Does lifelong learning perpetuate inequalities in educational opportunities?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills
Participation rates of 25-64-year-olds in formal and/or non-formal education
More than 40 years ago, the former French Prime Minister Edgar Faure and his team published one of the most influential educational works of the 20th century: “Learning to Be”, better known as the “Rapport Faure”, in which he mainstreamed the idea of lifelong learning. In Faure’s view, lifelong education was to become the leading educational policy principle for the future. Indeed, it became a powerful, evocative notion, nurturing dreams about “learning societies” in which people’s entire lives would be filled with opportunities to learn.

In the lifelong learning discourse, especially in its more optimistic variants in the late 20th century, there was a strong social equity argument. By creating more and better learning opportunities later in life, this argument went, the inequities in education that marked the first 25 years of a person’s life could be corrected or compensated for. A child’s schooling might be determined by his or her family background or economic and social capital; but missing out on educational opportunities early in life should not necessarily condemn individuals to be excluded from the benefits of learning later on. Second-chance or special education programmes that target low-schooled adults should ensure that providing access to education over a lifetime also results in a better redistribution of learning opportunities across society.

There is nothing wrong with beautiful ideas and dreaming of a better future. But the idea of lifelong learning encountered a fate similar to that of many dreams: the reality was much more sobering. When, in the 1990s, the first large-scale data on participation in adult education became available through the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), the verdict was that adult education did not compensate for, but rather reinforced the gap between the educational haves and have-nots. Adults who were already highly literate participated in larger numbers than those who had low levels of literacy.  

Have things changed over the past 20 years? The latest Education Indicator in Focus brief reports on adult participation in post-initial education and training as revealed in the 2012 Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). On average across the 24 national and sub-national entities that participated in the survey, about half of the 25-64 year-old respondents had participated in formal or non-formal adult education or training. But the average hides wide variations, which are strongly associated with such factors as the respondent’s educational attainment, skills level or employment status (see the chart above). Highly educated, high-skilled adults who are employed participate much more than low-educated, low-skilled and unemployed or inactive adults. In other words, the data gathered in 2012 show similar results to the data gathered 20 years earlier. Accumulating educational opportunities, not compensating for missed opportunities early on, seems to be the dominant dynamic in lifelong learning.

But a closer look reveals three important nuances. The first is the higher level of participation in all categories since the 1990s. Although the metrics that measured participation were not quite the same, in all countries that participated in both surveys, the participation rate increased across the board. This means that low-skilled, low-educated adults have better access to learning opportunities. In 2012, 30% of low-skilled adults reported that they had participated in some form of formal or non-formal adult education or training – double the proportion of 20 years earlier.

The second is related to the enormous differences between countries, both in the average participation rate and in who participates. The average participation rate in Nordic countries is double that of Italy and the Slovak Republic, for example. And, in general, the countries with lower average participation rates are also those with wide disparities in participation, suggesting that country differences in average participation can be explained more by differences in participation rates of low-educated and low-skilled adults than by those of better educated, high-skilled adults.

The third observation directly challenges the “accumulation” view of adult education. When looking at who participates in adult education by the parents’ level of education, the gap between individuals whose parents attained below upper secondary education versus those whose parents have a tertiary degree is small, and much smaller than the gap in the educational attainment level of the respondents themselves. The impact of one’s family background on participation in adult education seems to be significantly lower than it is during compulsory education.

Lifelong learning provides educational opportunities to those who already had a lot of them. From a pedagogical point of view, this is hardly surprising, because one of the great things about learning is that it opens the mind for more. Learning begets learning as it instils the thirst for more. Sure, the educationally better-off enjoy more of lifelong learning’s promises and benefits, but not mainly because family background or previous academic success perpetuates inequalities in educational opportunities, but because learning has created its own dynamic of desire for more. Instilling a desire for learning in initial education, as part of a broader culture of learning, is the best way to ensure that as many adults as possible take advantage of educational opportunities later in life.

Education Indicators in Focus, Issue No. 26, by Simon Normandeau and Gara Rojas González
Education Indicators in Focus, Issue No. 26, French version
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators:
Chart Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2014: Indicator C6 (

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