substantially across countries. The LLL2010 project has explored these differences and the policies that support adult education, in particular in a formal setting. As part of the research on small and medium-size enterprises, a new typology of adult participation in LLL has been developed.

The LLL2010 research project studied lifelong learning through a network of fourteen institutions in different countries/regions: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway, Scotland, Slovenia and Russian Federation. It conducted research with adults who are both participating and not participating in formal education, within small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and within schools, universities and other providers of adult education. So far, the project has published findings from a literature review, a survey of participation in adult education and research with SMEs. Following the final conference in Leuven on 7-8 February 2011, a final report on all areas of the research (individual, institutional, policies) is expected in April 2011.

LLL policy and concepts across Europe

A preliminary review of literature and policy documents has revealed several patterns across Europe. There is a tendency for post-communist countries to view LLL as a way to enhance economic growth, whereas countries with longer traditions of market economies consider LLL as a means to overcome skills shortages and remain competitive.

The interpretation of LLL concepts varies across countries. For example Lithuania, Scotland, England and Estonia focus more on ‘human capital’ in LLL, whereas Ireland, Norway and Slovenia stress rather ‘social capital’. Human capital can be defined as denoting the stock of competences and knowledge, usually acquired through education and experience, which enhances one’s employability and promotes the production of economic value.

This approach views individuals rather in the context of (paid) labour. In contrast, social capital refers to social contacts and social networks which underline the meaningfulness of society, outside the realm of employment, and which promote social cohesion. In all countries, lifelong learning policy comes under the responsibility of several ministries, such as education, industry and employment, meaning co-ordination is often a problem.

LLL participation across Europe

One of the aims of lifelong learning is to give the disadvantaged better access to education. However, it appears that the employed and better-educated have greater access to LLL than the unemployed and those with a lower level of education. Women appear to be successful in participating in LLL but subsequently do not have the same advantage in the labour market as men. There is a lack of data on ethnic minorities accessing LLL and more data are needed generally in this area to develop policies accordingly.

An analysis of data from the Eurostat’s 2003 Labour Force Survey1 estimated that 7 million or 4 per cent of all economically active Europeans between 25 and 64 years are participating in adult education. Levels of participation vary from between 1 per cent in Bulgaria to 14 per cent in Great Britain. There are also differences regarding patterns of participation and the dominance of particular types and systems of adult education, as well as in the definition of LLL and indicators of participation. Together with findings from the literature review this indicates that a single model of LLL across the EU is unlikely to work. Common policy could encourage national developments but implementation will vary, depending on the interpretation of concepts, the characteristics of the national labour markets and existing LLL policy.

LLL participation in SMEs – a first typology

Research on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) provided several useful insights into the role of lifelong learning in this setting, including a new categorisation of how adults participate in LLL. The research involved an analysis of 89 case studies of SMEs in 12 European countries covering 113 employees. It identified five types of participation patterns:

  • Completing – these are adults usually aged between 15 and 25 years who combine working and studying for economic reasons. Their main focus is on completing their education.
  • Returning – these are adults who have stopped their education in the past and, having worked for some years, decide to take up education again.
  • Transforming – these are adults who are making a fundamental change in career. Their current employment is considered temporary and will be left when a position comes up in the new field.
  • Reinforcing - these are adults who enter education to progress within their chosen career and generally this provides the greatest potential for support from employers.
  • Compensation – these are adults who engage in education because their career is unsatisfactory and education benefits them on a personal level.

Small and medium-size enterprises, as well as LLL providers and policy makers, could use the typology to clarify how to support the participation of their employees in LLL. Further research by the LLL2010 project considered employers as well as employees in SMEs and identified the conditions that encourage engagement in formal adult education:

  • Availability and accessibility of appropriate education programmes, such as part-time and flexible (modular) study.
  • Cooperation between the business sector and the higher education sector in setting up joint programmes.
  • Customisation of programmes to make learning relevant and valuable to both employer and employee.
  • Existence of public programmes to support adult education, particularly for those holding low formal qualifications.
  • Regulations on obligations for continuing education. This can vary with country and sector, for example banking and insurance require minimal levels of education.

Policy recommendations on LLL for all

On the basis of the findings with SMEs, researchers have made policy recommendations for the different types of formal adult education programmes. It is recommended that policy makers support:

  • Basic skills and remedy programmes - these include literacy, numeracy and local language programmes, usually for unskilled workers on low wages. SMEs could be allies for publicly sponsored programmes in basic education but may be reluctant as increasing their employees’ education may increase wages. Further initiatives must support the development of the organisation to change its training culture.
  • Second-chance education - recommended polices in this area would bolster the SME’s capacity to support adults returning to education. For example, funding support networks between learners and employers to ensure that the education is relevant and valuable to both.
  • Occupational (re-)training programmes - these tend to be publicly funded schemes to re-train the unemployed. SMEs can provide a site for the learning, for example by hiring workers who are beneficiaries of the scheme. This requires support strategies for the SMEs to overcome possible risk.
  • Customised vocational programmes - company-based tailored programmes are probably the most important area for policy support. However, the support must be granted for specific preparation and adjustment work by SMEs and not for ‘business-as-usual’. The SMEs should report on their experience and provide a learning opportunity for others.
  • Post-tertiary continuing higher education - this tends to be governed by professional bodies and co-funding is needed to help SMEs pay for high tuition fees. However, there may be a lack of appropriate employees so up skilling may be required through 'second-chance' strategies as described above.

The project’s policy-relevant results will be presented at the LLL2010 final conference, ‘Do Three Sides Always Make a Triangle? Policy, Institutions and Learners in Lifelong Formal Learning’ on 7 and 8 February 2011 in Leuven, Belgium. If you are interested in attending the conference, please contact the organising committee for a draft programme. For further details, see:


1 See:

LLL2010 – Towards a Lifelong Learning Society in Europe: The Contribution of the Education System (duration: 1/9/2005 – 31/8/2010) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 - Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.


Contact: Professor Ellu Saar,