Adult education in Austria: universal access to education with a varied pool of providers

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Interview: Wilfried Hackl and Bianca Friesenbichler, CONEDU | 25.06.2015 | National Affairs - Interviews
Regina BarthAustrian legislation is funding adult education, yet the state – unlike those in many other European countries – does not provide a wide range of adult learning opportunities outside the formal sector or universities. In an interview about the future of adult education, Regina Barth, head of the adult education department at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education and Women's Affairs (BMBF), outlines the role her ministry plays in the field of adult learning. Its four core tasks are coordination, cooperation, communication and control.  
Ed.: How do you see the ministry's role in the context of adult education in Austria?

Regina Barth: We work with different partners, sowing the seeds for adult education together. In addition to this we work with actors at the intersections to different sectors such as the labour market, social affairs, healthcare, etc.; to different educational institutions such as schools and universities etc., and also to science. In other words, we take on a diverse role acting as a coordinator, cooperating with different institutions and focusing, among other things, on our role as a funder, which is also associated with monitoring.

Ed.: How have the ministry's roles and tasks changed over the last 30 years?
RB: Some changes, for example, have taken place because of new technology, internationalisation, the European Union and, above all, the increase in unemployment and migration. This is causing the development of some key socio-political issues which adult education needs to address. The range of players in the field of adult education has also become more diverse. We have to deal with an increasing number of interfaces. The number of people working in adult education has also grown. When I entered adult education, there were very few people working full-time in the sector; mainly the institute directors. Today, people are working on developing networks and cross-institutional projects.

In the 1990s, the National Action Plan for Employment was published; this focused on the subject of educational qualifications. With increasing migration on one hand and increasing levels of education on the other, those with lower qualifications (whether immigrants or locals) have poorer chances on the labour market. We needed to react to that. Funding has always been limited, which is why we needed to focus on the most important topics. In the end, to implement our plans, we had to make use of additional funding – in particular, since 1999, funding from the European Social Fund. The key topics which we track are constantly underpinned by the European Commission's priorities. This helps us push them through in Austria.

Good combination of general adult education and specific vocational qualifications

Ed.: Karl Valentin said, “Today is tomorrow's good old days”. Looking to the future, where will the decisive stimuli come from that will shape tomorrow? You've already mentioned the European Commission.

RB: We have a great number of experts in Austria who are applying the Union's plans and aims to the Austrian context. However, we need to ensure that we are not steamrollered by the EU stipulations. There is a tendency to say that adult and continuing education should only involve topics which are relevant and useful on the labour market. However, adult education also plays an important role in general education: that is something which needs to be brought back into the discussion. Priority should be given to a good combination of general adult education and specific vocational qualifications for the labour market.

I believe that it is up to us to take a stance on that issue, to link together both nationally and internationally and to underline the necessity of education as a whole. Studies such as PIAAC will help us in that regard. It has shown that 1 million people in Austria do not have sufficient basic qualifications in reading, even though 66% of them are active on the labour market. In other words, education is not only relevant to the labour market: to play an active role in society, people need to possess some basic skills.

Ed.: What role do networks and cooperative ventures play in sowing the seeds for the future?

RB: We have some important structure, such as a team of specialists in basic education, a group of experts on adult-adequate compulsory educational qualifications, and committees on specific funding programmes, on the national “Ö-Cert” seal of quality, on skills recognition and certification at what is known as an “academy of continuing education”, or on political education. On these committees, many of which are initiated by the BMBF, it is my department's task to contribute with our expertise, occasionally to coordinate the different positions, and finally to work towards a satisfactory result for adult education.

Ed.: What will it be like in five or ten years' time? Where will the stimuli come from then?

RB: To be honest, I don't know. I hope they will not come from powers which only prioritise education's use and value on the labour market. If the EU initiates large programmes and issues funding, we are course interested. We then face the challenge of looking for the points in the call for proposals which are compatible with our Austrian priorities – those we have developed with researchers and practitioners – rather than prioritising practical value.

Every single person should have access to education

Ed.: What are the challenges which the ministry will have to face up to over the years to come?

RB: Our shared vision at the department of adult education is that, in society, it should not make a difference where anyone comes from, either socially or regionally. Every single person should have access to education. And our varied society should be reflected in the stitutions providing adult education. We need to value the resources offered by multilingual people and make use of them when working in education.

The most important thing will be to widen access to education schemes and to education as a whole, creating democratic access for all. The second focus is on creating permeability, from basic education to alternative means of gaining qualifications and on to higher education. In future, we will continue to promote permeability and access to continuing education for all, as well as the developmental work required in the sector to achieve that. Altogether, quality assurance and professionalization are required across the entire field of adult education. We need – and intend – to guarantee that.

In addition, we would also like more stable means of financing to be made available to institutions on top of the developmental work taking place on projects, enabling longer-term planning and work. That would mean various ministries and the federal states jointly providing a financial basis.


The full interview in German was published in June 2015 at, together with a series of articles on the modernization of Adult Education.


Topics/Keywords: Politics => Financing / Funding
Politics => National politics
Politics => European Union
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About the author

biancaBianca Friesenbichler is pedagogical assistant of CONEDU, a privately run consulting agency for educational institutions in Austria. She is member of the editorial staff of the Austrian internet platform on adult education and the Austrian Open Access Journal of Adult Education, on behalf of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education and Women (BMBF). She is as well trainer and facilitator in adult education and lecturer at the University of Graz.

wilfried-hackl1Wilfried Hackl is Editorial Director of the Austrian internet platform on adult education, on behalf of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education and Women (BMBF). Master’s Degree in Adult Education, training and development of organisations. Founder and head of CONEDU, a privately run consulting agency for educational institutions. Trainer and facilitator for many different institutions of adult education and lecturer at several universities throughout Austria. Certification assessor for the Austrian Academy of Continuing Education and correspondent of Austria for InfoNet.



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