Skip to main content

Empirical and genealogical analysis of non-vocational adult education in Europe


Non-formal, non-vocational adult education (NFNVAE) is a low-cost, low-threshold learning activity that generates many benefits for individuals and society, and it should play a more central role in educational policy. NFNVAE’s challenge is that it lacks clear concepts and definitions and is, therefore, less systematically covered in statistics, research and surveys. This article seeks to tackle these problems by providing (1) a mapping of NFNVAE courses in 10 European countries and (2) a conceptual framework for NFNVAE. The mapping is based on survey data (n = 8,646) that contain information on 14,063 courses, which were coded into 24 categories and three general types: civic, liberal and basic skills education. Popular adult education courses (in the radical meaning of the term) were not found among these data; therefore, further mapping is needed. The genealogical analysis shows that ideological discourses and cultural practices should be taken into account when different concepts are used to describe NFNVAE. Especially the concept “popular” needs more clarification, since it is frequently used to refer to several different traditions, for example the Nordic “folkbildning”, which is a civic education system, and therefore differs from Latin American popular adult education, which is a radical, non-governmental movement.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. The BeLL project (2011–2014) was coordinated by the German Institute of Adult Education (DIE) and funded by the European Commission as a part of the EU funding stream “Studies and Comparative Research” (KA 1 No. 519319-LLP-1-2011-1-DE-KA1-KA1SCR). All BeLL project team members, including the author of this article, contributed to the data collection. For more information, see [accessed 29 March 2017].

  2. Interestingly, similar attitudes still exist today. For example, non-vocational adult education is argued to be impractical for working-class people (Micari 2003, p. 29; Sutcliffe 2014), and only those types of learning which lead to vocational qualifications are valued in educational policy (Goodlad 2007, p. 116).

  3. Eurostat is the statistical office of the European Union. It is located in Luxembourg. The Adult Education Survey (AES) is an ongoing survey series led by the European Union (EU). Since 2007, it has been interviewing people in private households about their participation in education activities (formal, non-formal and informal learning), focusing on citizens aged 25–64. The survey is carried out every five years and its results are published on the Eurostat website at [accessed 10 April 2017].

  4. The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) is an ongoing survey series led by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Since 2011, it has been measuring key cognitive and workplace skills which are necessary for adults’ participation in society and for national economic prosperity.

  5. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire (1921–1997) was a proponent of critical pedagogy.

  6. For more information on the Eurydice network and its Eurybase database, see and [both accessed 11 April 2017].

  7. Freire’s concept of conscientization (or critical consciousness) is based on post-Marxist critical theory. It refers to reaching a comprehensive understanding of the world, becoming aware of social and political contradictions, and taking action against the oppressive elements identified through that awareness.

  8. German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s critical-emancipatory paradigm is based on the idea that knowledge and learning should be used to change current practices.

  9. For a review of one of these held in Glasgow in the early 1990s, see Heavens and Campin 1993.

  10. For information (in Icelandic and English) on a “Radical Summer University” held in Reykjavík in 2016, see [accessed 30 March 2017].

  11. DAESH (also sometimes spelled DAIISH or Da’esh) is an acronym derived from the Arabic term for Islamic State.


  • Andersson, P., & Fejes, A. (2005). Recognition of prior learning as a technique for fabricating the adult learner: A genealogical analysis on Swedish adult education policy. Journal of Education Policy, 20(5), 595–613.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Antikainen, A. (1998). In search of the meaning and practices of lifelong learning. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Adult education in a transforming society. Roskilde: Roskilde University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Beck, D., & Purcell, R. (2010). Popular education practice for youth and community development work. Exeter: Learning Matters.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boeren, E. (2014). Evidence-based policy-making: The usability of the Eurostat Adult Education Survey. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 33(3), 275–289.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Boeren, E., Holford, J., Nicaise, I., & Baert, H. (2012). Why do adults learn? Developing a motivational typology across 12 European countries. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 10(2), 247–269.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bonnafous, L. (2014). Trans-nationalization of educational policy making: From European innovation projects in adult education to an emerging European space for lifelong learning: What model for the European vocational education and training policy? International Journal of Lifelong Education, 33(3), 393–410.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burrell, G., & Morgan, G. (1979). Sociological paradigms and organizational analysis. London: Heineman Educational Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cadena, F. (1984). Popular Adult Education and Peasant Movements for Social Change. Convergence: An International Journal of Adult Education, 17(3), 31–36.

    Google Scholar 

  • Caracata, L. (2000). Using popular education groups: Can we develop a health promotions strategy for psychiatric consumers/survivors? Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 19(1), 5–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carcasson, M., & Sprain, L. (2012). Deliberative democracy and adult civic education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2012(135), 15–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Castrén, Z. (1929). Valtio ja vapaa sivistystyö [State and liberal education]. Komiteamietintö. Opetusministeriö.

  • CEC (Commission of the European Communities) (1995). White paper on education and training. Teaching and learning. Towards the learning society. COM(95) 590 final. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities. Retrieved 29 March 2017 from

  • Colley, H., Hodkinson, P., & Malcolm, J. (2006). European policies on “non-formal” learning. A genealogical review. In R. Edwards, J. Gallacher, & S. Whittaker (Eds.), Learning outside the academy. International research perspectives on lifelong learning (pp. 56–73). London: Routledge.

  • Connolly, B., Fleming, T., McCormack, D., & Ryan, A. (1996). Radical learning for liberation. Maynooth Adult and Community Education Occasional Series Number 1. Maynooth: National University of Ireland.

  • Dahlstedt, M., & Nordvall, H. (2011). Paradoxes of solidarity: Democracy and colonial legacies in Swedish popular education. Adult Education Quarterly, 61(3), 244–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Desjardins, R. & Schuller, T. (2010). The wider benefits of adult learning. In: P. Peterson, E. Baker & B. McGaw (Eds.), International encyclopaedia of education (3rd ed., pp. 229–233). Oxford: Elsevier.

    Google Scholar 

  • EC (European Commission) (2000). A memorandum on lifelong learning. Commission staff working paper. SEC(2000) 1832. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities. Retrieved 29 March 2017 from

  • Eurydice (2007). Non-vocational adult education in Europe. Executive summary of national information on Eurybase. Working document. European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture. Brussels: European Commission. Retrieved 29 March 2017 from

  • Eurydice. (2015). Adult Education and Training in Europe: Widening Access to Learning Opportunities. Eurydice Report. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Retrieved 29 March 2017 from

  • Federighi, P. (Ed.). (1999). Glossary of adult learning in Europe. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Education & European Association for the Education of Adults.

  • Field, J. (2005). Social capital and lifelong learning. Bristol: Policy Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Field, J. (2009). Well-being and happiness. IFLL Thematic Paper 4. Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE).

  • Flowers, R. (2009). Traditions of popular education. REPORT Zeitschrift für Weiterbidlnungsforschung, 32(2), 9–22.

    Google Scholar 

  • Freire, P. (1998). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare teach. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Goodlad, C. (2007). The rise and rise of learning careers: A Foucauldian genealogy. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 12(1), 107–120.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harva, U. (1983). Inhimillinen ihminen Homo humanus [The human person homo humanus]. Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö (WSOY): Helsinki.

    Google Scholar 

  • Heavens, I., & Campin, J. (1993). Anarchist summer school, Glasgow, Scotland. Spunk library online review. Retrieved 30 March 2017 from

  • Holford, J., Milana, M., & Mohorčič Špolar, V. (2014). Adult and lifelong education: The European Union, its member states and the world. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 33(3), 267–274.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hoskins, B., & Crick, R. D. (2010). Learning to learn and civic competences: Different currencies or two sides of the same coin? European Journal of Education, 45(1), 121–137.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • House, D. (1991). Continuing liberal education. New York: Macmillan Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Humble, Á., & Morgaine, C. (2002). Placing feminist education within the three paradigms of knowledge and action. Family Relations, 51(3), 199–205.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • ICCE (International Conference on Critical Education) (2016). VI. International Conference on Critical Education: Dialogue, solidarity and resistance against neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism in education. Book of Abstracts. London: Middlesex University. Retrieved 29 March 2017 from

  • Imel, S. (2012). Civic engagement in the United States: Roots and branches. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2012(135), 5–13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jarvis, P. (2014). From adult education to lifelong learning and beyond. Comparative Education, 50(1), 45–57.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jarvis, P., & Griffin, C. (Eds.). (2003). Adult and continuing education: Major themes in education. Vol. 1: Liberal adult education, Part 1. London: Routledge.

  • Kane, L. (2013). Comparing “popular” and “state” education in Latin America and Europe. European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults, 4(1), 81–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kantasalmi, K., & Hake, B. (1997). Popular adult education in Finland 1890–1939: A critical reinterpretation of the “people’s enlightenment project”. History of Education, 26(4), 353–374.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Keogh, H. (2009). The state and development of adult learning and education in Europe, North America and Israel. Regional Synthesis Report. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.

  • Koski, L., & Filander, K. (2013). Transforming causal logics in Finnish adult education: Historical and moral transitions rewritten. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 32(5), 583–599.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Laginder, A. M., Nordvall, H., & Crowther, J. (2013). Popular education, power and democracy: Swedish experiences and contributions. Leicester: NIACE.

    Google Scholar 

  • Larsson, B. (2013). Practicing democracy as an agonistic dialogue: a radical political dimension of popular education. In A. M. Laginder, H. Nordvall, & J. Crowther (Eds), Popular Education, Power and Democracy. Swedish Experiences and Contributions (pp. 169–187). Leicester: NIACE.

  • Leher, R., & Vittoria, P. (2016). Social movements and popular education in Brazil: from the origins to the current proposal of a permanent forum. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 13(3), 154–162.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lewis, T. (1994). Bridging the liberal/vocational divide: an examination of recent British and American versions of an old debate. Oxford Review of Education, 20(2), 199–217.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lindeman, E. (1926). The meaning of adult education. New York: New Republic.

    Google Scholar 

  • Litster, J., Brooks, G., & Burton, M. (2010). European adult learning glossary, Level 2. Brussels: European Commission.

    Google Scholar 

  • Manninen, J. (1998). Labour market training strategies in a late modern society. In A. Walther & B. Stauber (Eds.), Lifelong learning in Europe/Lebenslanges lernen in Europa (Vol. 1, pp. 75–85)., Options for the integration of living, learning and working Tübingen: Neuling Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Manninen, J. (2010). Wider benefits of learning within liberal adult education system in Finland. In M. Horsdal (Ed.), Communication, collaboration and creativity: Researching adult learning (pp. 17–35). Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Manninen, J. (2012). Liberal Adult Education as Civic Capacity Builder? Lifelong Learning in Europe, 17(1), 69–78. Retrieved 29 March 2017 from

  • Manninen, J. & Meriläinen, M. (2014). Benefits of lifelong learning: BeLL survey results. Work package report. Project BeLL – Benefits for Lifelong Learning No. 519319-LLP-1-2011-1-DE-KA1-KA1SCR. Bonn: Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE). Retrieved 29 March 2017 from

  • Manninen, J, Sgier, I., Fleige, M., Thöne-Geyer, B., Kil, M., Možina, E., Danihelková, H., Mallows, D., Duncan, S., Meriläinen, M., Diez, J., Sava, S., Javrh, P., Vrečer, N., Mihajlovic, D., Kecap, E., Zappaterra, P, Kornilow, A., Ebner, G., & Operti, F. (2014). Benefits of lifelong learning in Europe: Main results of the BeLL-project. Bonn: DIE. Retrieved 29 March 2017 from

  • Merriam, S. B., & Kee, Y. (2014). Promoting community well-being: The case for lifelong learning for older adults. Adult Education Quarterly, 64(2), 128–144.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Micari, M. (2003). Against the norm: Liberal adult education in an age of vocationalism. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 51(3), 27–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nordvall, H. (2002). Folkbildning som mothegemonisk praktik? [Adult education as counter-hegemonic practice?]. Utbildning och Demokrati, 11(2), 15–32.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nordvall, H. (2013). The global justice movement encounters Swedish popular education. In A. M. Laginder, H. Nordvall, & J. Crowther (Eds.), Popular education, power and democracy. Swedish experiences and contributions (pp. 122–146). Leicester: NIACE.

  • OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) (2013). Technical report of the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Paris: OECD Publishing.

  • Olds, L. (2005). The North American alliance for popular and adult education and the movement of movements. Convergence, 38(2), 29–41.

    Google Scholar 

  • Osman, A. (2013). Popular education in the service of integration: empowerment or internalisation of the dominant cultural ethos. In A. M. Laginder, H. Nordvall, & J. Crowther (Eds.), Popular education, power and democracy. Swedish experiences and contributions (pp. 147–168). Leicester: NIACE.

  • Picon, C. (1991). Adult education and popular education in the context of state and NGOs. Convergence, 24(1/2), 80–92.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rogers, A. (1996). Teaching adults. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Roosmaa, E., & Saar, E. (2012). Participation in non-formal learning in EU-15 and EU-8 countries: Demand and supply side factors. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 31(4), 477–501.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rubenson, K. (2006). The Nordic model of lifelong learning. Compare, 36(3), 327–341.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rubenson, K. (2013). Towards lifelong learning for all in Europe: Understanding the fundamental role popular education could play in the European Commission strategy. In A. M. Laginder, H. Nordvall, & J. Crowther (Eds.), Popular education, power and democracy: Swedish experiences and contributions (pp. 14–31). Leicester: NIACE.

    Google Scholar 

  • Scott, R. (2014). The meaning of liberal education. On the Horizon, 22(1), 23–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1998). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sutcliffe, M. (2014). The origins of the “two cultures” debate in the adult education movement: the case of the Working Men’s College (c. 1854–1914). History of Education: Journal of the History of Education Society, 43(2), 149–159.

  • Torres, C. (1990). Adult education and popular education in Latin America: Implications for a radical approach to comparative education. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 9(4), 271–287.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Turunen, A. (2015). Att snickra medborgarskap? [Woodcrafting citizenship?] Nordisk kulturpolitisk tidsskrift, 18(2), 219–232.

  • Turunen, A. (2016). Citizenship in an English study circle: Individual responsibility through personal investment. Paper presented at the 8th Triennial European Research Conference, 8–11 September, Maynooth University.

  • UIL (UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning) (2009). Global report on adult learning and education. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Retrieved 11 April 2017 from

  • UIL (2013a). 2nd Global report on adult learning and education. Rethinking literacy. Summary and recommendations. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Retrieved 11 April 2017 from

  • UIL (2013b). 2nd Global report on adult learning and education. Rethinking literacy. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. Retrieved 11 April 2017 from

  • Yang, C. (2016). Encounters between the “oppressed” and the “oppressor”: Rethinking Paulo Freire in anti-racist feminist education in Sweden. Race Ethnicity and Education, 19(4), 835–855.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Funding was provided by the Directorate-General for Education and Culture (Grant No. 519319-LLP-1-2011-1-DE-KA1-KA1SCR).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jyri Manninen.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Manninen, J. Empirical and genealogical analysis of non-vocational adult education in Europe. Int Rev Educ 63, 319–340 (2017).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • non-vocational education
  • non-formal education
  • adult education
  • liberal
  • popular
  • educational policy
  • genealogy