Lifelong learning in Spain: a challenge for the future

Florentino Felgueroso

Executive summary

Investment in lifelong learning is a key mechanism to improve workers’ productivity and to adapt their skills to the changing needs of firms. The European Commission has repeatedly stressed its importance as a mechanism to foster economic growth in the European Union. Lifelong learning was incorporated into the objectives of the Lisbon Agenda (2010) and it is also placed among the strategic objectives for 2020. Specifically, to this date, all member countries should reach a rate of adult participation in education and training of 15%.

In this second report of New Skills at Work we take stock of the participation of adults in lifelong learning in Spain. The report is divided in three parts. The first part of the report provides a descriptive analysis of the evidence on cognitive skills of the adult working population in Spain. The analysis confirms a well-known finding: despite major improvements in the educational attainments of the working population in the last few decades, the average level of cognitive skills remains low by international standards. In particular, Spain stands out as one of the EU countries with the largest share of adults who lack basic skills and competences. This is relevant for several reasons. The labour market position of this group has been deteriorating since the late 1970s, although this trend was temporarily interrupted during the period of the housing boom, and the digitalization of the economy is bound to place further pressure on this group in the near future. The report identifies three dimensions to the problem that deserve careful attention from Spanish policy makers: 1) Low average educational attainments; 2) Unsustainably high dropout rates from secondary education and 3) Comparatively low levels of cognitive skills at all educational levels. On all three scores Spain should strive for convergence to the levels prevailing in the leading countries in Europe.

Convergence will not be possible without major improvements in Spain’s educational system to reduce the dropout rates in secondary education, and in the system of adult learning that is the topic of this report. Participation in adult learning may serve to mitigate some of the problems associated with a premature entry in the labour market. Moreover, it helps to improve workers’ productivity and makes them more resilient to the impact of technological progress.

The second part of the report therefore proceeds to document the participation in adult learning in Spain. It documents the recent evolution of the participation rates in adult learning and provides a comparative analysis of adult learning for a sample of countries that includes Spain and nine other European countries. Our sample includes the five countries that participate in New Skills and Work, the UK, Spain, Italy, France and Germany and a selection of mostly Scandinavian countries with high participation rates in adult learning programs.

The cross-country analysis reveals that the overall participation rate in adult learning in Spain is still five percentage points below the 20%-target of the EU2010 agenda. This rate is in line with the EU average but much lower than in the Scandinavian countries where close to 30% of the adult population participate in adult learning activities according to the European Labour Force Survey. Moreover, it has to be taken into account that the existing training needs of Spain are larger than the needs of most other European countries due to the relatively low cognitive skills of the working population and the massive destruction of jobs for less-educated workers during the crisis. Most of these jobs were concentrated in shrinking sectors like construction and so Spain faces a major challenge to relocate a large number of low-educated unemployed to sectors that may absorb these workers. In many cases this will require some form of training.

Besides additional funding, Spain will also have to revise its training policies. A careful analysis of the participation rates in adult learning by age, level of education and employment status of persons reveals two prominent shortcomings. The participation of the less-educated in adult learning activities is almost negligible in Spain and during the crisis we observe a steep drop in the participation rates in non-formal education and training, by far the most dominant form of adult learning among the unemployed. Thus, the participation in adult learning is especially low among those who most need it and their access to training seems to have become even more of a challenge during the crisis. The report links this last feature to the severe cuts in the public funds for the training of the unemployed.

Finally, the third part of the report describes the existing system of adult learning and suggests reforms to improve the design and the access to formal and/or non-formal education and training. The report identifies two peculiarities of the Spanish system of adult learning. First of all, there is a lack of flexible programs that allow workers to acquire basic skills and competences outside the regular educational system. The second peculiarity is related to funding. The bulk of the funds for lifelong learning and training are transferred to the training providers and employers while only a tiny fraction of the funds is transferred to the eligible workers. This contrasts with the situation in the leading reference countries where the eligible workers receive a substantial fraction of the available funding. Two recent reforms may bring the funding of training more in line with practice elsewhere in Europe as they foresee the introduction of training vouchers. The report provides an analysis of the expected benefits of these reforms and outlines options for further improvements.

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