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Adult Education in Sweden: an Evolving Field


Adult education has long been considered a second chance for people to gain education and decent employment opportunities. However, the nature of adult education has changed since the turn of the century. Today, it is mainly centred around specialised skills-oriented courses aimed to help people return to the labour market after an unemployment spell or health problems, or to facilitate integration of refugees.

Swedish adult education has changed since the turn of the century, said Gun-Britt Wärvik, Karin Wass and Caroline Runesdotter from the Department of Education and Special Education at a lecture at the Faculty of Education in October.

In their lecture, which was part of the One Hour at the Faculty of Education lecture series, they described adult education as a field that has undergone dramatic changes since the 1950s. From the focus on the Swedish ‘talent reserve’ (people with an aptitude for education but no previous access to educational opportunities) in the 1950s and 1960s, via a focus on adults with limited educational background and ‘those who need it the most’ in the 1970s and a focus on employed people and those who never completed upper-secondary school in the 1990s to the current focus on immigrants and refugees.

Major Investments in Learning

Thus, the number of people participating in SFI (Swedish for immigrants) courses has increased from 36 700 in 2000 to 138 400 today. Overall in basic and upper-secondary adult education – which includes SFI – 44 per cent of the students were not born in Sweden. In 2000, the share was 24 per cent. At the basic level, 93 per cent were born abroad. All of these figures stem from the Swedish National Agency for Education.

‘Swedish adult education changed a lot around the turn of the century,’ said Wass.

One example is the major investments in special programmes from 1997–2002 that aimed to reduce the unemployment rates and give adults with low levels of education access to employment and continued learning. The initiative was called Kunskapslyftet and had room for 110 000 students in municipalities across the country.

Increased Competition

‘The conditions surrounding adult education in Sweden changed around this time. For example, the field became much more competitive when a large number of new education providers entered the stage. The individual study plans were also introduced – something that is totally taken for granted today,’ said Wärvik, who described modern adult education as a hybrid with one foot in compensatory schooling and the other in vocational training.

‘But right now, there is definitely a transition towards preparing people for participation in the labour market,’ she said.

Adult education is not some fringe thing. Sweden has 10 adult education associations that provide courses on a wide range of topics to 700 000 people each year (Sweden has a population of 10 million) as well as 154 so-called folk high schools, which many adults attend to complete their upper-secondary education.

Special Assignments

But the adult education associations also respond to requests from the government. One is to arrange courses in introductory Swedish for the many refugees in the country.

‘This is an example of how these independent education providers provide important services that the public institutions can’t deliver,’ said Runesdotter.