The Netherlands – Towards a Dutch (Lifelong) Learning Climate


Lifelong learning has never been an integral part of Dutch educational culture. Nevertheless, after finishing their initial education, almost one-fifth of adults nowadays participate in a (continuing) second, third or even fourth learning path during their lives. As we know, these individual paths can only be successful when they are triggered by the self-motivation of individuals in their particular life situations. In this policy brief, a case is made for initiatives, policy and action that bridge the separate worlds, and consequently purposes, of policy makers, researchers, professionals and, last but not least, the learning adults themselves. This case is necessary because, for almost two decades, the Dutch lifelong learning scene has suffered from continuing unresolved issues. A Dutch (lifelong) learning climate, unlike the existing educational climate, is necessary to overcome these issues.

Theo van Dellen, University of Groningen, Groningen (Research Network 2)
Jumbo Klercq, The Elephant Learning in Diversity, Deventer; Bert-Jan Buiskool, Ockham Institute for Policy Support, Zwolle


Most countries in Northern Europe ­– the Scandinavian countries – have a long political and cultural history of lifelong learning (LLL). These are also the countries reporting higher levels of LLL. In the Netherlands, neither such a history nor a well-defined policy on LLL exists, although the Netherlands is ranked seventh in the EU in terms of participation in LLL. Instead, the 2012 governmental call – for, first, a learning climate in vocational educational institutions and, second, an employability remit for employers and employees – continues, even after the last decade of economic crisis, to be the national policy on LLL.


Figures, recommendations and policy

The contemporary Dutch LLL scene is ‘doing well’ according to the key performance indicators formulated at the EU level. Nevertheless, in 2012 the Education Council of the Netherlands commissioned a report on the question ‘Why does the participation in LLL in the Netherlands not grow stronger despite all the recommendations in this respect?’. This question is based on the political framework of the ‘makeable world’, resulting in unfulfilled, and most probably also unrealistic, expectations. So, the Education and Training Monitor 2015 states:

‘The Netherlands has a high tertiary education attainment rate and made good progress in reducing the number of early school leavers, which can in part be attributed to the implementation of a comprehensive strategy on early school leaving. The proportion of secondary level students in vocational education and training (VET), the employment rate of recent upper secondary graduates and adult participation in LLL are all significantly above the EU average. The results of international surveys show educational performance in the Netherlands to be good, but, in contrast to other countries, not to have improved in recent years…’.

It seems realistic therefore to conclude that ‘the Dutch are doing well’, but – in contrast to the policy makers – the researchers, the professionals and the adult learners seem to be less happy with the LLL scene. This is connected with the different purposes of the stakeholders, which often become conflicting interests because of countless means and measures means and measures are never endless. This becomes obvious when we consider the purposes of the different stakeholders.


The stakeholders’ purposes

The creation of a learning economy and a learning climate seems to be the main human capital development purposes of the Dutch general LLL policy perspective. Another main purpose of LLL is connected with the general awareness of the necessity to prevent, and the need to overcome, the (social) exclusion of groups of people at risk, such as immigrants, illiterates, ethnic minorities, ‘forgotten’ youngsters, people with disabilities, and the unemployed. The policy makers here are those at the national, regional and local government political levels. However, what about other policy makers – those who represent or lobby for the employers in general, the unions, the various sectors of labour, the formal educational institutions, the intermediate NGOs, etc.? Because of their institutional purpose and their role, they are not satisfied with the Dutch LLL scene.

In research (maybe sometimes even in science), LLL is considered as a crystallised issue for debate, conceptualisation and investigation in multidisciplinary human sciences. However, the theoretical-methodological debate on how best to approach the learning processes and how to measure and prove outcomes with respect to participation or maybe better competencies, as well as identity transformation, is far from complete. And therefore research is rich and practice-based but dispersed, fragmented, and focused on learning processes (dynamics), relationships in contexts, norms in environments, but less on the identity processes of individuals and teams, which risks sidelining questions of knowledge and pedagogy. The researchers have their own social responsibility to comprehend themselves, and communicate to others, what the scientific knowledge (evidence) means.

The professionals (including volunteers) – as well as the learners – are rarely represented in the debates on LLL. Although there are debates about them, and sometimes with them, they rarely have a real voice themselves, with the possible exception of through EPALE (Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe). Moreover, professionals (associations and networks) are not organised to express their views at institutional level. This is not the ‘fault’ of the professionals (and volunteers) but rather a historical systemic shortcoming that illustrates in some respect the lack of a learning climate in the Netherlands. The professionals’ field is divided into: 1) the institutions and organisations (private and NGOs) with their own interest to survive in the ‘market’, 2) the professionals with their own professional standards and more emphasis on the learners and 3) many enthusiastic volunteers involved in a large part of the frontline processes in government-financed education.

The learners are the ‘unknown’ and unheard target group. The others – the policy makers, (critical) researchers and professionals – all use arguments with respect to them from the viewpoint of the purposes of LLL (learning economy and inclusion). Three value arguments may be responsible for the above mentioned unfulfilled and unrealistic expectations of these stakeholders. First, continuing interest in LLL provides the possibility to empower and emancipate people at an individual as well as a social level. Second, focusing on the learning autonomy of adults provides for the additional personal development of people. Third, adults should be considered as active learners focusing on their own subjectivity and identity as a citizen, worker, or private person. These three arguments are in essence humanistic in nature and may be typically Dutch and politically correct. The assumption of these policies – that adult learners are willing to learn when they are placed in a learning environment that is attractive, reflective and stimulating – raises questions on the disappointing participation figures.


The continuing unresolved issues

At this point we come to the continuing unresolved issues which are all related to the non-existence of a learning climate in the Netherlands. All contributing parties, in particular the decision makers, should rethink these issues, in particular the following:

  • People only really learn if the learning comes from their own self-motivation. This point is not sufficiently recognised in the field. Professionals as well as most other stakeholders still tend to talk about the learners instead of talking with them.
  • Despite the abundance of evidence that adult learning leads to all kinds of positive effects at societal, enterprise and individual levels, this is not leading to increased investment by policy makers and decision makers in adult learning.
  • Learners and future learners often occupy a relatively weak, subordinate position in LLL. Learners are too often approached from a kind of deficit-model as opposed to a talent model.
  • People are met with limited – sometimes even a lack of – professionalism among those who facilitate the adult learning processes. It is important to recognise that learning new behaviour in adulthood always requires experimentation drama and even some pain.

Towards a climate and professionality of cooperation in learning

In 2003 the Education Council of the Netherlands deemed stimulation of demand for learning at least as important as strengthening the education offered. However, in the following years LLL in the Netherlands received no significant stimulus, and there was no lasting impact. By 2009 the Council no longer supported its earlier standpoint with regard to secondary and higher education for adults. However, the Education Council does specify four necessary central functions of LLL: 1) reparation; 2) career change; 3) keeping up with the times and progress in society; 4) sociocultural and personal function. The unusual thing about these central functions is that they, on the one hand, are indeed obvious, but, on the other hand, are not derived from learners’ demand.

LLL is pre-eminently a human activity. However, in the Netherlands, ‘the human element has been more or less eliminated by the regulations’, particularly in the formal educational institutions, as well as in the non-formal private organisations that offer regulated qualifying training and development. In the Netherlands, the socially interpreted conviction holds that adult education (with a purpose) can in a conditional sense best be managed and regulated with money, through accessible (non-) formal education. But LLL for all does not start with funding at macro level, then subsequently sweep down to adult learners in a funding cascade. Adult learners are repeatedly inundated with questions, as no careful connection is laid with their environment and their basic needs. At the same time, they have more or less disappeared as the party requesting learning and do not take centre stage in the process.

The idea is that LLL for all is a possibility in an open, liberal-humanistic and dynamic society like the Netherlands. In some respects, it is true that everyone has relatively equal access to education for work and citizenship. In such a society, interested and responsible adults must take centre stage in LLL. They must desire, and indeed would do well to invest in, their own development. To that end, certified and therefore well-educated professionals must not only offer genuine, demand-based quality, but also ensure a good didactic approach and proper facilitation. At the macro level, government authorities and administrative middle management must withdraw: both to prevent further bureaucratisation and to combat obstructive interdependence between levels. The entire field of work belongs to learners in particular and, in addition, to the professionals who want to and are able to facilitate this from either a formal or non-formal position. The question is whether the government authorities are/must be responsible for the four above mentioned functions of LLL formulated by the Education Council. Furthermore, the question is how they must interpret this responsibility.

In this respect, Dutch stakeholders – policy makers, professionals and researchers – (maybe through EPALE) face the challenge of contributing to initiatives, policy and actions that facilitate developments in the direction of a non-restrictive, innovative learning climate which, in particular, includes the various parties and are facilitated by the adult learning professionals together with the adult learners. Bridging the separate worlds means that the involved and interested parties need to go through a learning process themselves to change the Dutch dominating, directive and restrictive ‘culture of educating’ in an innovating (lifelong) learning climate that facilitates adult learning for all in academic, creative or socialisation environments all at the same time. This learning climate is based on the following cooperation learning necessities:

  • The different stakeholders should learn to focus together on creating rich, flexible, reflective, and stimulating learning environments in different settings closely connected to work, recreation, schools, etc.
  • The governments and employers should learn and take into account common knowledge and understanding of the learning motives and learning needs of individual learners when planning their policies and interventions.
  • The professionals and researchers in the field of adult learning should learn to cooperate and share experiences. In a highly fragmented, de-institutionalised field, cooperation of learning in adult learning practice should be facilitated.

Assistant Professor Dr. Theo van Dellen, University of Groningen, The Netherlands


Dr. T. (Theo) van Dellen is assistant professor in the department of Pedagogy and Educational Sciences at the Univerisity of Groningen. He is responsible for the topic “Transformative (lifelong) learning in workplaces” within the Lifelong learning program. Theo strives for an integral, interdisciplinary approach of developing theory and practice which supports adult learning processes for work through subjectivity, identity construction and transformation. The outcome in terms of theory may serve to understand the affective, cognitive and social characteristics of spaces which promote learning for work. His engagement with the complex and messy realities around workplaces is supported by humanistic and positive psychology. In addition, he calls himself to be a sceptic empiricist.