The Project “LEARNING HELPING: INCLUSIVE EDUCATION OF ADULTS THROUGH VIRTUAL VOLUNTEERING” proposes an innovative learning methodology in line with the official adult training curriculum, where users learn formal contents through digital volunteering activities that motivate them to learn, while promoting the inclusion of other students and themselves.
This is why the contextual framework on which this project is based on five points: The migratory situation in the EU, volunteering and its relationship with educational and digital environments, the risks and obstacles faced by adult education, its situation in general in the EU, and specifically in the countries participating in the project: Spain, France, Greece, and Italy.
1. THE SITUATION OF MIGRATION IN EUROPE
At the beginning of this decade, just over 447 million people lived in the European Union; of them, only 8,3% (~37 million) were born outside the Union, and only 5,5% (23 million) were citizens of non-EU countries. Contrary to what some may assume, the EU has one of the lowest percentages of people born outside its territory among its highest income countries. Thus, compared to EU’s 8,3%, the US’ percentage is 15,3%, 13,8% for the UK, 21,3% in Canada, or 30,1% in Australia.
Four out of ten foreigners staying in the EU had a residence permit for family reasons, and only in two out of ten the reason was work. Between 2 and 3 million residence permits are granted annually in the EU, and around half a million asylum applications are submitted, although these figures have fluctuated sharply in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the development of international armed conflicts. Asylum or study permits barely account for 12% of the total. In fact, in the EU, the percentage of refugees is only 0,6% of its population, far from Uganda’s 3,3%, Turkey’s 4,4%, Joran’s 6,4%, and Lebanon’s 12,9%. Germany, Spain, France, Greece, and Italy are the countries that receive the highest number of asylum applications, so faced with these data of requests, the EU only granted refugee status to about 280.000 people in total in 2020, with a large dispersion of the proportional percentage of concessions by country.
In 2020, there were just over 125.000 illegal crossings of EU’s external borders, including more than 86.000 by sea, through dangerous crossings through the three Mediterranean routes (eastern, central, and western) and the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands. Its high danger is evident in the 2097 people who died or disappeared at sea in 2019, the 2326 who did so in 2020 and the 2598 until November 2021. A terrible increase, a sign of human desperation and the cruel evolution of wars on the planet. Faced with these terrible figures, EU member states ordered 491.000 people to leave their respective territories in 2019 and 396.000 in 2020, although of the latter only 70.000 were effectively expelled, while in 2019 the figure was 142.000 people finally expelled. Most of the expulsions concern people from Algeria, Morocco, Albania, Ukraine, and Pakistan. The case of Ukraine has changed significantly since the outbreak of war with Russia in March 2022.
Compared to the 2,7 million people who migrated to the EU in 2019, 1,2 million migrated from it; this positive balance of 1,5 million helped to prevent the European population from declining by 0,5 million, since 4,7 million deaths occurred, compared to 4,2 million births.
In 2020, 42,27% of the EU population, just over 189 million people, had a job. Of them, only 8,6 million (4,6%) were third-country nationals, often in lower-skilled jobs like domestic services, construction, personal services and care, peonage, and hospitality.
The EU has shown its concern about several negative phenomena such as the loss in the global race for talent, compared to countries such as the USA, Canada, or Australia; or the progressive aging of the European population. That is why it tries to implement measures that attract talent and favor legal entry routes into a continent that says it wants to become a host territory.
2. VOLUNTEERING AND EDUCATIONAL AND DIGITAL ENVIRONMENTS
The relationship between volunteering and the educational environment is old and runs deep. It has been developed mainly within the framework of volunteer teaching for certain groups, as well as in areas with special needs and scarce resources. The educational environment is also one of the usual fields of volunteering work, in which both its development and the results obtained can be more positive for both the people targeted by the action and the volunteers who carry it out.
It is quite easy to find teaching materials online, which bring the world of volunteering and non-government organizations closer to the educational environment. There are many examples of didactic units developed to raise awareness on students on topics or activities developed by NGOs, and to awaken their interest and curiosity in social volunteering. Even many of these materials propose that students develop action projects within the framework of volunteering and NGOs as a complementary activity, with the aim of collaborating with some of them. The vast majority are concrete methodological proposals to be developed in the classroom through a more or less reduced number of sessions.
On the other hand, digital volunteering has undergone an important evolution in recent years, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The rigidity of schedules and the problems of movement of many people who intended to participate in volunteer programs has been a key impulse for their development. Digital volunteering mainly allows for flexibility in time and space; the specific forms in which it is developed are quite diverse, and range from the promotion and dissemination of the activities of the responsible organizations to the most varied forms of solidarity, through the creation of contents.
On the other hand, exercising volunteering in general, and virtual volunteering in particular, allows to develop certain skills, which can be essential to configure the personal curriculum and employability. Some laws recognize the right of volunteers to have the entity in which they work to certify the competences they develop. All of this has led to the development of initiatives to integrate the competences acquired through non-formal or informal learning (Youthpass, Europass, Vol+, etc.). in the curriculum.
But this whole panorama has a critical problem, which has come to be called “the digital gap”, a phenomenon with an important generational component. The conclusions of EU Council on the 30th May 2016 were concerned that 40% of the European population has little or no digital skills, while 90% of jobs require some form of digital skills. Fortunately, the Council also notes the spread of the use of digital media and the extension of the corresponding skills among younger people; but at the same time it shows its concern about the extension of certain risks in the digital environment, such as hate speech, threatening or harassing behavior, violence, intimidation, etc. The Council therefore invited EU Member States to undertake initiatives that decisively contribute to digital literacy and the spread of critical thinking among the European population, to facilitate both the development of skills and digital literacy, as well as personal independence and autonomy of criteria.
3. ADULT EDUCATION: RISKS AND OBSTACLES
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) within the framework of the International Conferences on Adult Education (CONFINTEA) defines the concept of “adult education” as follows:
“The set of formal or non-formal learning processes thanks to which people considered as adults by their social environment develop their capabilities enrich their knowledge, improve their technical or professional skills, and/or reorient them to meet their own needs and those of society. Adult education comprises formal and continuing education, non-formal education, and the full range of informal and casual education opportunities in a multicultural educational society where theoretical and practice-based approaches are recognized. Adult education is conceived, in general and dynamic terms, within the framework of lifelong learning.” 
Part of the risks affecting adult education are related both to a generalized subsidiary vision regarding formal education and to the welfare nature with which it has been inserted in many areas, especially in basic literacy. This has led to significant institutional weakness, and in many areas, a parallel shortage of applied resources. In many countries outside Europe, adult education has been assimilated as mere literacy programmes or, where appropriate, of access to formal education and the consequent obtaining of the corresponding qualification. In this way, the formative nature of non-formal and informal education in the life trajectory of the user has been ignored, and with it, the possibility of considering adult training as a vital continuum beyond literacy, qualifications, or continuous training related to the work environment.
In the theoretical field, adult education has also usually been placed as dependent on pedagogy. Just a few decades ago, the existence of a new specific discipline was theorized under the name of andragogy, which places the paradigm helping to learn before that of teaching. Adults take on a much more autonomous role when it comes to leading their own learning processes, when compared to the dependence of children and youth in their training. This fact has sometimes led to the risk of considering adult education as a self-directed learning process, understood as a simple presentation of various pre-developed options for the user to choose and complete their training on their own.
Most of the obstacles regarding adult education in the EU are also related to the lack of flexibility of the framework within which adult education takes place. The timetable/schedule appears on the first place (23,9% of adults who wanted to participate in adult education in 2016 said they couldn’t for this reason), followed by the lack of an adequate training offer (7,2%), and to a much lesser extent, distance (2,9%). Other motivations had their origin in personal circumstances (due to family reasons, health, age, etc.) that together accounted for 31% of the people surveyed. Another significant motivation was that related to the economic-labor situation, since 18,1% pointed to the costs as the reason for not participating in adult education despite wanting to do so, while 8% attributed it to the lack of support from their employer.
4. ADULT EDUCATION IN EUROPE
According to the 2019 Eurydice report , one in five adults in the European Union (aged 24-65) had not completed the second stage of secondary education (51,5 million); of these, more than 12 million dropped out without completing the first stage of secondary education. Levels of educational achievement decline among older persons born outside the country of residence.
Between 15% and 57% of people living in Europe also have low levels of reading comprehension and mathematical skills, while 40% are at risk of digital exclusion.
Despite the slow but steady increase in adult participation in lifelong learning, we are far from reaching EU’s target of 15% by 2020; only one third of countries achieved it. The general tendency is that adults with a lower level of education are less likely to further complement it.
The participation of adults in education shows very unequal percentages by country. Combining the data on participation with the educational levels of the respective populations, three tiers of states are defined:
- Those that combine a high participation in adult education with a small percentage of people with low levels of education (mainly Nordic countries and some in Western Europe).
- Those that combine a low level of participation in adult education and a small percentage of people with a low level of education (many Eastern and some Western countries).
- Countries with a low level of participation in adult education and a high percentage of people with a low level of education (Mediterranean countries).
Most countries fund compensatory programmes for adults to pass the first stage of secondary education, some of them organizing them into modules, allowing for a greater flexibility. The courses to acquire basic skills are shorter and poorly systematized. Some countries have introduced courses specifically aimed at migrants, but this is not a widespread practice, unfortunately.
Most countries have financial incentives aimed generally at adult education, although a minority have specific mechanisms to provide financial incentives for people with lower levels of qualifications.
A limited number of countries have strong institutions that provide distance learning for adults, including all levels of secondary education. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major boost across Europe in the development of digitalization and distance education, including in the field of adult education. But me must remember the high percentage of people with a low level of computer skills and access to ICTs, which constitutes a significant limitation in the spread of distance education.
In half of the EU countries, access to the second stage of secondary education is not allowed without passing the first stage (about one third of EU countries do allow it). However, this greater flexibility is not exploited to its full potential by the impacted population.
Two-thirds of EU countries have competency audits in line with the Commission’s objectives, but despite this, problems remain in their implementation timeline or in the access of people with lower levels of competence. When it comes to the validation of non-formal and informal learning, the dispersion of regulations and outcomes across countries is enormous.
Lastly, the European Pillar of Social Rights, proclaimed by the European Parliament, Council, and Commission at the Gothenburg Social Summit (2017), refers to lifelong learning in the first of its twenty principles, showing its importance. The EU has set in its strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training, with a view to the European Education Area and its future (2021-2030), a strategic objective stating that “by2025, at least 47% of adults aged between 25 and 64 years old must have developed learning activities in the last twelve months”. This objective was extended in the Action Plan of the European Pillar of Social Rights (European Commission, 2021), which states that “by 2030, at least 60% of adults should participate in training activities each year”. The latter goal was endorsed at the Porto 2021 Social Summit.
5. THE CASES OF SPAIN, GREECE AND ITALY
France is in the group of states with the lowest proportion of low-skilled adult population and their highest participation in education and training, along with the Nordic countries. The case of France is also among those that spend more coverage to adult education policies.
On the contrary, Spain, Greece, and Italy are in the group of states with the highest proportion of low-skilled adults and the lowest participation in education and training. Of these three countries, Italy is among those with the highest coverage of adult education, while Spain and Greece are among the group with the least coverage.
The OECD’s International Assessment of Adult Skills (PIAAC) provides data on the differences between the levels of basic skills (reading comprehension, mathematical competences, and problem solving in technological environments) of the adult population (between 16 and 65 years old) of various countries between 2011 and 2018. The average of the 20 participating EU member states regarding adults with low performance in reading comprehension or mathematical skills is 16,0%. By country, the cases concerning us are above that average: Spain’s 22,5%, France’s 18,1%, Italy’s 21,3%, and Greece’s 19,5%.
As for digital skills in the 20 participating EU member states, the average number of people who have a low level of them is 30%, with three of these four countries above the average: Spain with 33%, France also 33%, Italy with 34%, and only Greece below the average, with 28%. As for the data of people who have NOT used the internet in the 3 months prior to the sampling, the EU20 average stands at 10%, with the dispersion of situations by country being wider: Spain at 6%, France at 8%, Italy at 20% and Greece at 18%.
Based on the data available from Eurostat on adult education in the EU population aged 25-64, we can compare the percentages of the adult population (25 to 64 years old) regarding their educational level, according to the latest data available in 2020. Thus, Greece is practically in the EU27 average at all stages; Spain and France rank above that average in the percentage of adults with higher education, and Italy is below it. Regarding people who completed secondary education, all four countries are below EU27 average. On the other hand, Italy and Spain stand out in the percentage of adult population that has only completed studies equal to or less than basic secondary education.
As for the population between 25 and 64 years old who is willing to participate in adult education and training, in three specific years between 2007 and 2016, there was an increase in general interest in the EU, which is parallel to the evolution in Italy, where there also was some significant increase. Perhaps this should be correlated to Italy and France being in the group of countries that devote the most resources to adult education, as mentioned above. States that are among those that devote the least resources are the ones with the lowest percentage of interest: Spain and Greece.
Regarding the average number of hours per person (aged 25 to 64) devoted to adult education and training programmes, according to their previous training level, has a uniform trend of increase, regardless of the values assumed in each state, as the level of previous studies rises.
Lastly, referencing public adult education and training institutions in these four countries, they can be grouped into two categories: those that lead to official qualifications and those that provide training in key competences without formal qualifications, following the Eurydice 2021 report:
- Programmes leading to qualifications (up to ISCED3 / EQF4)
Second chance schools (scholia defteris efkerias), to obtain secondary qualifications for adults. There are 75 such schools.
Vocational learning centers (EPAS mathiteias); more than 50, managed by the public employment service. They offer programmes to qualify at ISCED 3 or EQF 4 levels.
In most autonomous communities, adult education centers are regulated by their education departments or by municipal governments.
GRETA is a network of 136 adult education and training establishments linked to public secondary schools, and under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education (500.000 adult students per year).
Agence nationale pour la formation professionelle des adultes (AFPA) (National Agency for Adult Vocational Training) is under the supervision of the Ministry of Labor, and trains about 143.000 adults a year, including 85.000 unemployed.
Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM), is overseen by the ministry of education, with 73.700 students in 2018, including 9200 unemployed. It is a higher education institution, but its learning offer includes programmes to qualify up to ISCED 3 or EQF 4 levels.
These institutions are spread throughout the country, and are generally located in cities with over 20.000 inhabitants.
Centri provinciali per l’istruzione degli adulti (CPIA) [provincial adult education centers] are organized into territorial networks of services, usually at the province level. They are pedagogically and administrative autonomy. In 2020, there were 130 CPIAs.
- Programmes aimed at developing basic competences (without qualifications)
Cities’ lifelong learning centers (kentra dia viou mathisis) offer short-term programmes for adults: basic skills, key competences and Greek classes for migrants.
Adult education centers also offer programmes of basic competences: reading comprehension, mathematics, and digital skills.
There are no public institutions that play a key role in this area. Private entities and some public ones have an educational offer aimed at adults for the development of basic skills.
CPIA themselves also offer courses in basic skills: reading comprehension, Italian for foreigners, etc.
 The official website of the EU has a powerful tool related to migration and population data not only of its 27 member countries, but of a total of 198 countries: Migration and Demographics Knowledge Center (KCMD) Data Portal.
 European Commission / EACEA / Eurydice, 2021. Adult education and training in Europe: Creating inclusive pathways to skills and qualifications. Report of Eurydice. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
 Ibid p. 33.