The Swedish Agency for Public Management
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Adult education for our time – an evaluation based on the objectives of the government subsidy. Final report (2018:10)

Statskontoret (The Swedish Agency for Public Management) has been tasked by the Government to carry out an overall assessment of adult education (folkbildning) in Sweden. There are four objectives behind state subsidies for folkbildning, and it is with these in mind that we have carried out the following evaluation. The government grants shall help to

  • strengthen and develop democracy
  • help to increase the opportunity for a wider range of people to influence their lives and create a commitment to participate in the development of society
  • contribute to minimising education gaps and raise the level of knowledge and education in society
  • help to broaden interest in and increase participation in cultural life

 This is a final report for the assessment. Statskontoret will also present in a memorandum a long-term model for assessing adult education by 1 June 2018 at the latest.

The work of adult education is many-faceted

Adult education is provided by study associations and Swedish folk high schools. During 2017 the Swedish National Council of Adult Education allocated SEK 3.9 billion in government grants to ten study associations and 154 folk high schools. The Swedish National Council of Adult Education is a non-profit or­ganisation that represents the study associations and Swedish folk high schools. The Swedish Sports Education Organisation (SISU) also allocated SEK 170 million of government grants to adult education in sports.

Adult education is very comprehensive in terms of breadth and depth. It is also difficult to determine the limits of its activities, primarily in relation to the adult education associations. The focus of our work has therefore been on the main areas of education activities in terms of resources: the study and learning circles that come under the study associations and the long courses provided by folk high schools. These are also the areas we believe to be of greatest importance for both participants and society as a whole, even though other areas of adult education can also have a very large number of participants.

Adult education can be of great importance for those who participate

Swedish folk high schools and study associations run different kinds of activities, but these are based on the same values. Adult education takes an educational approach that boosts self-confidence which in turn enables the student to improve their performance and understand where they can find their place in society. The main impression Statskontoret has of the activities it has studied is very positive. The special educational approach adopted in adult education gives the participants greater self-confidence and new perspectives and ensures that they achieve better study results than before. The study associations reach a large number of participants who have the opportunity to study different subjects in depth together with others.

General courses bridge the educational gaps

Statskontoret has tasked one researcher with looking at what happens to participants on a general course aimed at adults studying at compulsory school level and upper secondary school level. The researcher focused on participants studying at upper secondary school level. It appeared that an equally large proportion of participants on a general course took a post-upper secondary school exam as did those on a Komvux (municipal adult education) course, taking into account various background variables. Ten years after the matched groups had started their studies at upper secondary school level on a general course provided by Swedish folk high schools and on a Komvux course respectively, almost half had taken a post-upper secondary school exam. This is an important aspect of the purpose of education: to bridge the educational gaps.

Adult education has not been directly tasked with increasing the number of people participating in the labour force or increasing the levels of income in society. But both earnings and gainful employment can still be a means of achieving other goals, such as influencing one’s life situation. During the ten-year period after completing the course, the participants on a general course experienced to some extent lower levels of employment and income compared to those who had taken a Komvux course. The differences were not great, however. As regards earnings, it seems that income trends were delayed by a year after studying at a folk high school when compared to income trends after taking a Komvux course.

Adult education can bring improvements in a number of areas

Statskontoret assese that Folk High School and study associations need to develop a number of areas if they truly intend to be providers of adult education for our time. The combined strength of adult education is in part thanks to its special educational approach that allows people to acquire knowledge on their own terms and in an inclusive social setting. A shared challenge is seeing how adult education can reach those outside of its traditional target groups.

Areas of improvement in adult education

Combating the trend towards increasingly homogeneous groups

There is an increasing number of homogeneous environments appearing in Swedish folk high schools. Such environments lessen the chances of creating essential meeting places for individuals from different backgrounds and with different experiences. These meeting places help fulfil the aim of putting democracy into practice. Those born abroad are under-represented on the special courses provided by Swedish folk high schools which focus on a great variety of specialist areas, one important example being arts and crafts. There are often no foreign-born applicants on these courses. Homogeneous environments also appear in branches and special tuition groups.

Culture ought to be for everyone – not just for some

The special courses with a specialisation in arts and crafts are an important aspect of how Swedish folk high schools fulfil the cultural objective of adult education. The folk high schools therefore need to try to reach all groups. There may be many reasons why people born outside of Sweden are not attracted to the arts and crafts courses compared with those born in Sweden. In some cases this is entirely due to the way a folk high school is run. It may be that the information on the courses does not reach those who are foreign-born. It may be that the arts and crafts courses are focused on far too narrow a target group. During our visits to the folk high schools we have found no evidence of strategic thinking in this area on their part.

The budget is a risk factor

A number of folk high schools have financial worries. The schools manage their financial deficit in providing adult education by running another activity that generates income. Assignments are mainly carried out in collaboration with the Swedish Public Employment Service, but this collaboration is dependent on the particular individuals involved and works in different ways in different schools. The schools also have difficulty operating under terms that require speed and are not always predictable.

The schools of today need broader skills

Participants with a neuropsychiatric diagnosis and those born outside Sweden are steadily rising in number. The head teachers of certain schools believe there is a lack of skills among the teachers taking these groups. One consequence of this is that special tuition groups need to be set up for people with special needs.

Follow-up for the long courses could be improved

The schools are good at assessing their courses during the period of their duration. However, knowledge about what happens to the participants after they have left the folk high school is lacking.

Safeguarding our traditions while developing at the same time

There is a delicate balancing act between preserving good traditions and introducing development. Swedish folk high schools need to develop its activities in ways such as making the special courses more attractive to people born outside Sweden. This development must be combined, however, with preserving our traditions. There is a lot that works well in the folk high schools. The special courses are appreciated by the participants. But more participants need to be brought in and made to feel welcome on these courses.

Areas of improvement regarding the adult education associations

Limited incentives to bring about greater diversity

Study associations reach many different groups in society, but often these groups are already organised in associations of different kinds. The challenge is to reach those people who are not yet organised. This means that the associations must develop partly new ways of working.

At the same time we see that the study associations have limited incentives to devote their resources to broader recruitment in the organisation.

Relationships and education are an important part of quality assurance

The study associations do not run their work in the form of individual study circles. They base their activities instead on the requirements and wishes of the participants. A large measure of trust is involved. At the same time, the study associations must be able to guarantee that their activities are of the level of quality expected of adult education and that the resources are used to this end and help fulfil the four objectives of the government grants.

It is the assessment of Statskontoret that the study associations need to take a strategic approach when using the tools they have for assuring the quality of the service they provide. This means primarily soft tools in the form of information, dialogue and education.

Contact with the study circle leaders varies. The training for study circle leaders is dogged by problems with recruitment. Statskontoret has the view that the associations need to find ways of providing the study circle leaders with the skills they need.

Renewing and preserving in order to remain relevant

Adult education needs to match its activities to developments in society. The associations themselves emphasise that digitalisation offers opportunities for development. The forms taken by these activities can also be developed so as to better meet the needs of today. A third area is to develop activities that are relevant to young people and to all the “New Swedes”.

There is an area of tension between regeneration and preservation. To what extent are we to adapt to the spirit of the times? Rapid change is countered by sluggishness in the system.

Greater transparency for greater legitimacy

There are probably limits as to how much control can be built into a system based on voluntary effort without it nibbling away at the feeling of trust and commitment established. At the same time, the study associations can retain their legitimacy by showing that the resources are being used in line with the four objectives of the Government.

One way of increasing transparency in the organisation and in managing the grant funding could be to make evaluations and reports available to both funding bodies and the public. Conducting an overall analysis of the reports produced by the associations would also make it possible to identify shortcomings in the entire system as a whole and not just in any one association.