10 Dec 2019

International Council of Adult Education (ICAE) and the seminar at the University of Würzburg

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AONTAS CEO, Niamh O’Reilly, speaks on advocacy at a global level at the International Council for Adult Education seminar at the University of Würzburg, Germany


AONTAS CEO, Niamh O’Reilly, was part of the line-up of adult learning advocates at the recent seminar held at the University of Würzburg, Germany (5-6th December 2019) on adult education, global development and the International Council for Adult Education. The workshop explored the origins, development and current role of the International Council for Adult Education in supporting the right of adults to education, and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

AONTAS is a long-standing member of the International Council for Adult Education, which is the global membership body for adult education associations, and is recognised by UNESCO as “the international voice” of adult education. The Council has an important UNESCO consultative status in shaping future policy. The seminar was hosted by Prof Regina Egetenmeyer and led by Professor Sir Alan Tuckett, who is the Past President of ICAE, with contributions from ICAE General Secretary Professor Katarina Popovic, and her colleague Ricarda Moschling, as well as from regional and national experts with experience of its work: Mats Ehn (Sweden), Niamh O’Reilly (Ireland), and Sturla Bjerkaker (Norway).


Fascinating insights were explored across the range of contributions at the seminar, from the history of the ICAE to its role in building a civil society space at the UNESCO International Conference on Adult Education, CONFINTEA. This category 2 conference was established following the end of the Second World War in 1949, when UNESCO member states met in Elsinore, Denmark, to discuss how adult learning and education (ALE) could help promote world peace and international understanding. It was exceptional timing that the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE) was published by the UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning on the first day of the Seminar. This report makes specific reference to the Belém Framework for Action (BFA), adopted by Member States at the sixth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VI) in Belém, Brazil, in 2009. AONTAS were part of the official CONFINTEA VI delegation and we will work with our colleagues through our new Network for Adults Learning Across Borders (NALAB) to ensure learners are represented in the next conference in Morocco in 2022.

The distance between UNESCO policies to the reality of adult learners seems intangible; however, Prof Katarina Popovic helped to bridge this divide through her talk. She linked the role of soft policies at global level to the Sustainable Development Goals. The ‘golden thread’ of adult learning, which runs through each goal, Prof Popovic argued is fundamental to the achievement of each goal. Discussions also covered the impact other global bodies played on shaping adult education. For instance, the OECD’s focus on league tables, which are arguably limited in their conception of adult skills (e.g. PIAAC) was discussed along with the World Bank, as a donor and an unrepresentative organisation in the education policy field, particularly in the Global South. The advocacy work of ICAE at global level is challenging and needs further support in recognition in order to keep adult learning on the International agenda.

Prof Sir Alan Tuckett, discussed the evolving space of learner voice at International level from the adoption of the Global Adult Learner Charter by UNESCO in Belem, where Irish Adult Learner, Una Buckley, participated, to the lack of learner voice in the Mid-Term review. Prof Tuckett argued that the constant need to emphasise the importance of learner involvement in adult learning policy requires an ongoing commitment and sustained effort from advocacy and policy making organisations.

Folkbuilding featured strongly in the contributions from Sturla and Mats, covering the broader political nature of adult learning and the development of critical skills in non-formal education, which has a deep history in Scandinavia. This topic was also recently discussed at the AONTAS Lifelong Learning Summit by Lene Rachel Anderson, where she sought to situate the development of non-formal education in a historic context, one which sought to engender the development of all members of society, to become fully active, informed, engaged citizens.

Over the course of the seminar in Wurzburg, I contributed AONTAS’ perspective as a national organisation with a long, well-established history of advocacy at international level. Given it is the 50-year anniversary of AONTAS, it is interesting to reflect that the 1968 conference which was held in Dublin to establish AONTAS featured Bob Schouten who at the time was President of the European Bureau of Adult Education (now EAEA). The growth and development of these adult learning advocacy networks and organisations therefore have an interlinked history. Last year’s Lifelong Learning Advocacy Summer School hosted by AONTAS was modelled on the ICAE International Academy of Lifelong Learning Advocacy – itself a mechanism to build future leaders in adult learning advocacy in addition to broadening the movement of adult learning advocates. The expertise of the work of AONTAS in relation to authentic learner voice and community education was also a feature of the presentation.

Throughout the discussions with students in the seminar, it became clear that the future of adult learning advocacy is in good hands. Students brought new insights and ideas into universal common challenges and opportunities in adult learning, from educational inequality to the need to focus on the broad purpose of learning, and to the benefits of building alliances with stakeholders with a common goal.

AONTAS looks forward to continuing its advocacy work at Global level as a well-respected, internationally recognised national adult learning organisation and will keep our members up to date on key developments. Although there was some good news in the GRALE report, e.g. it notes that Ireland saw a doubling of the proportion that reported having attended some form of ALE between the mid-1990s and today, however the baseline was relatively low. Worryingly, the data suggests that for those with less than Upper Secondary Education/Leaving Certificate participation rates in ALE is only 10% (ISCED <3) compared to 75% for those with a Degree level (ISCED 5/6). There is still much work to be done to create a more equitable education system for adults. Through our international network with the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA), the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) and with colleagues involved in the movement for adult learning we will continue to advocate for the rights of all adults to quality education throughout their lives.

Niamh O’Reilly  

Chief Executive Officer of AONTAS

Useful links:

Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE)

Links to include:


University of Würzburg:


UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning:


AONTAS Lifelong Learning Advocacy Summer School

The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) is the framework used to compare statistics on the education systems of countries worldwide.