As a country with a rapidly aging population Sri Lanka will need to find new ways of economic expansion in the future. Adult Learning and Education (ALE) is therefore important for a country that will have to ensure its existing workforce adapts and continues to be healthy and work for longer, so that it can increase growth.
The 4th Global Report on Adult Learning and Education released by UNESCO this week highlights the importance of ALE and shows that some countries, particularly in the Asia Pacific, are behind the global average in allocating resources and formulating policies for ALE.
The report found adult learning and education led to improved health behaviours and attitudes, higher life expectancy and a reduction in lifestyle diseases, with a commensurate reduction in health care costs. It also highlighted the significant benefits of investment in adult education for individuals in the labour market, for employers and for the economy more generally. It also showed how adult learning and education increases social cohesion, integration and inclusion, boosts social capital and improves participation in social, civic and community activities. These benefits are significant but, as this report shows, they are unevenly distributed.
It is more and more accepted that such shifts, and the growing complexity and uncertainty of modern life and work, demand a population that is adaptable, resilient and, perhaps above all, sensitised to learning, and a system of lifelong learning that both fosters and embodies these qualities by providing opportunities for adults to learn throughout life.
The report suggests that opportunities to engage in ALE are shockingly unequal. Some groups in society have access to a multitude of learning opportunities throughout life, while others have very little prospect of engaging in ALE. And while a full understanding of the complexity of the learning situation of vulnerable and excluded groups is made more difficult by the paucity of reliable data, it is nonetheless evident that these groups are disproportionately excluded from benefitting from ALE. Addressing these inequities requires better data, increased investment, and a better understanding of what works, supported by international, regional and national efforts to raise awareness, with a focus on excluded groups and those that are least likely to engage in learning, and on national and regional variations. Two-thirds of countries report progress in adult learning and education policy since 2015. However, nearly 30% of countries reported no change in ALE policy since 2015 (44 countries), including nearly half of responses from Asia and the Pacific (47% or 17 countries in this region). Progress in relation to implementing new legislation appears weak among these countries, putting them at risk of failing to profit from the multiple benefits of ALE.
Governments can access a range of tools to increase and widen participation. These include interventions in provision to make ALE more accessible and widely available, focused investment, particularly on the least advantaged, interventions to raise demand, for example, stimulating interest through celebrating success stories in festivals and media, reducing the costs of participation, particularly for poorer members of society, and financial incentives to reduce cost barriers.
Non-financial incentives, such as voucher schemes, paid leave and opportunities for career development have also borne fruit. Ensuring effective information, advice and guidance for all learners, throughout their lives, countrywide strategies to ensure learners have access to ICTs and the skills to fully exploit them, are among the other policy recommendations in the report.
Sri Lanka has, for decades, committed to universal education; now it is time to concentrate it at every level.