By Gerhard Bisovsky
This is the final version of the article that is also included in the FinALE Advocacy toolkit.
Adult education is effective and investments in adult education by the state, the economic sector and also individuals pay off.
The effects of adult education overlap to the greatest extent possible with the effects of initial education. The transfer of learning outcomes obtained from adult education is more direct and also quicker than in initial education or training that is part of the formal educational system. Adult learners are already employed or accept a new job soon after successfully completing a continuing education programme and put their knowledge and skills into practice immediately. Non-formal adult education in particular can react very quickly to new requirements and promotes innovation in this context with workplace related learning. In addition, adult education builds bridges to the formal educational system and offers paths of learning to the higher education system and in the tertiary sector. One study by the German Institute for Adult Education (DIE) and the Institute for Education and Socio-Economic Research and Consulting comes to the conclusion that adult education is particularly significant for innovation.
Particularly important are the key competences that provide the basis for the educational system. Adult education makes it possible to refresh and upgrade one's key qualifications since they change in reaction to technological and economic development.
Adult education has an effect on the individual, the economy and society.
The effects can be summarized as follows. Effects on the individual have an impact in turn on economic and societal development, the converse of which is also true.
Skills and qualifications
Health (mental and physical)
Activities for society
||Employee skills and competences
Participation in learning processes
Flexibility and innovation
|Social effects and sustainability
Reduction in criminal activity
|Effects on living together
|Return on investment
Adults with a tertiary degree earn more than adults who have a secondary degree (second stage), who in turn earn more than adults with training under the level of a secondary degree (second stage). If adults with a secondary degree (second stage) with earned income are taken as the standard of comparison, adults without a degree earn around 20 per cent less, adults with a post-secondary, non-tertiary degree earn around 10 per cent more and adults with a tertiary degree earn around 60 per cent more. 
A similar effect can be seen at a higher level of skills and competences.
Adequate basic competences in reading, writing, arithmetic and computer literacy are fundamental to improving employability. They contribute to combating poverty and have an effect on income.
The employment rate and income rise as the level of education and level of competence increase. For adults with a tertiary degree, the probability is 23 percentage points higher that their monthly income is in the top 25 per cent than for adults whose highest level of education is a secondary degree (second stage) or a post-secondary, non-tertiary degree.
Conducted in multiple European countries, the BeLL study has shown that participation in adult learning goes hand in hand with better personal well-being. Between 70 and 87 per cent spoke of positive changes from taking a course in terms of motivation to learn, social contacts, general well-being and life satisfaction. Furthermore, great changes appeared in health consciousness and also openness and tolerance. The effects are the largest with people with a low level of education and of qualifications.
As part of the PIAAC, adults with higher competences did better on average in terms of voluntary activities, in particular interpersonal trust and political effectiveness (i.e. whether a person believes he or she is able to influence what the government does).
When the impacts on society as a whole are compared across all educational groups, the greatest differences are found between adults with a level of education lower than a secondary degree (second stage) and adults with a tertiary degree in the areas of political effectiveness and interpersonal trust. The share of adults who responded that they have an influence on what the government does (political effectiveness) increases with each additional level of education that has been completed.
Innovative capacity is promoted by the level of education and of qualifications as well as by the skills of a company's employees and freelance workers. Participation in lifelong learning and independent learning are key to innovation and productivity.
Around 57 per cent of employed adults with good competences in the areas of information and communications technologies (ICT) and problem solving participate in employee sponsored formal and/or non-formal professional development and continuing education; this is true for only 9 per cent of adults without computer experience and without problem solving competences.
Participation in adult learning goes hand in hand with an improvement in the motivation to continue learning and self-confidence in learning.
Knowledge and skills make a substantial contribution to productivity and an improvement in the competitiveness of the economy. Adult education course offerings take into account the needs of the economy; they support people entering or reentering the job market or those looking for access to the job market after a period of unemployment. The path to becoming self-employed is also supported by adult education.
Social effects and sustainability
Society as a whole benefits from further kinds of returns from education such as higher productivity, better state of health, longer life expectancy and other positive societal impacts. Through appropriate measures, adult education contributes to reducing criminal activity, and investments in the infrastructure of adult education guarantee sustainable growth.
Effects on living together
Social cohesion, tolerance and a willingness to live together based on human rights and mutual respect are central topics of societal development. In the BeLL study, adult learners report on these effects of attending a course.
People with better basic competences are more active in civil society than those with few basic competences.
Investment in adult education pays dividends to the state as well. A higher level of education and of qualifications counteracts poverty, improving employability and ultimately income. More employed people and better qualified people have higher income taxes and social insurance contributions as a result, and it can also be assumed that they will receive fewer transfer payments from the government. From this perspective, investment in education also generates revenue for the state.
Return on investment
Returns from adult learning can be assessed as highly as those from initial education. Several studies show that investments in adult education can be recouped, for example through higher wages and improved employability.
A study by the Research Institute for Vocational Training and Adult Education at Johannes Kepler University Linz (Lankmayer/Niederberger/Rigler 2015) measured the overall benefit to society of a socio-economic company. The result was that during the funding year, a large share of investments that had been made (86 per cent) returned to the public sector. The central benefits are: stabilization of living conditions, adoption of social responsibility, positive impacts on the social environment, strengthening of personal resources, improvement of state of health and growth in competence and environmental protection.
The strengths of non-formal adult education
When we talk about education, we make a distinction in terms of sector between formal learning and non-formal learning. In their pedagogical essence, both sectors are concerned with adult learning, which takes place everywhere and every day. Such an understanding cannot be seen as a contradiction; the sectors complement each other and in non-formal adult education in particular, the interaction between formal learning and non-formal learning is obvious. Non-formal adult education functions as a bridge between the sectors and contributes to the integration of formal learning. This understanding of learning is comprehensive and comprises emotions, sociability and cognitive thinking. Motivating learning environments provide the pedagogical basis for non-formal adult education.
Learning is both acquisitive and transformative: acquisitive in the sense of integration and internalization and transformative in the sense of development of something new, i.e. knowledge, skills, competences or innovations. This approach is also a constituent of non-formal adult education.
In the non-formal sector, working with motivation is very important. Participants feel acknowledged and understood through the recognition of prior learning and resource-oriented thinking. The learning process overlaps with social processes. The participant has his or her own view of social reality and in many courses, social acceptance and a sense of community are experienced. An understanding of shared challenges is created. Many methods used in non-formal adult education motivate participants to accept new input. The prior experiences and potentials of the learners form the basis of the programme; knowledge and experiences are complementary and contribute to the development of new knowledge that can be related to changed circumstances in the future.
Adult education supports democracy education and the development of democracy.
In the heterogeneous course groups, people from different social classes come into contact with one another. In many courses, “trial action” occurs. Course participants try out something new and receive feedback from the other participants and the course instructor. They become acquainted with the effects of their statements and actions and they practice dialogue and discussion as well as democratic discourse.
Adult education teaches democracy and is directed at people who do not take advantage of the many opportunities to act while many members of the middle class are comfortable with the instruments of civic participation. Non-formal adult education above all offers numerous opportunities for learning about how democratic societies and systems function.
The relationship between education and democracy is a diverse one: “Trends such as globalisation, increasing education and expanding middle classes favour the organic development of democracy.” Philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952), who had a significant influence on adult education, wrote that democracy must be learned again and again: "Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife." (Dewey 1916, p. 139)
Flexibility and innovation
Adult education organizations can react rapidly to new requirements and topics. In contrast to initial education and the formal part of the educational system, non-formal adult education is able to create new educational offerings quickly.
These educational offerings address the needs of different target audiences and are directed at people in different circumstances. The learning opportunities are very practice-oriented yet not without a theoretical component. Learning from each other and collaborative learning on an equal footing support sustainable learning outcomes. The distinct practical orientation permits all participants to make a contribution within the learning group.
Many participants are employed and can also directly implement the learning outcomes. In one study, the German Institute for Adult Education comes to the conclusion that adult education has the potential to implement innovations quickly. This is supported by a number of creative methods that can be used in non-formal adult education in particular.
From an economic perspective, it appears that public investment in adult education pays off and that benefits exist for individuals, the economy and society.
In addition, the strengths of non-formal adult education should be noticed in the context of present and future challenges. Non-formal adult education builds bridges to learning in formal contexts; through its special focus on the subject, its strengths and competences and on motivation, it sustainably supports effective learning processes.
Democracy is no longer a matter of course, and the philosophy and methodical approach of non-formal adult education support the development of democracy. With its flexibility and its innate potential for innovation, non-formal adult education makes an important contribution to economic development and prosperity.
Thematic Working Group on "Financing Adult Learning" (2013), Final Report. Brussels. P. 18. Online: https://www.hm.ee/sites/default/files/thematic_wg_financing_report.pdf
Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung (DIE) & Forschungsinstitut für Bildungs- und Sozialökonomie (FIBS) (2013), Final Report: Developing the Adult Learning Sector. Lot 2: Financing the Adult Learning Sector. (Contract EAC 2012-0073) Berlin, 27 August 2013. Online: http://arhiv.acs.si/porocila/Financing_the_Adult_Learning_Sector-final_report.pdf
Cf. Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 on key competences for lifelong learning (2006/962/EC). Online: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32006H0962&from=EN
OECD (2015), Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, p 116. Online: http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/education-at-a-glance-2015_eag-2015-en#.V-OaRvmLSJA
OECD 2015, p. 120 
1 Jyri Manninen, Irena Sgier, Marion Fleige, Bettina Thöne-Geyer, Monika Kil, Ester Možina, Hana Danihelková, David Mallows, Samantha Duncan, Matti Meriläinen, Javier Diez, Simona Sava, Petra Javrh, Natalija Vrečer, Dubravka Mihajlovic, Edisa Kecap, Paola Zappaterra, Anina Kornilow, Regina Ebner, Francesca Operti (2014), Benefits of Lifelong Learning in Europe: Main Results of the BeLL-Project. Research Report. Online: http://www.bell-project.eu/cms/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/BeLL-Research-Report.pdf
Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 
OECD 2015, p. 164 
OECD 2015, p. 396 
Cf. the indicators in: Thematic Working Group on Quality in Adult Learning (2013) 
Cf. PIAAC 
Thematic Working Group on "Financing Adult Learning" (2013) 
See TWG on "Financing Adult Learning" (2013), p. 21. 
Cf Steen Elsborg and Steen Høyrup Pedersen: Breaking social patterns through the learning environments of the non-formal adult education. København: Danish Adult Education Association. http://www.dfs.dk/media/317471/breaking_social_patterns.pdf
Economist Intelligence Unit (2011), Democracy index 2011. Democracy under stress. http://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=DemocracyIndex2011
Dewey, John (1916), The Need of an industrial Education in an industrial Society. In: Bodston, Jo Ann: John Dewey. The middle Works 1899-1924. Journal articles, essays and miscellany published in the 1916-1917 period. Volume 10 1916-1917. First published in Manual Training and Vocational Education 17 (1916), pp. 409-414. 
See Footnote 2