By Dina Soeiro, Professor at Coimbra Higher Education School – Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra, Portugal and member of the European Association for the Education of Adults Board

According to the new Eurydice Report on Adult Education and Training in Europe (September 2021) European countries register between 15 and 57 percent of adults with low levels of achievement in literacy and/or numeracy (such is the variation between countries) and, on average, around 40 percent of adults in the EU are at risk of digital exclusion: they have either low levels of or no digital skills, or their use of the Internet is very limited or non-existent. The low-skills trap persists: those who could benefit the most from learning and education are the least likely to have access to learning and education. Most learning activities in which adults participate are non-formal.

The report notes that there has been a slow but steady increase in adult participation in education and training across European countries, but, in 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU average dropped to 9.2 percent and participation decreased in virtually all European countries.

Governments’ policies and financing do not generally include non-formal educational opportunities. The focus is on formal adult education and is vocational and qualification oriented. Despite the references in the discourse for lifelong learning, adult learning and education for the elderly is not mentioned. A clear sign of this is the lack of data related to education for older adults. Like other important educational reports, the Eurydice Report only presents data referring to people up to 64 years old. This invisibility cloak is not helpful when our societies are ageing.

Other recent reports provide us with some information.

The Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe notes that participation in education decreases with age in all of Europe.

The European Commission Green Paper on Ageing, Fostering solidarity and responsibility between generations promotes lifelong learning but misses a comprehensive rights-based view on ageing and the demographic change in Europe. The report notes that volunteering activities can promote intergenerational solidarity and cooperation, creating value and benefiting young and old alike in terms of knowledge, experience and self-esteem. Many countries actively promote volunteering programs for the elderly.

Another significant policy is The European Pillar of Social Rights that notes some concerns about the challenges of ageing. They propose a target for the EU, to be reached by 2030: that at least 60 percent of all adults should participate in training every year.

One of the relevant documents that influences the educational framework for Elderly in Europe is the plan for a United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing 2020–2030 that claims that older people themselves will be at the centre of this plan as they are agents of change as well as service beneficiaries. This plan will bring together governments, civil society, international agencies, professionals, academia, the media and the private sector to improve the lives of older people, their families and their communities.

Not all educational practices in Europe for the elderly are with the elderly, but the participatory approach is common, especially in community education and learning, and in education for active citizenship.

In some countries such as Ireland (see Aontas), there are activities to raise the voice of learners.

One of the most popular educational programmes for older learners is the University of the Third Age. We can find different models, from formal ones closer to traditional schools to more participatory and open organisational structures, valuing the knowledge and wisdom of the elderly. They have great educational value and engage many learners. Most participants have high levels of qualifications. Their programmes are not responsive to the needs of diverse older learners, especially those with low basic skills.

However, there are inclusive initiatives based on arts education, like graffiti projects (example:, radio and Internet soap operas, community theatre, music groups like a choir for elderly with dementia… They are mostly promoted by civil society – like associations, solidarity organisations, or municipalities.

We also have intergenerational learning, which occurs within families, communities, and in community centres or associations, social institutions, cultural spaces like libraries, museums, in sports and arts activities... There is a growing need for lifelong learning in local and community settings and for all ages.

Some of these educational and learning dynamics are integrated in the learning cities UNESCO network that fosters a culture of learning throughout life. However as most educational services are concentrated in the cities, those in rural areas mostly miss out.

In these Covid-19 times, also, the use of technology for education often excludes older adults who have low digital skills.

Ageing in place, which has been increased by the pandemic, has increased the personalized learning services at home, along with care services.

In these very challenging times, there is a need for integration of the educational and social areas. We are not there yet, but there is some progress replacing the assistance perspective with an empowering and humanistic perspective focus committed to autonomy. Lifelong learning has huge potential for resilience in this pandemic crisis and beyond. The elderly are not just victims of this pandemic, they are agents of recovery. Dealing with instability and uncertainty, learners and professionals are trying to balance fear and hope.

In my home country, Portugal, the services like residential care or day care centres dedicated to the elderly benefit from the work of multidisciplinary teams, including gerontologists and socioeducational professionals. In the beginning of this pandemic, the situation of the elderly in rest homes was very distressing. People were very scared, the mortality was high, not only from Covid-19, but also from other conditions, because of the general disturbance of the institutions and health system. So there were harsh measures with only basic care services and only essential people entering the facilities. Group activities were suspended or reduced. The focus shifted to individualised or small group activities.

This had a devastating impact on the mental and physical health of the elderly and the need for socio-educational professionals was quickly recognized as essential. Their work also includes facilitating the communication and interaction with the relatives and friends, using video calls or other creative solutions like plastic curtains for hugs.

What has become evident is that the elderly, their relatives and society are demanding education programmes and what is offered must be included in quality criteria for care providers.

On a positive note, this year we celebrate the centenary of Paulo Freire. So I invite you to revisit Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope and ask you to join your voice to advocate for adult education with a heart, with passion, so that we can have Adult Learning and Education for All, including the elderly.

That will be contagious! That has the potential to engage and commit politicians – and society in general to promote active citizenship, happiness and well-being!

Irish research: Education equality is central to Ireland’s recovery: Community education in a time of Covid-19

This recently published report by AONTAS, Ireland’s national adult learning organisation, identifies who engages in community education, what courses are provided, how it is funded, and critically how it effectively supports people to fulfil their potential

Findings include:

  • Marginalised learners are the dominant cohort engaging in community education
  • Community education empowers learners to engage in their community, to increase agency, capacity and self-confidence
  • Community education can effectively address the drop-in lifelong learning participation rates arising from Covid-19.

Key challenges identified were:

  • The complexity and precarity of the community education funding system
  • Loss of funding for community education during Covid-19
  • Backlog and increased demand for programmes
  • Increased demand for learner supports
  • The access-enabling potential of blended learning post Covid-19
  • The vital need for outreach and engagement to address the drop in participation levels.

You can read the report at CEN Census Policy Paper.pdf (