When we think of education, we usually associate it with the formal education of children, adolescents, and young people. Although they are the primary beneficiaries of education under international human rights law, adults are also recognised rights-holders. The right to education is, like all other human rights, universal and applies to everyone, irrespective of age.

According to international law, the aims of education include the ‘full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity’ and to ‘enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society’. These aims (and the other aims of education under international law) cannot be met through education delivered exclusively to children. The right to education, therefore, recognises the importance of education as a lifelong process. The early years are considered foundational for lifelong learning, where each level of education lays the building blocks for further education throughout a person’s life.

Adult education and learning is an integral part of the right to education and lifelong learning, and comprises ‘all forms of education and learning that aim to ensure that all adults participate in their societies and the world of work. It denotes the entire body of learning processes, formal, non-formal and informal, whereby those regarded as adults by the society in which they live, develop and enrich their capabilities for living and working, both in their own interests and those of their communities, organisations and societies’ (UNESCO Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education [2015]: Para. 1).

Adults may (re)enter education for a number of reasons, including to:

  • replace missed or neglected primary and/or secondary education
  • develop basic education skills, such as literacy and numeracy
  • develop new vocational skills and expertise to adapt to changing labour market conditions or to change career, or for continued professional development
  • continue learning for personal development and leisure
  • participate fully in social life and in democratic processes

As well as the benefits accrued from the above, adult education benefits the individual, by:

  • being instrumental in the enjoyment of other human rights, for instance, the rights to work, health, and to take part in cultural life and in the conduct of public affairs
  • empowering economically and socially marginalised adults  to understand, question and transform, through critical awareness, the sources of their marginalisation, including lifting themselves out of poverty
  • building the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in society
  • facilitating active citizenship

Further, adult education and learning has wider economic, social, political, and cultural benefits, most notably recognised in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2015) which has numerous targets on adult education, and to which all states have committed.

Yet, despite states’ commitments to adult education, efforts to implement and realise the right to education for adolescents, young people, and adults have been neglected. This failure to fully implement adult education compounds historical marginalisation because those most likely to benefit from adult education are those who did not receive primary and/or secondary education in the first place.

At present, adult education, particularly non-formal education, including literacy programmes, is generally the most underfunded level of education with few countries spending the recommended 3% of their national education budget on adult literacy and education programmes (UNESCO [2016] Reading the Past: Writing the Future). As a consequence, adult education and learning is not generally provided for free, the cost of which must be borne by the individual, which acts as a prohibitive barrier in accessing adult education or is a financial burden on already marginalised adults who have to pay to access an education that was previously denied to them.

A fundamental element of the right to education is that it is accessible to all which is why primary and lower secondary education is generally provided for free by most states. The same principle applies to adult education and learning. However, for adults it is different in that in addition to the state, there are market providers (everything from yoga classes and cooking, to computer programming will be offered by private providers), companies train and develop their staff, community organisations create learning opportunities for their members, and the web offers a range of free (MOOCs) and charged for learning programmes. A key responsibility of states is to establish a legal and regulatory framework that secures access to adult education and learning opportunities, particularly for those from marginalised groups. Further, states have obligations under international human rights law in relation to certain forms of adult education and learning.

This page explores the various forms of adult education and lifelong learning for which the state has specific legal obligations under international human rights law, including: fundamental education, basic education, adult literacy programmes, technical and vocational education and training, and higher education. It also explores the right to education of older persons and adult education as articulated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

For the international normative framework that provides guiding principles for adult education policy and practice, see UNESCO Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education (2015) and the Belém Framework for Action (2009) from the 6th International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA 6).