By Colin McGregor, Director, ACE Aotearoa 

In late October Tracey Shepherd (ACE Aotearoa Co-Chair) and I, with the support of UNESCO New Zealand, travelled to Suwon in South Korea to attend the mid-term review of the Sixth International Conference on Adult Learning and Education (CONFINTEA VI).

As well as the conference itself we attended a pre-conference forum organised by the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE).

ICAE forum

The ICAE forum was attended by 88 people from about 30 countries. The programme covered regional reports and positioning for the future.

A key note address by Katarina Popovic, the ICAE Secretary General, provided a challenging message to the conference. She noted that the world has gone backwards with growing inequality, growth of neo liberalism, climate change, nationalism, and racism. Her view is that ACE has been marginalised and neglected.

Each of five regions met in groups: Africa, Arab, Asia Pacific, Europe and North America and South and Central America. Each group met to look at five areas and look at progress, enabling factors and future directions.

The future directions agreed on were:

  • For policy we agreed we need to embed lifelong learning in policy documents
  • For participation we need continued support for access
  • For quality we need investment or levers to support quality
  • For finances we need research on the impact of ACE on people (health, social economic)
  • For governance we need more investment.

The report back of the five groups showed there was broad agreement on these future directions.

This preparatory day was a useful way to work through the issues of CONFINTEA.


The purpose of the first day was to provide the participants with a world view of progress since the Belem agreement of 2009. This was based on surveys sent out around the world. In most cases these surveys were completed by government agencies with no input from any civil society group and were self-reports with no independent verification of the data. The positive news is that: 89% of countries agree that ACE contributes a great deal to personal worth and well- being; just over 50% agree that ACE has a positive effect on employment; and 66% think that ACE helps build community solidarity. Whist some progress has been made there needs to be a focus on: information and access to learning opportunities; balancing the education spending across the life course; recognition of the holistic nature of sustainable development; development of strong partnerships amongst all the stakeholders; and including ACE as part of the data revolution.

Prior to the afternoon session I attended a special additional session on Adult Education Centres that was organised by DVV International. DVV International is a German based organisation that supports Adult Learning across the world.

The afternoon sessions were focussed on effective practices and lessons learned.

The plenary sessions on day two covered Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) on adult learning and education and related to the 2015 Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education (RALE). New Zealand has signed up to the SDGs but reporting has been limited to date.

In the afternoon I attended two of the break-out workshops – one on vocational education and training (VET) and the other on policy development. The purpose of these workshops was to develop key recommendations for CONFINTEA.

For the VET session there were representatives from Jordon, Japan, Peru, Bolivia, Spain, Columbia and Canada. It was humbling to hear the issues of some countries – for example Jordon has the problem of thousands of refugees from Syria. Many of the South American countries suffer from high levels of unemployment so although training is provided there are no jobs. The two recommendations coming out of the group referred to the need for the provision of soft skills (team work, working with others), the need to resource vocational education and training.

The second session on policy demonstrated that ACE policy is very different around the world. Malaysia has a Blueprint for Adult Education and all relevant agencies are required to align themselves with policy. But in many countries there is little policy, or what they have is under-developed. The focus was that policies on adult education need to be embedded across ministries. Policies need to be comprehensive, inclusive and integrated.

Tracey Shepherd attended the workshops on civic society and governance. The civic society workshop focussed on the role communities play in setting the agenda for adult learning and education (ALE). Participants included representatives from Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Canada, South Korea, Brazil, Singapore and Colombia. Both Canada and NZ spoke about the role of ALE for indigenous peoples and how it is important that engagement with their culture needs to underpin and inform any education programmes. South Korea spoke about the constant threat of war – the increased tensions between North Korea and the USA are impacting on South Korea and people are living in fear that war could break out at any moment. Japan spoke about how ALE could be used to curb individualism. Singapore talked about how policies are targeted at young people and that there is a valuable role older people play in society and the risk that this group could be all but forgotten and not catered for in a lifelong learning framework.

The workshop on Governance was attended by people from South Africa, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Slovenia, Japan, Italy, Canada, Pakistan and South Korea. There was a lot of discussion about different models throughout the world – Canada’s is completely decentralised whereas Slovenia is centralised. The group acknowledged that population will dictate the most appropriate model(s) but regardless of the model in place, the learner voice must be present when determining policy.

The third day started with a very informative session on measurement and measurement challenges for adult literacy in particular. A number of measures are used but inconsistently across the world. Work is being done to improve measurement and develop common understanding of terms such as functional literacy and what is ‘proficiency’.

The second session looked at progress in implementing the SDGs. Progress was mixed. For example in Namibia there are high literacy rates (89%) but also high school dropout rates. Indonesia plans to set measurement targets to SDG goals. In Bolivia a need was expressed to understand the past and the present in order to prepare for the future and in Italy the focus was on the importance of ACE to support a culture of mutual understanding. The saddest commentary was from the Arab states where $2.2 trillion has been spent on war.

Both Tracey and I found the attendance at the mid-term review very useful. Valuable contacts were made and we have a greater insight on the role ACE plays internationally, where New Zealand fits in and what needs to be focussed on in the future. We are grateful to UNESCO for supporting our attendance.