Society today is characterized by an economic order in which knowledge, rather than natural resources or capital, is the key to economic development. In this context, governments are strongly interested in knowing about the lit- eracy levels of their constituents. In 1995, the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) was the first cross-cultural, multi- language study to provide a benchmark of literacy skills in industrialized countries. For Canada, the study offered some worrisome trends and food for thought. Indeed, according to the IALS, approximately 40 percent of Canadians fall below the literacy level deemed necessary for today’s society.
As we seek ways to inform and enhance public policy about this issue, exploring foreign experiences in this domain could yield valuable insights. Looking to Sweden, for instance, where adult literacy levels are significantly higher and are less related to socioeconomic status and level of school attainment, could well provide elements to help improve Canada’s performance. Though there are similari- ties between the goals and motivations of adult students in Canada and Sweden, there are many differences in their access to learning opportunities.
In Sweden, studying as an adult is socially accepted and many learning opportunities exist. Education is free and loans and grants are available to defray living expens- es. Adult education is considered an investment in both social capital and human capital and has been a universal compensatory entitlement since 1967. Universal childcare and a school lunch program for children also facilitate adult study.
The Swedish state supports adult learning in formal, nonformal and informal ways. With respect to formal learn- ing, there is no fee for education, including adult basic edu- cation, from kindergarten through to post-secondary education. Swedes have had access to formal education through the municipal adult education system (komvux) since 1967. This compensatory system of adult education has long since provided for those who had been excluded from high school education by the hierarchical education system that existed prior to 1957 school reforms.
Municipal adult education programs teach the equiva- lent of the regular school curriculum, with funding and guidelines provided by the Swedish government. Priority is given to those with the least formal education but, after 35 years, there has been a change in the profile of those seeking this second chance. High school graduates wanting to improve their grades for acceptance into post-secondary pro- grams have started to take advantage of the komvux system.
Tri-partite agreements provide workplace education for unionized workers. Because of the high level of unioniza- tion, workers do not feel their jobs are in jeopardy if they are singled out to attend a course. In addition the study circles offered by the national voluntary organization provide informal learning that is more responsive to individual inter- ests. Adults choose the circles where they feel comfortable.
In fact, study circles are probably one the most interest- ing and innovative characteristics of the Swedish model. In the Spring of 2003, Swedes participated in a national-scale experiment in which citizens met in small groups through- out the country to discuss in an apolitical way the pros and cons of Sweden joining the European Monetary Union. The government had provided resource materials and speak- ers on both sides of the question for use by study circles in the year prior to the September 2003 referendum. It helped prepare citizens for the vote, built community connections through a social outing, and provided the chance to learn. In this case, the gov- ernment’s efforts to inform the public about important issues meant a more literate and engaged electorate, one which supports the relatively high level of taxation that supports univer- sal social programs.
From 1997 to 2002, on top of the funding for municipal adult education, the Swedish government invested an additional $56 per capita, per year, into the Adult Education Initiative (AEI). The goals were to address the high unemployment (4 percent) that result- ed from the recession of the early 1990s and to raise the level of education of the population (folkbildning) by increasing the supply and diversity of learning opportunities for adults. Varying levels of counselling and men- toring support were also available.
Both Swedish for immigrants (SFI) and the dyslexia (learning disabilities) classes are part of the formal adult edu- cation system, a systematic and dependable approach. Professional teachers with extensive experience and in-service training taught dyslexic adults in classrooms in the adult edu- cation centres. Immigrants could remain in SFI classes until they met national standards. The majority of students in basic adult upgrading are now foreign-born indicating that they have the language skills to get into adult basic education programs. The more quickly an immigrant gains the language skills to get a job and be self- supporting, the greater the chances of acceptance and integration into the mainstream society. This makes more sense for both the individuals and the communities they live in than the time-limited language courses with uncertain outcomes provided for immigrants in Canada.
There is currently no universal pub- licly funded system of adult basic education in Canada. Instead, adults functioning at a low literacy level usu- ally avail themselves of a patchwork of volunteer programs or projects offered by community-based organizations. There is no reliable schedule of adult learning opportunities, nor do all Canadians have access to the funding for study at the basic level.
The federal government gave up its role in funding adult basic educa- tion in the 1990s with the signing of a labour market agreement with each province. It now allots $1 per capita to the National Literacy Secretariat for lit- eracy activities other than service delivery; 25 percent of this funding goes to public awareness projects and literacy awards in an effort to increase demand for literacy programs. There is no comprehensive strategy for increas- ing learning opportunities for adults.
Adults often have to wait to go back to school, and those at a basic level of education, including English as a second language (ESL) learners and those with learning disabilities, usually have to rely on volunteer tutors. Unfortunately, the recruiting and train- ing of volunteers is laborious and time- consuming and can not ensure experienced instruction for adults, par- ticularly those with special needs. The restriction of government funding for social programs that began in the 1990s added to this load as the amount of staff time devoted to obtaining funding and writing reports to meet accounta- bility requirements increased signifi- cantly. This has compromised service delivery across the voluntary sector in Canada. The lack of related services such as childcare and financial supports makes things worse.
In Canada, literacy programming is considered distinct from adult education and the terminology itself implies a pre- scriptive, deficit perspective. Resources go into public awareness campaigns, lit- eracy awards and an extensive policy network at the expense of learning opportunities for adults. Priority in access to adult education is given to adults most likely to succeed in further education or the job market. Program evaluation is often based on resulting employment thereby privileging admis- sion of those most likely to succeed in their studies. The assignment of the 2003 literacy hearing to the Ministerial Committee for the Status of Persons with Disabilities speaks volumes about this viewpoint. The charitable nature of much of literacy program delivery and the name ”œliteracy” itself are also a disin- centive, and often a disservice, to adults who might lack self-confidence or need special help in addressing learning needs.
It is time we insist that all Canadians be provided with equitable access and opportunities to learn in personal- ly meaningful ways. One way could well be inspired by Sweden’s local study circles. They could provide an opportunity for us to learn about each other, to increase skills, and to engage in community problem-solving. This could ultimately reduce the need to contain social problems through more law enforcement and social services as well as help to reduce health care costs in the long run.
The relative costs and benefits of universal versus targeted social pro- grams to help improve Canada’s per- formance in terms of adult literacy deserve further study. A 2004 Statistics Canada study by Serge Coulombe, Jean- François Tremblay and Sylvie Marchand provides an economic argument for educating those at the lower literacy lev- els. They show that educating the least educated has a greater impact on GDP than increasing the skill levels of those with higher literacy skills.
My research findings support Jeremy Rifkin’s analysis, in The European dream. They support the European social cohesion approach in public policy rather than the American Libertarian route, and invite a view of adult educa- tion and literacy as a public investment rather than public expense.