Advocacy: Giving adult education a voice and face

We can expect fewer educational opportunities and fewer providers; it looks rather gloomy. Do we have to accept this or do we find ways to prevent the educational landscape from becoming desolate?

This article was first published on EPALE:

We do not need to read tea-leaves to foretell how difficult it will be for adult education in the future, because the first consequences of the coronavirus are already becoming apparent. Some educational providers are already insolvent, because they could not cope with the losses caused by the closures. Other providers will probably have to follow or at least reduce offers because:

  • A higher rate of unemployment leads to less money in households and can mean a decline in registrations and thus in income.
  • Municipal funding will be significantly lower, as municipal revenues from taxes etc. will fall and at the same time the spending, e.g. on social assistance, will increase. As a result, more offers become more expensive, which can also have a negative impact on the number of registrations. It is foreseeable that very few municipalities will recover from the crisis in the next twelve months. The same can also be assumed for state funding.
  • Funding is often based on the hours worked in the current year and in 2020 there will be significantly fewer hours due to closures.
  • As long as the distancing rules must be followed, many face-to-face sessions will no longer be able to take place with the calculated number of participants, which also leads to financial losses.
  • New funding pools, whether from federal, state or EU funds, are only likely for vocational education and training because all institutions are spending a great deal of money to combat the immediate consequences of the crisis. Money that will be lacking to further promote adult education as a whole.

In short: We can expect fewer educational opportunities and fewer providers; it looks rather gloomy. Do we have to accept this or do we find ways to prevent the educational landscape from becoming desolate?

Adult education is diverse and valuable – but unfortunately hardly visible

Adult education in Germany is characterized by its enormous diversity. In addition to the difference between formal and non-formal education, we have a wide range of educational fields: vocational, cultural and political education, basic education, health and family education are just a few examples.

The range of educational providers is also extensive: Foundations, associations, welfare organizations, trade unions, churches, municipal providers (such as adult education centers, but also music schools), chambers, universities and private companies.

All these fields and organizations compete with each other, but in the overall picture they complete a range of services that meet the needs of many target groups, different personal goals and needs. For society, differentiated adult education means participating and co-determining citizens. Similarly, a wide range of further training courses is indispensable for the future viability of a country, because only in this way can we shape the constant changes in the (working) world.

We know all this and the (shortened) description is actually unnecessary here. But knowledge of the importance of adult education seems to be a rather secret matter. When did I – when did you – last see or read an article addressing the general public and highlighting adult education as such? A video, a blog post, a social media post, a newspaper article or a TV report?

In traditional and social media we sometimes encounter individual educational providers, sometimes separate topics concerning further education and sometimes abstract terms like ‘lifelong learning’. We encounter social media contributions addressing an interested (professional) audience. We encounter demands for financial support, explaining the why of course. But honestly: Who is currently not demanding financial support? And who does not have a good reason? A targeted advocacy for the importance of adult education is not visible on a broad scale. And those who are hardly visible have a hard time pushing through justified demands.

Diversity as an obstacle to advocacy?

A brief explanation of how to understand and use the terms:

Advocacy refers to a process in which organizations act as advocates for a cause. Advocacy affects, activates and interacts with the public. This is usually done by means of campaigns, the core of which are clear messages and narratives that illustrate the value and significance of the cause. As a result, there is, at least indirectly, an influence on decisions and decision-makers.

Lobbying can be understood as part of advocacy, which aims at directly influencing decision-makers and specific decisions. This is done, for example, through personal contacts that organizations have built up through their history, institutional background or even long-term strategies. Lobbying also addresses media in which organizations try to place their concerns; the public is therefore addressed indirectly. Constant advocacy facilitates access to decision-makers because public opinion is important to them.

Advocacy and lobbying to date

An example of advocacy in Germany is the Deutscher Weiterbildungstag (German Continuing Education Day). The remarkable thing about this day of action is that it brings together several educational associations and commercial and non-profit educational providers. Both the member organizations of the associations and the participating companies of the Continuing Education Day compete for participants, funding, etc. Nevertheless they act together and promote adult education.Unfortunately, the Continuing Education Day only takes place every two years*. A constant influence on the public cannot be achieved in this way. Aspects such as the changing motto, which only relates to some fields of adult education, and the moderate use of social media both as an interactive communication tool and for bundling actions are also problematic with regard to effective advocacy. By way of illustration, take a look at the Festival of Learning under the leadership of the National Learning & Work Institute (England and Wales).

This example shows that lobbying for adult education is carried out, but that there is a lack of a common advocacy strategy in Germany:In June 2019 the Ministry of Finance planned to exempt only vocational training ( and only within narrow limits) from VAT. This would have led to an increase in participation fees in all other areas. A rapid merger of six associations had an impact on decision-makers and the media (see links for an overview: ).However, it was not possible to activate the public at large. This is shown, for example, by the fact that a petition, which was launched independently of the associations – i.e. privately – received only about 13,500 signatures. This seems little compared to the 15 million people the associations claim to reach (see their press release).  Fortunately, the Bundestag finally gave up the new legal regulation, which was due to lobbying going on more behind the scenes.

There are also many other examples of advocacy and lobbying at regional and national level. However, they usually refer to specific fields of education such as vocational training or basic education. Common messages, narratives and campaigns for adult education as a whole are hardly recognizable. The diversity of adult education therefore seems to be an obstacle to effective advocacy so far.

Advocacy in the time of the Corona crisis?

Of course, adult education never slumbers. Protective screens were demanded by various associations. The demands of the Association of Catholic Adult Education in Germany and the German Adult Education Association are examples of this. There are also calls for assistance in individual areas such as political education and vocational training (e.g. the appeal by the Federal Committee for Political Education and the demands of the Federal Association of Vocational Training Providers). This is important, established lobbying that will hopefully lead to short-term solutions for financially threatened educational institutions.

Importance and impact of advocacy

Mere lobbying by associations will not be enough to maintain the status quo of the adult education landscape. The effects of the corona crisis will be more long-term and we will compete for support for a longer period of time – not only among ourselves but also with influential industries. But why are other industries more influential? What makes other industries influential?

  • They have measurable successes, like sales figures. The success of adult education is hardly measurable; we can only say how many participants we have, but what our offers bring them is not measurable for the whole of adult education.
  • They engage in lobbying, which is supported by an advocacy strategy. The currently most prominent example is certainly the automotive industry. It argues that it is the engine of the German economy (this is an established narrative) and that providing support for it restarts the whole economy. Helping the automotive industry means helping everyone – this is currently being communicated and widely discussed.

Adult education cannot be compared with industries. We cannot and should not argue like the automotive industry – especially since we have the problem of measurability – but we can learn from all those who have been advocating for a long time. Successful advocacy means formulating common core messages that describe the significance of an issue for society so that it is perceived and discussed publicly.

We compete for attention – not for money

Public attention is the main goal of advocacy, but attention is a rare commodity in our media-dominated world. Attention is not gained by unilaterally spreading declarations or demands. It is achieved through a variety of interactions, which are passed on and communicated by disseminators. Can an area as ramified as adult education even achieve this?

Diversity as opportunity:  We are sitting on gold

If we do not see associations as institutional hierarchical structures and educational institutions as organizational units, then the number of people in adult education is quite respectable. If we then consider learners not as customers and freelance teachers not as contractors but as people who are all aware of the importance and value of adult education, then we arrive at an enormous number. All these people can pass on core messages for adult education and tell their own stories that describe its value. All these people can give adult education a voice and a face. These people are a gold mine that few industries have in such diversity and breadth.

I think the major challenge is to speak with one voice. The permanent underfunding of some areas of education and the focus of education on school, training and studies have led to individual battles over thin slices of a small cake. The economic consequences of the corona crisis will continue to make the cake smaller.  

If this is to be countered with a common advocacy strategy, it cannot be a question of which organization is the oldest, the largest, the only one in the area of XY, or the most important for XY. Established unique selling propositions must take a back seat in order to find common core messages. And these messages should not describe what educational providers are doing; they should represent what adult education is doing and how it is working: It can bring about personal development, it can open up perspectives, it can help in crises … This activity is, I think, the main common ground. 

I think it is a good time to join forces and give adult education a loud voice and a friendly face.

* Whether there will be virtual individual sessions this year or whether there will be “only” a transfer to the year 2021 is not yet certain.

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