Adult learning promotes competitiveness, employability and social inclusion. It is a vital component of the European Union's (EU’s) lifelong learning policy. But many challenges remain to make it an attractive, inclusive, accessible and flexible learning option.

In 2014, just over 10% of adults (aged between 25 and 64) participated in lifelong learning, well below the EU’s target benchmark of 15% by 2020. But participation in adult learning can be difficult to assess as it takes many forms and is often non-formal.

Several obstacles continue to prevent people from participating in and employers from providing adult learning opportunities. According to the European Adult Education Survey, employees identify family responsibilities (21%), conflicting work schedules (18%) and costs (13%) as the main reasons preventing them from participating in training.

The Continuing Vocational Training Survey (CVTS) shows that employers also have problems with a lack of time (32%), costs of training (31%) and a lack of suitable courses (13%). According to the CVTS, 77% of enterprises that do not provide training say they do not because they have no need.

Cedefop’s new Policy handbook – Access to and participation in continuous vocational education and training in Europe provides policy guidance, outlines success factors and gives examples of good practice to make continuing VET and adult learning more attractive, accessible and of high quality.

To raise people’s motivation to engage in learning, EU Member States have been experimenting with different approaches. Validating non-formal and informal learning at the workplace is a promising option as it can make learning visible and transferable.

However, validation remains limited, especially for work-based training. Although many enterprises use validation methods, these are often not publicly recognised and so do not lead to recognised qualifications.

In some countries, apprenticeship schemes, normally addressed to young people, are being opened up to adult learners, e.g. in the UK and in Italy. These schemes can help unemployed adults to get access to training and to the labour market. This approach may also align more closely the skills of unemployed adults with labour market needs and give enterprises a source for new recruits.

For years, European countries have been developing and expanding different learning formats, for example, modular courses, to make adult learning provision more responsive to learners’ and employers’ needs, time constraints and cost concerns. Best practice also includes the creation of work environments which are conducive to learning and encouraging employees’ task variety and working-time autonomy.

To make adult learning more attractive, inclusive, accessible and flexible, policy-makers and stakeholders need to cooperate across national, regional, local and sector levels. Social partners have a key role to play, as they are best placed to encourage learning at the workplace and to negotiate work organisation and working time arrangements to promote participation in adult learning.