EAEA Policy Breakfast at the European Parliament 2010: The wider benefits of learning

EAEA organised the first in a series of policy breakfasts at the European Parliament last week. The event on March 17th was hosted by MEP Mary Honeyball, who is also an active member of the Culture and Education Committee in the European Parliament.

Mary opened the event by telling the group that this breakfast was an important initiative from the EAEA, and part of a process in which the committee has recently been quite active. The upcoming EU2020 strategy raises education as one of four key initiatives for the coming decade. This gives us a real opportunity to develop adult education and lifelong learning, she said.

The breakfast was well attended, with some 35 participants showing up to listen to Professor Jyri Manninen from Finland and Professor Stephen McNair from England. They presented fresh research results showing the wider benefits of learning using both qualitative and quantitative methods. Some 12 years ago the British government set up an agency to study precisely these benefits, and they have by now accumulated a lot of evidence. In Finland the work has only just begun, and the first results echoes those from the UK. Adult learners in Finland feel that participation in learning increases their self-confidence, their learning skills, and their ability to cope better in life, but this is not all. Society also benefits in many ways.

An interested audience heard how education helps people to live longer and healthier lives. It turns out learning have a lot of positive side effects, not often mentioned, some even surprising. There is for example evidence that non-formal adult learning reduces smoking. Above all though, people active as learners are happier and more active in life. Why, asked Professor McNair, do our governments keep focusing on trying to make everyone richer? All research shows that being richer does not make you any happier, and isn´t that one of the goals of government, to strive for happiness?

It has been a while since happiness was mentioned in the same sentence as education. So much of our discourse today focuses on bridging "skill gaps", and making people employable. Together with the heavy emphasis on combating social exclusion and targeting special needs groups adult learning tends to be associated with something slightly depressing and difficult. How refreshing then to hear somebody speak up for the joy of learning, especially since it was all backed up by rather solid evidence!

The presentations were followed by a discussion, where Hélène Clark, Director at the European Commission's Directorate General of Education and Culture said that it is very important for the Commission to receive evidence of learning benefits such as the ones presented during the breakfast. This evidence helps keep lifelong learning on the agenda, which is now needed, as the Action Plan on adult learning is coming to an end and a continuation should be discussed. If there is to be a follow up to the plan, a very good case must be made, and all evidence based arguments will help.

Pondering the implications of this we enjoyed some coffee and croissants (the staple food of Brussels breakfasts), and a short input on how EAEA is committed to initiate a European research on the wider benefits. This was well received, as there is so little done on European level on the subject. We all agreed that such a research would be very useful in stating the case for adult education and lifelong learning, and on this positive note we ended the breakfast and went out to get some spring sun, on this first day of spring in Brussels.

Text and photo: Johanni Larjanko

Related materials

Jyri Manninen: Wider Benefits of Learning

Tom Schuller: Wider Benefits of Learning

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