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The introduction placed the analysis contained in this report in context, introduced the ALL and IALS studies and outlined the definition of adult learning used in this report. Chapter 1 presented comparative estimates of participation in adult education and training among Canada and selected countries, as well as among the Canadian provinces and territories. Chapter 2 examined the level of inequality and looked at changes in the degree of inclusiveness that occurred between the IALS and ALL survey periods. Chapter 3 focused on the relationship between participation in adult learning and work and job characteristics. This conclusion provides an overview and discussion of the main findings.


The findings presented in this report raise issues about the competitiveness and inclusiveness of the Canadian adult learning system, the challenges in increasing participation, especially among vulnerable groups, and the need to revisit and strengthen public policy on adult learning.

Canada has, thanks to an early expansion of its post-secondary system, had a human capital advantage over most of its economic competitors. This advantage is gradually disappearing as other countries are catching up (see OECD, 2005b). As countries become more similar in the proportion of youth receiving a post-secondary education, any competitive edge will increasingly depend on the extent to which an aging population is able to keep their skills current through engaging in adult education and training. From this perspective, there are several worrying signals about the Canadian performance in adult learning. First, as confirmed in Chapter 1, not only do Canadians report a somewhat lower participation rate than citizens in the three other ALL countries that were included in this study, but they also spend less time on their studies. Second, the Canadian figures on participation in courses and/or programmes have not improved between the 1994 IALS and 2003 ALL survey periods. This finding is supported by results from a trend analysis of Adult Education and Training Surveys from 1993 to 2003 (Rubenson, forthcoming). We can therefore conclude that despite concerns about skill shortages in an evolving knowledge based economy, there has been very little expansion in organized forms of adult learning in Canada.

During the last decade, policy documents (see e.g. OECD, 1996) and scholars (Livingstone, 1999) have stressed that organized forms of adult learning constitute only one aspect of human capital investment and that informal learning is also playing an important role. However, it is important to point out that there are problems using existing survey data to empirically estimate the scope of this contribution. Consequently, existing surveys are not helpful in analysing the extent to which modes of informal learning can be a substitute for formal education. Findings from surveys which do provide data on the extent of informal learning suggest that this is a universal phenomenon. As Betcherman, McMullen and Davidman (1998, p. 46) point out in relation to workplace training, that while the distribution of organized training varies, informal training is more or less even across firms.

Further, ALL suggests that factors like educational attainment, socio-economic status and the workplace have a strong impact on the nature of the informal learning contexts that individuals experience. In other words, while some groups have access to rich informal learning environments, others are left with a rather sparse environment. In order to draw far-reaching policy conclusions based on the distribution of informal learning in Canadian society, we need research that can yield detailed information on the actual knowledge, competencies and skills that people have gained from their engagement in informal learning. Although still contested in the literature, a strong hypothesis is that merely learning in the course of daily life without some systematic prior reinforcement, such as formal education, may not be sufficient for developing competencies that have economic and social value (Svensson, Ellström and Åberg, 2004).

As the policy community has come to realize that adult learning has to serve not only more narrow economic goals, but is also important for supporting equity and social inclusion, the unequal distribution of participation in adult education and training is a growing concern. While all countries have problems recruiting adults with weak foundation skills (e.g., low literacy skills) into organized forms of adult learning, it is important to note that there are significant differences in participation patterns among countries. It is therefore important to reflect on why vulnerable groups like immigrants, the unemployed and those with a low educational attainment are doing substantially better in Norway, for example, than similar groups in Canada. OECD (2005a) highlights several crucial conditions for reaching low-skilled adults and encouraging them to participate, and for which governments can play a useful role. These include: co-financing mechanisms; creating the structural preconditions for better recognizing the benefits of adult learning; improving delivery and quality control; and ensuring policy co-ordination and coherence. Further, the comparatively successful recruitment of the low educated in Norway, as well as in other Nordic Countries, could be a result of having made targeted public funding available for recruiting disadvantaged groups (Rubenson, forthcoming).

Finally, ALL speaks to the central role that work plays in the construction of adults’ readiness to engage in adult learning. Almost four out of every five learners report participation in adult learning for job and career related reasons. Further, slightly more than half of the participants have been engaged in some form of employer-sponsored training. The data point to the necessity of anchoring a Canadian strategy on lifelong learning in the world of work. A strategy has to build on the finding that the availability of training opportunities at work is strongly related to the demand structure: the more skills being used, the more likely the employee is to train.

A shift from an economic and human resource strategy based on a low skill/low-wage equilibrium to one that organizes work according to a high-skills equilibrium (Brown, Green and Lauder, 2001) will most likely change low-skilled workers’ perceptions of the value of participating in adult education and training. As Rubenson (forthcoming) argues, the exceptionally high and equally distributed participation in adult education and training in the Nordic Countries is related to a nationally promoted high-skills strategy that, through private and public investments encourages participation in broad, general adult education and training.

The present Canadian lifelong learning strategy, which is primarily anchored in a youth initiative, may need to be complemented by an adult learning initiative that recognizes the significant role of the world of work. This may be the case simply because of the relatively small size of Canada’s current youth cohorts. In an era where skill demands and the global supply of economically productive skills are both rising, meeting our economic objectives may depend on retraining large numbers of adult workers or on importing skills. A successful strategy should have a dual purpose. First, it should encourage a wider group to participate in adult education and training. Second, it should stimulate reforms in the organization and nature of work so as to make more expansive use of workers’ skills. A comprehensive adult learning strategy for all is as much an issue of labour market policy as it is education policy. Thus a strong interplay between the public and private sectors is necessary. There needs to be recognition that the changing nature of work is altering the long-established division of roles between the public and private sectors.