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Policy Studies in Adult Education

There are at least two major trends surrounding adult education which have intensified in recent years. The first involves the phenomenon of globalization and the accompanying transnationalization of education policy making which has a number of implications for policy studies. The second involves a renewed pressure for strategic and policy relevant research. The two are related but they bring forth different sets of issues that pertain to the field of adult education and also the need for different responses.

On the one hand, policies, politics, and polity which relate to adult education need to be critically analyzed by taking a step outside of the prevailing order of the world and ask how that order came about, including analyses of: the origins of social, institutional and power relations; how culturally shared meanings associated with these are formed, interpreted, exchanged and reproduced over time and space; whether relations and the accompanying culturally shared meanings are changing, and what is causing those changes. Critical policy studies are necessary to identify new concepts and examine old and new relationships which would otherwise be difficult to observe, because unlike the problem solving approach to policy studies, both the problem and solution are made to be problematic. In light of the deep structural changes brought about by globalization, this approach is particularly important for studying the extent to which things are changing, the factors causing change and what the implications of the change might be. These are all important factors to study if we are to improve understandings of policies, politics and polity associated with adult education.

On the other hand, the problem solving approach is also essential for improving adult education and making a real impact in people’s everyday lives, especially as it pertains to the practical constraints of time, space and resource use. Both approaches to policy studies are necessary if the field of education is to be sustained and improved.

It is evident that as globalisation deepens, so does its impact on national policies and on academia. For example, the transnationalisation of economic and social policy making has renewed the debate on a number of issues that pertain to the way policy studies should be done. This includes the need to address the tendency for policy studies to be rooted in the notion of “methodological nationalism”. Other aspects to address on how policy studies should be done revolve around the tension between “research for policy” and “research of policy”; the role of critical policy studies in fostering critical thinking among different stakeholders in society; how and to what extent critical policy studies can be done so as to have a larger influence in policy making; what roles various policy actors play, and how and to what extent their roles are theorised and examined empirically; and, how and to what extent do critical analyses coming from different perspectives and traditions come to have value and meaning for various stakeholders. All of these issues point to a need for elaborating on various methodological and epistemological perspectives and studying their role and impact in society.

This is important because it is difficult to deny that the role of research for education policy making has come to the fore, and more particularly the role of comparative research and the solving of everyday problems facing educational systems. Along with the transnationalization of education, there has been a shift from national collection of data to a demand for international comparative data, which in turn have come to play a role in driving national policy making. Examples of research corresponding to this phenomenon are large scale studies like the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the upcoming OECD Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), both of which emphasize the link between learning, labour markets, and competitiveness. In accordance with these trends, further attention needs to be paid by the scholarly community to understanding the role that international organizations have come to play in national policy making, and to recognize the importance of studying the growing phenomena of policy borrowing and policy learning. In the light of its growing educational profile, analyses of educational policy in the European Union context, and the role of the EU in national and international policy, are particularly in order (standard works on EU policy-making make no reference to education: cf Wallace et al. 2005)

Of special notice, the increase in the number of policy related processes which are operating at an international level have served to accentuate the interaction and tensions between educational research and policy. For example, there is an increasing demand for informing and developing these policy processes, including not only information and knowledge needs, but also research designs and tools for developing understandings among relevant actors, as well as for collecting and interpreting empirical observations in such a way as to lead to meaningful implications for education policy and practice. Thus a debate on the functions and utilization of policy oriented educational research is reemerging.

The transnationalization of education has gone hand in hand with renewed pressure and demand by the policy community for policy relevant research or so called strategic science, especially of the type that leads to economically useful information, i.e., which informs on resource allocation, management and performance in education. It is evident that education systems are coming under increasing pressure to show greater accountability and effectiveness, and by implication so are policy makers, practitioners, and educational researchers. As examples, there are a wide range of mechanisms at the EU level, which have been put in place to support the formation of strategic research initiatives (e.g., Framework 6 and 7 research programmes) which can foster the conditions needed to fulfill the educational objectives embedded in the Lisbon strategy. At the national level, Denmark has in recent years set up a number of strategic research funds as a way of responding to the challenges of globalisation, including one for the educational sector.

But the notion of “strategic science” is not unproblematic. While politicians and practitioners are interested in solutions that help them to maintain power and improve processes and outcomes, academics are more broadly interested in the “truth”. The latter however are increasingly dependent on demand that arises from politicians and practitioners which creates a tension, and even an ethical concern. This divergence in raison d’etre points to the importance of resisting pressure to conduct research solely for policy relevant purposes, and instead to reach a balance which also includes a continued engagement and expansion of research of policies and politics. The danger remains however that as politics come to rely more heavily on science, the criteria of relevance for research will be defined more narrowly in terms of what is deemed useful for policy. Thus there is a real danger that there will be a further politicization of science (Hoppe, 1999). There are signs that this is indeed the case. For example, not only has free research money been diverted and earmarked for strategic research but also relevance has crept in as criteria for the award of free research funding. Many national research councils can now be seen to impose criteria of policy relevance for what has been traditionally funding for free research. In Canada for example, the Social Sciences Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) which has traditionally supported free research and been distinct from strategic research, has now begun to impose a criterion of relevance. The same is happening in Australia and other places. This could have the paradoxical consequence that social scientists distance themselves even more from doing policy relevant research. At the same time, the growing role of markets relationships and accountability systems is having a profound impact not only on research funding, but on the relationships between members of policy communities, the range and character of research agencies, and the nature of policy debate and research outcomes. The renewed pressure for strategic and policy relevant research can be exemplified by the heated debate on the notion of evidence based policy making in education which has emerged in recent years (OECD, 2007).

The growing tension between policy makers, practitioners and researchers relating to adult education is real. These tensions exist more generally, but it is particularly acute in the field of adult education because the research community is itself deeply fragmented and weakly institutionalized. Ever since the apparent shift in emphasis toward implementation of lifelong learning policies and practices in the early 1990s, the information needs of researchers, policy-makers and practitioners have augmented (Tuijnman, 1999), including a more systematic account of the impact of adult education as well as evaluation studies of the success or failure of particular policies and programmes. But the information base remains poor and underdeveloped. There is a lack of consistent data for judging relevant trends and conditions. In a summary of the proceedings of an international symposium on lifelong learning policy and research, Schuller (1999) states that there is a need to develop further repeated research that will over time build up an accurate picture of the situation. Governments are looking to increase the production of relevant research in ministries, but they are also looking to the academic research community, and in some cases adding pressure on academia, particularly in countries where higher education is centrally controlled and financed. Within this context, it is useful to consider more closely the distinction between research for policy and research of policy, and how these two approaches relate to each other.

With these issues as a backdrop, there is a need for strengthening dialogue and networks among the various communities relevant to policy issues in adult education.

Objectives of the proposed network

Based on the expertise and work of the network members, the objectives are:

(1) to develop a core forum of select experts relevant to the area of policy issues in adult education which will commit to ongoing dialogue and development around two specific areas, namely the development and impact of policies on adult education; and the development and impact of research of policy.

(2) to meet at least on a biennial basis (once every two years) to exchange and share ideas and experiences, as opportunities arise and funds permit

(3) to discuss from different perspectives and traditions the state of research and policy in adult education

(4) to foster a forum that can generate systematic comparative criticism of policies in adult education

(5) to discuss and elaborate on “research for policy” and “research of policy” including methodological and epistemological perspectives

(6) to develop a strategy that will advance the theoretical base for studying various policy issues relevant to adult learning

(7) to encourage, inter alia, research on the European Union’s role in adult educational policy

(8) to identify a few potential research foci that smaller workgroups can explore in more detail

(9) to prepare grant proposals for empirical research projects in the area

The facilities and expertise accessible to the network in the first stage

1. Marcella Milana, Department of Philosophy, Education and Psychology, University of Verona, Italy, marcella.milana@univr.it 
2. John Holford, School of Education, University of Nottingham, UK, john.holford@nottingham.ac.uk
3. Vida Mohorcic Spolar, Slovenian Institute of Adult Education, vida.mohorcic.spolar@acs.si


Hoppe, R. (1999). Policy analysis, science and politics: from 'speaking truth to power' to 'making sense together’, Science and Public Policy, 26, 3, pp. 201-210(10).

OECD (2007). Evidence in education: Linking research and policy, Paris.

Schuller, T. (1999). A research agenda for lifelong learning. In A. Tuijnman & T. Schuller (Eds.), Lifelong learning policy and research: Proceedings of an international symposium (pp. 23-32). London: Portland Press.

Tuijnman, A. C. (1999). Research agenda for lifelong learning: A report by the task force of the international academy of education. In A. Tuijnman & T. Schuller (Eds.), Lifelong learning policy and research: Proceedings of an international symposium (pp. 1-22). London: Portland Press.

Wallace, H., Wallace, W., & Pollack, M.A. (eds.) (2005) Policy-Making in the European Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Publications by the Network:

FOCUS Issue: Public Policy and the 'Sustainability' of Adult Education, ENCYCLOPAIDEIA, vol. XVIII, no. 4 (full access at: http://encp.unibo.it)

Adult Education Policy and the European Union: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives, Edited by Marcella Milana and John Holford (Sense, Rotterdam, 2014), xiv + 179 pp., US$54 (pbk), ISBN 978- 94-6209-546-5, US$99 (hbk), ISBN 978-94-6209-547-2, US$49 (e-book), ISBN 978-94-6209-548-9. E-book available (free) at:  https://www.sensepublishers.com/media/1971-adult-education-policy-and-the-european-union.pdf

Special Issue: Adult and Lifelong Education: The European Union, its member states and the world, International Journal of Lifelong Education, Vol., 3, No. 3 (2014)

Special Issue: Adult and lifelong education: Global, national and local perspectives,Globalisation, Societies and Education, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2013)

Special Issue: Adult Education and Lifelong Learning in Postcommunist Countries, European Education, Vol. 46, No. 4 (2014)


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Last updated: Tue May 10 09:52:31 CEST 2016