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Adult Learning in Canada:  A Comparative Perspective: Results from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey

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by Kjell Rubenson, Richard Desjardins and Ee-Seul Yoon

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Adult learning in context
Goals of the report
What is ALL?
Defining what counts as adult learning
Organization of the report

Adult learning in context

OECD’s thematic review of adult learning policies and practices in 17 OECD countries found a growing recognition by policy makers of the necessity to invest in adult learning to achieve economic efficiency and address equity deficiencies (OECD, 2005a, p. 15). This trend is driven by advances in information and communication technologies, and reduced trade barriers. Industrial countries are undergoing a period of fundamental economic transformation in which knowledge and information is being promoted as the foundations for economic activity. In Canada, the recently released Plan for Growth and Prosperity notes that brainpower has become the fundamental basis of competitive advantage. “Knowledge and creativity have become the true measures of economic potential” (Government of Canada, 2005, p. 8).

While there has been an awareness of the relationship between increased years of schooling and economic growth since the 1961 ground-breaking report, Education as Investment (OECD, 1961), the role of adult learning on productivity, innovation and employment chances of individuals (OECD, 2004; OECD, 2005a) has only recently come to the fore.

The urgency of addressing adult learning is being heightened by dramatic demographic changes. The rapid aging of the Canadian population creates a major challenge to prosperity. Today, the ratio of Canadians of working age to persons of retirement age is just above five to one but is projected to fall to four to one within 15 years and to less than 2.5 to one by 2050. With a decreasing inflow of young and highly skilled people into the labour market, productivity gains become increasingly dependent on continuous retraining of the existing workforce, who may be encouraged to remain gainfully employed beyond today’s retirement age.

According to the policy rhetoric, the New Economy holds the promise of increased productivity and an improved standard of living. However, it also introduces a new set of transitions and adjustment challenges for society, industry, and individuals, which have the potential to increase the permanent exclusion or marginalization of segments of the population and exacerbate socio-economic divisions (Rubenson and Schuetze, 2000). The premise that a general demand for a better skilled labour force exists, is being questioned by scholars who point to a growing bifurcation of the labour market (Brown, Green & Lauder, 2001; Livingstone, 2005). Those that see adult learning as part of a response to the danger of further polarization in society argue that lifelong learning gives citizens the chance to acquire adequate skills to prevent low-paid jobs from becoming life cycle traps. “A Pareto optimal welfare state of the future might very well be one that shifts the accent of social citizenship from its present preoccupation with income maintenance towards a menu of rights to lifelong learning and qualification” (Epsing-Andersen, 1996, p. 260).

From this perspective it is worth noting that recent research suggests that a more equitable investment in skills enhances overall labour force productivity (Coulombe, Tremblay, & Marchand, 2004; Statistics Canada, 2004). Consequently, addressing unequal opportunities to adult learning is as much an economic as a social issue.

Goals of the report

The purpose of this report is to describe the extent of adult learning in a comparative perspective. The goal is to present a comprehensive portrait of adult learning including participation in organized forms of adult learning (formal and non-formal learning) as well as informal learning. The report addresses differences in participation between selected countries and within Canada and notes changes in participation patterns. Findings from the 2003 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey are, when appropriate, compared to results from the 1994-1998 International Adult Literacy Survey.

Previous research has repeatedly documented the unequal readiness to engage in adult learning, particularly organized forms of learning (see e.g. OECD, 2000; Statistics Canada, 2001a). In this context, the report explores if the increased importance awarded to adult learning is reflected in more equitable distribution of adult learning across the Canadian population. Special focus is given to the readiness to engage in learning among those with restricted literacy capabilities and older adults.

Over the last two decades participation in adult learning has increasingly been mediated by factors related to the world of work. The report explores if there are any changes to this pattern and observes the relative importance of the state, employer and individual in the direct financing of adult learning.

Better knowledge of changes in adult learning patterns including the barriers and motivations to engagement in adult learning is critical to future policy development in the area. The information in this report provides a starting point. Further research, data collection and analysis are required to draw a more complete picture.

What is ALL?

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) is a large-scale co-operative effort undertaken by governments, statistical agencies, research institutions and intergovernmental agencies that provides international comparable measures on adult learning and four skill domains: prose and document literacy, numeracy and problem solving (for further details see Box 1, and OECD/Statistics Canada, 2005). ALL was administered in 2003 in Canada, Bermuda, the Mexican State of Nuevo Leon, Italy, Norway, Switzerland and the United States. In Canada, over 23,000 individuals aged 16 and over from across the ten provinces and three territories responded to the survey. The Canadian component of ALL is known as the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (see Statistics Canada, 2005).

The ALL study builds on the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), the world’s first internationally comparative survey of adult skills undertaken in three rounds of data collection between 1994 and 1998. Most questions on the background questionnaire in ALL were kept the same as in IALS so as to allow for comparisons to be made over time, as were the proficiency scales for two of the skill domains: prose literacy and document literacy.

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL)

The development and management of the ALL study were co-ordinated by Statistics Canada and the Educational Testing Services (ETS, Princeton, United States) in collaboration with the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the United States Department of Education, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Institute for Statistics (UIS) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Administered in 2003, ALL required all participating countries to collect data from a nationally representative sample of at least 3,000 respondents aged 16 to 65 for each language tested - English and French in the case of Canada. The minimum sample requirements for the ALL study were exceeded in Canada because several federal agencies and provincial governments funded the collection of additional cases so as to ensure high reliability in the estimation of data values for small population groups.

Moreover, unlike the 1994 Canadian component of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), the 2003 Canadian International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) also benefited from contributions made by territorial governments. As a result, the number of respondents is sufficient to provide accurate estimates for the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Finally, as with the 1994 Canadian component of IALS, the 2003 IALSS added Canadians over the age of 65 to the sample. Over 23,000 individuals from across Canada spent an average of two hours responding to the IALSS.

Defining what counts as adult learning

In accordance with the principles of lifelong learning the ALL study recognizes three basic categories of settings where purposeful learning activity takes place (see EC, 2000; 2001):

  • Formal learning: learning that typically takes place in an education or training institution, is structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification. Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective.
  • Non-formal learning: learning that occurs in a context which is not provided by an education or training institution and typically does not lead to certification. It is, however, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support). Non-formal learning opportunities may be provided in the workplace and through the activities of civil society organizations and groups. Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective.
  • Informal learning: learning that results from daily life activities related to work, family, community or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but is often non-intentional (or “incidental”/random).

In this report, formal and non-formal learning are referred to as organized forms of learning and encompass what is referred to as adult education and training. This is in contrast to informal learning which is seen as a non-organized form of learning. Data on education and learning in ALL were collected as part of a module entitled Participation in Education and Learning. All respondents were asked the first question in the module as follows:

  • The next questions are about your participation in education and learning activities during the last 12 months, that is, from … to …

  • During this time, did you take any education or training? This education or training would include programmes, courses, private lessons, correspondence courses, workshops, on-the-job training, apprenticeship training, arts, crafts, recreation courses or any other training or education? (yes/no)

Responses to this question are used to derive the total participation rate in adult education and training. Subsequent questions allow for a more detailed estimation of participation in programmes, courses and in other forms of organized learning. Additional information is used however to arrive at a refined distinction of what counts as adult education and training. According to the UNESCO definition, adult education consists of organized, structured programmes of education adapted to the needs of persons 15 and older who are not in the regular school or the university system. This definition excludes students who are still involved in their first or initial cycle of education. However, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain this definition and separate adult learners from first time students attending regular school or university. The traditional pattern of study has changed and with an increasing number of students moving in and out of the educational system and the labour market it is difficult to identify who is in the first cycle of studies and who is a recurrent learner. While recognizing the problems with defining who is an adult learner various pragmatic solutions are being sought.

For the purposes of the analysis in this report, adults aged 16 and older who are studying full time are not counted toward the participation rate in adult education and training, except under the following circumstances: adults aged 16 or over who are studying full-time and this is subsidized by an employer; adults aged 20 or over who are studying full-time in elementary or secondary programmes; and adults aged 25 or over who are studying full-time in postsecondary programmes. Thus any part time studies count toward adult learning. Moreover, higher education studies (full or part time) by adults aged 25 or over also count toward adult learning.

In general, it is difficult to obtain reliable data to do comparative analyses over time. Among other issues, one has to be certain that what is being measured is the same over time. While IALS and ALL were explicitly designed to allow for comparisons of literacy profiles over time, there were changes to the background questionnaire, including the module on adult learning. The questions used to derive total participation rates in organized forms of adult learning are nearly identical, but there are slight variations.

In IALS, all respondents were asked the first question of the module entitled Adult Education:

  • The following questions will deal with any education or training which you may have taken in the past 12 months.

  • During the past 12 months, that is, since …, did you receive any training or education including courses, private lessons, correspondence courses, workshops, on-the-job training, apprenticeship training, arts, crafts, recreation courses or any other training or education? (yes/no)

A comparison of the two filter questions in IALS and ALL shows a shift in emphasis from Adult Education to Education and Learning, and from education or training to education and learning, as well the inclusion of programmes among the list of examples in the question. These minor variations may contribute to higher observed participation rates for organized forms of adult learning in ALL as the latter is more likely to have captured students in formal programmes as well as some education and learning that is of a less organized nature such as some forms of on-the-job training. It is important to bear this in mind when comparing any changes over time in the rate of participation in adult education and training which are based on data from the IALS and ALL surveys.

Another complicating factor in comparing ALL and IALS is that while ALL distinguishes between participation in courses and programmes a significant number of those that identified themselves as participants in ALL did not report enrolling in a course and/or a programme. These persons are grouped under the heading “other”. Unfortunately, ALL does not provide any information on what kind of education and training is covered under this category. It is likely that “other” refers to activities like attending short lectures, seminars or workshops that were not part of a course. There is no information on how extensive the training was, but it seems reasonable to assume that it was primarily of a short duration. A structural analysis of background information reveals that those who participated in “other” are more similar in their educational attainment, level of literacy skills and work characteristics to participants in programmes and/or courses than they are to non-participants (see Table B1.1 in Annex B of PDF version of this report). Because of the uncertainties surrounding the category “other” the comparisons of participation in ALL and IALS are reported two ways; with or without those that participated in “other”.

The ALL study also collected data on informal learning. Cross-national comparable data on informal learning are rare, and ALL was one of the first attempts to collect this type of information. Analyses related to this form of adult learning are reported separately throughout.

Organization of the report

The Introduction briefly sets the analysis presented in this report in context. It introduces the ALL and IALS studies, and outlines the definition of adult learning used in this report.

Chapter 1 entitled International, provincial and territorial comparisons of adult learning provides comparative estimates of participation in adult education and training courses and programmes, duration of studies, engagement in informal learning and sources of direct financial support. Comparisons are made between Canada and three selected countries, namely Norway, Switzerland and the United States, as well as between the Canadian provinces and territories.

Chapter 2 entitled Adult learning: Who is being left out? compares the level of inequality in Canada and selected countries as well as across Canada. Comparing the findings in IALS and ALL, the chapter attempts to look at changes in the degree of inclusiveness.

Chapter 3 entitled Adult learning and the world of work first examines the reasons for participating in adult education and training. This is followed by an examination of the impact of labour force status as well as job and workplace characteristics on participation in adult education and training. The final section presents a review of the relationship between actual skill use and participation in both organized and informal forms of adult learning.

The Conclusion briefly sums up the main findings and conclusions of this report.