Published: 9-01-2012, 11:13

The Political Economy of Adult Education

The expansion of post-compulsory education and training has been one of the most striking recent changes in the education systems of more developed societies. Much of this expansion is accounted for by rising levels of participation among adults. Of particular interest here has been the growing prominence attached to the provision of learning opportunities for individuals throughout their working lives and, indeed, into retirement.

In part, this reflects the demographic shifts which imply an aging population – and workforce – in most of the more developed countries. Equally, there has been a fundamental political re-evaluation of adult education’s role. Governments in these societies (and beyond) have been remarkably consistent in prioritizing policies for what has come to be termed lifelong learning; that is, learning throughout the life course, from preschool to old age. These policies, in turn, are based on a robust conventional wisdom – what Grubb and Lazerson (2004) have dubbed the education gospel – about the essential role of education and training in generating the high levels of skills necessary for economic competitiveness and growth in the globalized economy.

This conventional wisdom partly derives from the work of academic economists in developing human capital theory (HCT). This theory has become one of the most influential economic doctrines of the age, especially in its contemporary manifestation in theories of the knowledge-based economy (KBE). However, the central characteristic of the political economy approach is that it interrogates such economic doctrines in order to uncover their political and sociological premises. Rather than simply treating economic theories as frameworks of analysis in their own terms, political economy aims to explore the – often implicit – social assumptions on which they are based. In this case, for example, approaches to adult education derived from HCTassume that individuals are able to calculate the instrumental benefits of human capital formation; and that individuals’ skills are rewarded in ways which reflect their productivity. Alternative approaches are clearly possible.

Equally, the political economy approach seeks to explain the influence which economic theories exert on policy in terms of the wider social and political context in which they are located. Here, the increasing dominance of neoliberalism during the 1980s and 1990s, orchestrated by international agencies, such as the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), created a fruitful ideological environment for the development of the individualized and instrumental approaches to adult education which are embodied in lifelong learning strategies. While governments adopted policies which reflected national circumstances, the policy repertoire available to them was limited by the wider ideological climate.

The next section presents an account of how the current conventional wisdom views the relationships between adult education and HCT, paying particular attention to theories of the KBE. Then, the critique from political economy of this position is explained. In the final section, the significance of the ideological context of neoliberalism for state policies on adult education is reviewed.

Theories of Adult Education as Human Capital Formation

The analytical basis for the view that, in general, education has a key role in determining economic development is provided by HCT, although the versions adopted by governments to underpin their policies have involved highly simplified accounts of the academic research. HCT has a very long pedigree, but its influence on thinking about the relationships between education and economic life became especially marked during the 1960s. Here, the macroeconomic arguments that investment in education and technological change constituted the basis for national economic growth provided a rationale for the expansion of educational provision by governments, especially at the upper secondary and tertiary levels.

In the harsher economic climate of the 1970s and 1980s, the emphasis shifted to the returns (e.g., from enhanced future earnings) which would flow to the individual from his/her investment in increased human capital (e.g., through undertaking extra education and training); and the productivity gains which would accrue to employers from the resulting enhanced skills levels. State intervention became limited to ensuring that the optimal conditions for these private individual investments prevailed. By the 1990s, the intellectual terrain had shifted again, strongly influenced by the development of theories of the KBE.

Human Capital in the KBE

Theories of the KBE adapt HCT to what are construed as the essential characteristics of contemporary economic life. On this view, the globalization of trade and investment has intensified competitive pressures, especially for those national economies which are unable to compete on the basis of low-cost production. In these economies, competitiveness can be maintained only by enhancing the productivity of capital and labor. This implies continuous innovation, developing new goods and services and more effective processes for producing, marketing and distributing them, and applying the most efficient patterns of work organization. Hence, the creation and – critically – the application in production of new forms of knowledge become the key factor in shaping the prosperity of individual enterprises and economic development more widely.

This valorization of knowledge production and innovation also has critical implications for the operation of labor markets. The KBE offers expanding opportunities for the so-called knowledge workers who have the very high-level skills required to operate in professional, managerial, scientific, and creative jobs in the upper echelons of the new occupational hierarchy. Equally, even workers who do not attain the very highest occupational levels require, at a minimum, high-quality general education and cutting-edge intermediate skills, so that they can engage actively in driving up productivity.

However, the corollary of these new occupational opportunities is the sharp decrease in unskilled or partly skilled occupations, which formerly comprised significant segments of the workforce. Some of these occupations have been relocated to the low-cost economies, reflecting patterns of globalization more widely. Others have simply disappeared because of changes in the industrial structure and transformations in product and process technologies. The implication is, therefore, that, in the KBE, employment opportunities for those individuals who do not have significant amounts of human capital are bleak.

Adult Education and the KBE

Theories of the KBE have significant consequences for how the production of human capital is conceived. Effective systems need to be in place to ensure that individuals with the requisite high-level skills are produced in sufficient numbers to meet the growing demand for knowledge workers. This implies the expansion of tertiary education, increasing the numbers of people with degrees and postgraduate qualifications. Equally, through the compulsory phases of education, everyone needs to attain high levels of general education – especially in respect of the essentials of literacy, numeracy, and science.

Moreover, theories of the KBE have specific implications for human capital formation through adult education. In an economy that is characterized by continuous innovation and the adoption of new technologies and modes of working, individuals need the forms of human capital which ensure that they are able to respond flexibly to these changing demands.

This requires the provision of opportunities for adults already in the workforce to compensate for any shortcomings in their previous education, in terms, for example, of the essential basic skills of literacy and numeracy or general vocational skills, such as communication, team working, and information and communication technology (ICT) competences. It also implies that workers are enabled to develop new knowledge and skills, as and when these become necessary. Not only are individuals expected to transfer from one job to another much more frequently than hitherto, but also new demands arise as existing occupations change in character. In these circumstances, workers need to be competent and flexible learners; learning to learn is thus an essential prerequisite.

Adult education is required to deliver effective opportunities for individual workers to acquire new knowledge and skills not only through participation in formal learning within institutions dedicated to the provision of education and training, but also through nonformal learning effected, in particular, within the workplace itself and largely instigated by employers. The workplace is also increasingly recognized as a crucial setting in which informal learning, especially through interaction with colleagues, should be facilitated.

It is, of course, important to emphasize that these theories of the KBE – as with most theories in the social sciences – are not without their critics. In the next section, some of these opposing views, drawing on political economy approaches, are explored.

Beyond Theories of Adult Education and Human Capital

Adult Education, the Social Construction of Skills and Learner Identities

In general terms, the link between human capital formation and economic development is well attested empirically. At the macroeconomic level, innumerable econometric studies demonstrate the strong positive relationship between education and national economic growth in the long term (Barro, 1997). There are also many microeconomic studies which show the returns which accrue to individuals from their investments in human capital formation.

Much of this evidence relates to school-based and tertiary education and qualifications. However, the available studies indicate that work-related adult education (and basic skills development in particular) does have positive associations with the earnings of individuals and with productivity increases (although the returns to other forms of adult education are less certain) (OECD, 1999). Accordingly, on the basis of this evidence – wholly consistent with theories of the KBE and the consequent understanding of adult education’s role – both individual workers and their employers benefit from greater participation in workrelated adult education (Blo¨ndal et al., 2002).

Approaches to adult education derived from HCT assume that individuals and employers recognize that increased human capital will increase productivity and that this will be rewarded in higher wages. However, as many commentators have argued, skills and the returns that accrue to them cannot be understood simply in terms of productivity. How skills are defined is the product of complex social and political processes, which are frequently as much about excluding social groups from the rewards which derive from what are defined as highly skilled occupations, as the technical requirements of production. Most notoriously, the skills attached to jobs which are characteristically done by women have not been recognized as such by employers and, indeed, male workers and their trade unions. While the knowledge and competences embodied in occupations may have changed, skills remain socially constructed. Moreover, once the notion of skill is detached from its technical content, it becomes clear that human capital may best be understood in terms of regulating access to occupations of different kinds, and, in the case of work-related adult education, to the kinds of screening which employers operate to determine what kinds of people enter more desirable jobs.

Equally, it cannot be inferred from the evidence on returns to human capital formation alone that individuals will actually participate in work-related adult education. Hence, approaches derived from HCT assume that individuals accrue human capital (e.g., by participating in work-related adult education) on the basis that future returns (e.g., through increased earnings) will outweigh the costs incurred. In reality, however, people’s participation even in work-related adult education reflects more than this narrowly constructed, instrumental valuation. For many forms of work-related training, people choose to take part only in a very limited sense. Participation is experienced as compulsion by the employer; and may, in consequence, result in very little by way of new learning. Even where participation is a matter of choice, individuals’ decisions are constrained by their material conditions: their financial resources, family commitments, and even where they live. Moreover, people’s choices are shaped by the expectations and norms – deriving from their experiences in their families, communities, and previous educational institutions – which define their identities as learners and, therefore, potential participants in adult education of all kinds (Rees et al., 2006).

Adult Education and the Demand for Skills

Theories of the KBE predict increasing demand for skills across the economy as a whole, largely through the growth of high-skills jobs. However, while there has been a significant increase in the professional, managerial, scientific, and creative occupations filled by highly skilled knowledge workers, this has not been matched by the demise of low-skilled, low-waged employment. Many more developed economies have experienced an increase in jobs at both the top and the bottom of the occupational hierarchy, with a hollowing out of occupations at the intermediate levels. To this extent, therefore, a substantial and even growing proportion of occupations do not require high levels of skill, either to enter them or to carry them out effectively.

While there may be persistent shortages of specific skills, there is no convincing evidence that there are general shortfalls in skills across the more developed economies as a whole. This is the case even in those national economies in which human capital formation has been regarded as problematic. For example, recent studies in the UK suggest that, if occupations are categorized by broad level of required skills, the only category for which there are more job openings than people qualified at the appropriate level is that where no formal qualifications are required. Conversely, the number of jobs requiring tertiary-level qualifications is far exceeded by the number of people having such qualifications (Felstead et al., 2007). Evidence of this kind has led to the claim that, in many of the more developed economies, demand for skills, especially at higher levels, is being outstripped by supply.

Work-related adult education is not provided across the board in the ways prescribed in theories of the KBE. Access to such learning opportunities is not distributed evenly between different groups of workers. In general, the higher someone is in the occupational hierarchy and the greater his/her previous educational attainment, the more likely they are to benefit from the provision of workrelated adult education. As Table 1 indicates, while there are important national differences in rates of participation, this is the pattern across the more developed economies; and it reinforces the notion that significant parts of the labor market remain dominated by low-skill occupations.

Participation in work-related adult education and previous educationa. Table 1

Participation in work-related adult education and previous education
aAnnual participation rate in nonformal, job-related education and training for 25–64-year olds (2003). From OECD (2007). Education at a Glance 2007. Paris: OECD.

Indeed, it has been argued that some economies are characterized by what Finegold and Soskice (1988) called a low-skills equilibrium. Here, employers adopt strategies geared to the production of low-cost, low-quality goods and services. These strategies are sustainable because production is primarily or wholly for local or domestic markets with little threat from cheap imports. Employers rely upon labor-intensive production systems and the mass production of low value-added goods. Therefore, they do not require workers with high skills levels. While there is little evidence to suggest that a low-skills equilibrium exists across any of the more developed economies as a whole, it is apparent that particular sectors and even regions can be dominated by low-skills, low-cost production, often reflecting a residue of past economic activity (OECD, 2001).

The development and application of skills are situated within the wider strategies which firms and other organizations adopt with respect to the production, marketing, and distribution of goods and services. Moreover, there is not a single strategy that provides employers with a pathway to competitiveness and profitability. Hence, simply expanding the supply of skills is insufficient, unless employers’ production strategies are of a kind which ensures that extra skills can actually be applied. This has important implications for the kinds of skills development strategies adopted by governments.

In spite of these well-founded critiques, the KBE continues to provide the foundation for the very robust conventional wisdom as to how governments across the more developed countries should deal with adult education. In the next section, the role of an ideological context dominated by neoliberalism in explaining this seeming paradox is addressed.

The State and the KBE

In the official discourses of governments and international organizations, theories of the KBE provide the key justification for policies aimed at promoting higher levels of skills through lifelong learning. While the latter encompasses learning throughout the life course, adult education has been identified as an especially important mechanism for enhancing human capital formation. Hence, many national governments in the more developed countries have shifted priorities for adult education toward directly vocational provision, thereby displacing its contributions to traditional concerns such as personal fulfillment or cultural development.

So robust is this consensus on the need to gear state policies to promote high skills levels that it has become the common sense of policy on adult education across the more developed economies. Accordingly, it is important to emphasize that this current conventional wisdom is situated within a historically specific ideological and institutional context.

Neoliberalism and Lifelong Learning

For much of the twentieth century, the governments of the developed economies operated Keynesian national settlements between employers, trade unions, and government. These were based on the mass production of standardized goods and services, high wage levels, and, consequently, rising living standards as well as an emergent consumer culture. The state played a key role in regulating economic activity and in providing key welfare services. While approaches to skills development varied significantly between different national economies, HCT was interpreted as providing the rationale for increased government investment in education, especially at the upper secondary and tertiary levels, in order to keep pace with the growing technological complexity of goods and services; but adult education was not given special attention.

This Keynesian regime broke down during the 1970s, to be replaced by one based broadly on neoliberalism. On this view, in the face of new patterns of globalized economic activity and competitive pressures, markets are deemed to provide the most effective mechanisms for the organization of economic activity. The role of government is limited to ensuring the conditions within which markets can function effectively, through maintaining macro-economic stability and providing public goods (physical infrastructure, basic education, environmental protection, etc.). Only where markets manifestly fail to deliver effective outcomes should state provision play a major role, as, for example, in meeting the basic needs of the poorest members of society through income redistribution.

Therefore, although the development of high skills levels through lifelong learning is acknowledged as central to meeting the demands of global competition and the KBE, the state’s role in skills formation is a restricted one. It should ensure that the supply of basic education through schools, colleges, and universities is maximally effective. However, employers can be relied upon to encourage the development of vocational skills in response to the changing patterns of demand, and to reflect the true value of such skills in wage levels.

Most importantly, the principal responsibility for human capital formation is seen to lie with the individual worker. Intervention by government should be restricted to ensuring the availability of information, removing barriers to participation, and, where the market fails, subsidizing individuals’ engagement in work-related adult education. The very language of lifelong learning implies that its effectiveness in creating and preserving human capital depends upon the capacities and motivations of individuals themselves. Failure in the labor market is interpreted in terms of the decisions that people make about improving their employability through increased human capital; and increasingly, welfare payments to the unemployed and other economically inactive people are conditional on their participation in education and training.

In this way, neoliberal approaches emphasize the key importance of human capital formation. However, they prescribe particular means of achieving this, emphasizing individualized and instrumental orientations to lifelong learning and work-related adult education, more specifically.

Government Strategies for Adult Education

The work of international organizations, such as the World Bank and the OECD, has been a key influence in shaping this neoliberal agenda on lifelong learning. More specifically, such organizations have been crucial in ensuring their significance in shaping the actual roles undertaken by governments. The work of the OECD has been especially important here and illustrates this agenda very clearly (Henry et al., 2001).

From the late 1980s onward, the OECD has produced highly influential analyses of the essential role of human capital in the development of the KBE (e.g., OECD, 1989). It has also been an enthusiastic advocate of the necessary benefits of lifelong learning and, more specifically, of enhancing the human capital of adults. Moreover, it has been crucial in specifying the exact roles to be played by governments in ensuring effective provision of adult education. Workers require access to ongoing opportunities for learning of all kinds. Where firms and other organizations are unwilling to provide these opportunities, the state needs to intervene to ensure that such market failure is rectified, through, for example, providing subsidies for employer-led provision, specifying mandatory spending on training by enterprises or granting the right to be trained to employees (OECD, 2002).

However, despite the almost hegemonic influence of neoliberalism, there remain significant differences in the strategies adopted by national governments toward adult learning. At the most fundamental level, this reflects the choices made by governments. For example, as has been seen earlier, the high-skills strategy is not the only possible response to the competitive pressures of a globalized economy. One clear alternative is, in effect, to adapt the strategies of the Keynesian era to changed circumstances, through an intensification of Fordist production of goods and services, emphasizing low-cost and, to a considerable extent, low-skill methods. This kind of low-skills strategy has not been adopted explicitly by any of the governments of the more developed economies, reflecting both competitive pressures from lower-cost economies as well as the ideological influence of the neoliberal consensus on the KBE. Nevertheless, it remains the case that, in reality, a low-skills equilibrium is characteristic of substantial parts of all of these economies.

The choices which governments make, in turn, are shaped by the skills development strategies which have been characteristic of national societies in the past. For example, the enthusiasm with which the Anglo-Saxon economies (the USA, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand) have embraced market-driven approaches reflects their voluntaristic traditions, as well as an ideological willingness to accept sharp inequalities between enclaves of highly skilled knowledge work and large numbers of low-skilled and low-waged jobs. In contrast, many of the northern European governments (e.g., in Germany, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries) have based their adult education strategies much more on consensus between employers, employees, and government. This reflects both their historical attachment to this form of political economy and a rooted ideological commitment to avoid the worst social inequalities of a market-driven system through state support for greater employment security and access to learning opportunities among the socially disadvantaged. In developmental states, such as Japan, Korea, and Singapore, circumstances have been different again. Here, the state has continued to play a significant role in skills development, simply to try to ensure that the supply of skills matches the demands of economies undergoing strong growth (Brown et al., 2001).

The Value of Adult Education

Despite these important differences in approach, it remains the case that the hegemonic discourse on adult education is currently dominated by instrumental orientations. Its value is seen to lie overwhelmingly in the contribution which it makes to economic life. In distributional terms, investment in human capital formation through lifelong learning is argued to benefit not only the individual workers and employers making the investments, but also the wider economy through increased productivity, thereby warranting – limited – state support. Moreover, it is the recognition of these individual and social benefits that are viewed as underpinning individuals’ motivations to invest in human capital formation in the first place.

Adopting a wider frame of reference, however, suggests alternative frameworks through which the value of adult education may be judged. In the right circumstances, engagement in lifelong learning certainly offers the possibility of significant economic returns, both to the individual and to the economy more widely. However, as many commentators have argued, this by no means exhausts adult education’s potential total public value. Ironically, however, realizing this total public value may require governments to reassert priorities for adult education which have declined in significance over recent decades, reviving their role as provider of a liberal general education, especially to those social groups who need an educational second chance.

See also: Economic Outcomes of Adult Education and Training; Human Capital; Lifelong Learning; Neoliberalism, the Market and Performativity; Participation in Adult Learning; Wider Benefits of Adult Education.

G Rees, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK

© 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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