How to compare incomparable?

Author: Prof. Jyri Manninen, University of Eastern Finland,

The BeLL study is the first large-scale analysis about the wider benefits of liberal adult education – and also first having a comparative element. The data have been collected from 10 European countries, and it is obvious that comparative analysis of benefits and liberal adult learning opportunities in these countries will be one of the key tasks.

Liberal adult education is defined as voluntary, non-vocational and obviously non-formal learning activity. In the BeLL data the courses attended range from “Furniture upholstery” and “Guitar for Beginners” courses at village adult education centre to more or less organized courses discussing “Current affairs and international issues”.

In some countries liberal adult education has a clear organizational structure, and learning activities are at least partly funded by the state and municipalities, and respectively statistically documented. For example in Finland it is possible to define, which are the training providers offering liberal adult education courses, how much they receive funding and how many students they have.

In many other BeLL countries this is not the case. In fact there is neither a coherent nor comparable liberal adult education system in Europe. In the BeLL survey we contacted 8894 adult learners in 10 European countries, and asked how many liberal adult education courses they have participated during the past 12 months, what type of courses, and which organizations provided these courses. According to the first results, the respondents have participated a total of 13338 liberal adult education courses, which have been organized in each country by 7 to 12 very different training organizations.

So far we have been able to classify the course topics into 25 categories, which can be reduced into 10 main categories (like languages, social and political education, health and sports, etc.). This part of the comparative analysis is rather easy, and the course topics are identical in all countries. But how to compare 70 – 120 different course providers? It is impossible to classify them. More theoretical perspectives like “adult learning systems” (Rees 2013) are a bit too general to be used with our data. At the moment we are looking for solutions from “national profiles”, where existing country specific information is combined with BeLL data.

If liberal adult learning opportunities are difficult to compare, the analysis and comparison of actual wider benefits of learning is a little bit easier task, because BeLL project providers a good empirical data on that. There is also qualitative data (interviews and open questions in survey), which can be used to complement the statistical results and causal interpretations.

It is obvious that differences in wider benefits are not based mainly on the differences between the countries and cultures, but also on the gender, age, educational level and type of courses attended. It will be interesting to analyze what are the genuine differences between the countries, and which wider benefits are more universal at European level.

Rees, G. 2013. Comparing Adult Learning Systems: and emerging political economy. European Journal of Education, Vol. 48, Number 2, June 2013.

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