Initiative for Adult Education, Austria

  • Date published:
    4 May 2016

Programme Overview

Programme Title Initiative for Adult Education
Implementing Organization Federal Ministry of Education and Women’s Affairs in cooperation with Austrian federal states.
Language of Instruction Mainly German, though English and other languages are used at lower secondary level, and in basic-skills literacy training.
Funding Federal Ministry of Education and Women’s Affairs, Austrian federal states and the European Social Fund (ESF).
Programme Partners Austrian adult education institutions which offer accredited learning in the two programme areas.
Annual Programme Costs €25,000,000
Date of Inception 2012

Country Context

Austria is a predominantly mountainous, land-locked country in the heart of Europe. A European Union member state, it is divided into nine federal states, which enjoy autonomy from the capital, Vienna, in certain matters, including educational issues. Austria is the twelfth richest country in the world and spends 5.6 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product on education. The country has a long history of formal schooling, dating back to the eighteenth century when mandatory primary school education was introduced for boys and girls aged between 6 and 12 years.

As a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Austria has a long-established system of universal primary and secondary education. It is one of seventy-eight countries likely to achieve at least 70 per cent pre-primary enrolment by 2015. Nevertheless, while Austria performs better than most OECD countries in numeracy, it is falling behind other developed countries when it comes to average literacy proficiency among adults (OECD, 2013). Austria is significantly below average in mean literacy proficiency scores for adults aged between 16 and 65, and also scores poorly in literacy proficiency levels for 16 to 24 year-olds.

The Implementing Organization

The Initiative for Adult Education arose from cooperation between the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education and Women’s Affairs and the nine Austrian federal states. Central to the programme’s work is the provision of subsidies for external programmes which fit its quality requirements. In this regard, the initiative acts as an umbrella organisation for national education institutions. Its objective is to enable adults who lack basic skills or who never graduated from lower secondary school to continue and complete their education. The project has two core characteristics. First, it requires the implementation of consistent quality guidelines for courses in all parts of Austria. Second, all courses are free of charge as a result of national funding. Since the beginning of 2015, the programme has been co-financed by the European Social Fund (ESF).

The initiative was set up in response to the significant number of low-skilled people in Austria. Although the level of qualifications has been rising gradually over the last decades, the results of the PIAAC survey of adult skills indicate that more than 17 per cent of adult citizens – nearly one million people – have poor literacy skills. Further studies show that there are nearly 250,000 people in Austria whose skills in reading, writing, calculation and the use of ICTs are not sufficient for their employment or their participation in everyday life. According to an OECD analysis of school dropout, every year some 3,700 Austrian teenagers (nearly 4 per cent) finish their compulsory education without acquiring sufficient competencies and qualifications. It is estimated that the target group for second-chance education at lower secondary level amounts to 220,000 people. This number include people who speak German as their first language as well as those for whom it is a second language.

Programme Overview

The Initiative for Adult Education was established on behalf of the government between2008 and 2013 after nearly three years of negotiations and concept development. Representatives of the ministry and the nine Austrian federal states participated in the process, alongside adult education experts. They reached official agreement with regard to funding, project objectives, quality standards, structure and procedures in 2011. The first programme period ran from January 2012 to December 2014. The second, from 2015 to 2017, has been strengthened by the support of the ESF.

Development of the Austrian Initiative for Adult Education

In terms of content, the Initiative for Adult Education comprises two main programme areas:

Basic skills courses

The basic skills area of the programme targets people who have not had the opportunity to gain these skills, irrespective of language, birth or social status. The main quality guidelines for this programme area refer to the individualization of courses and adaptation to the needs of adults. The Initiative for Adult Education has developed a guiding framework for adults' basic skills training, the first of its kind in Austria.

The initiative offers financial support to basic skills projects which fit certain criteria. Critically, projects must strengthen:

  • Literacy competences in German in terms of reading, writing and speaking.
  • Fundamental skills in other languages.
  • Ability to calculate.
  • Use of ICTs.
  • Learning competences such as ‘autonomous learning’ or ‘learning to learn’.

The following two examples of funded basic skills programmes illustrate the focus of the initiative.

1. Volkshochschule (VHS) Tirol (Adult Education Centre, Tyrol): Basisbildung (Basic Skills Programme)

This politically independent centre was established shortly after World War II in 1945 and is devoted to human rights implementation and democracy through adult education. It strives to provide educational opportunities for learners, irrespective of age, origin, gender or social circumstances. In order to achieve this aim, the offer is continuously adjusted to meet the demands and needs of target groups. The curriculum of the Basic Skills Programme is, therefore, intended to reflect the day-to-day lives of learners and strives to increase the chances of learners to fully participate in everyday life.

The course is competence-oriented and comprises three levels of reading, writing and numeracy. Learners are assigned to the appropriate course based on their prior knowledge, which is evaluated by interview.

  1. The first level of the course aims to equip beginning students with basic competences such as how to write and spell their own name, read short phonemic words and work with money.
  2. The second level is directed towards learners with limited prior language knowledge. Course participants learn to read and understand the content of short texts and to write them down. They also learn how to read and use maps and to make calculations associated with the everyday-life situations.
  3. The third level is designed for people who can already read in a comprehensive manner and are able to write texts, but who still have difficulties with the grammar and orthography of the German language. Participants learn to overcome these obstacles. Working life skills, such as writing progress reports or calculating driving and working times, are also taught at this level.

Generally, each course group consists of six learners, which gives trainers large scope for action in responding to the specific demands of participants.

The material used in the classes is diverse and depends very much on the course level. Learners are encouraged to use computers for writing texts, to memorize new words through word indexes or to listen to podcasts (such as those produced by the Austrian cultural radio station, Ö1) in order to strengthen language comprehension. Furthermore, participants learn to read short newspaper articles and to talk about the content. Learning through language games such as Scrabble (for reading and spelling) and Tangram (for calculating) is also emphasized in the courses.

The trainers meet two times a week to exchange ideas and to share impressions with colleagues. Exchange is further organized via the online platform Moodle.

Programme sustainability is financially guaranteed until 2017. Basic skills courses at VHS Tirol were also fully funded by the Initiative for Adult Education during their first cycle (2012–2014). Continuous monitoring and evaluation is provided in accordance with the requirements of the funding institution.

2. ISOP – Innovative Social Projects (Styria): Basisbildung für Erwachsene (Basic Skills Programme for Adults)

This politically independent non-profit organization was founded in 1987. It works to enhance labour market conditions as well as societal conditions for marginalized groups in Austria. ISOP operates mainly in the federal state of Styria, located in the south-eastern part of Austria. Because of its location, Styria is traditionally a focal point for migrants from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Consequently, one of ISOP’s main aims is to work towards equal opportunities through a human rights based approach for refugees, migrants and (long-time) unemployed people. The organization follows competence-oriented principles and offers basic skills courses among various other courses in the field of education, culture, social work and labour market preparation. In the field of education, the organisation provides a huge variety of training and programmes, ranging from early linguistic support to courses aimed at strengthening intercultural education in kindergartens and schools.

Basic skills education operates between the poles of individual standards of knowledge, on the one hand, and society’s demands and challenges, on the other. This is also the approach the programme is pursuing. It offers personalized support for learners and works on a personal, labour market- and job-oriented basis. It is free of charge to adults who want to refresh or improve their knowledge and competences in the fields of reading, writing, mathematics, and computer know-how. Lessons focus on participants' objectives; learning contents, as well as study speed, are defined in conjunction with the participant and are adjusted to the individual needs of each student.

Each participant is encouraged to have a private consultation with a trainer prior to the start of the basic skills course. During that meeting, the participant’s learning status and needs are evaluated. Afterwards, participants are integrated into a learning group of six people, at most, and individually work on achieving their objectives.

The course takes place twice a week and lasts two and half hours. Participants can enter and leave the course whenever they want to, depending on the achievement of their learning needs. Participants can stay on the course from three months up to twelve.

Course content is tailored to enhance each participant’s everyday life and focuses on the four areas of basic skills: reading, writing, mathematics, and computer knowledge. In the area of reading, this includes working with recipes, newspapers, emails, books, etc. In the field of writing, the focus is on everyday usability, e.g. drafting a job application, handling forms, formulating notes or writing shopping lists. German orthography and grammar is also taught. In the area of calculating and numeracy, the four basic arithmetical operations are studied. Course participants are also taught techniques to increase their mental calculation abilities. The basic skills course’s fourth focus is on strengthening ICT skills. This, for example, includes learning how to handle a cash register or a ticket machine. Participants also learn how to work with Word and Excel.

Lower secondary education

The lower-secondary programme area targets people who have not completed this level of education. The curriculum focuses especially on compulsory education for adults. A pre-programme interview, training in various subjects, and counselling on the transition into work or further education, are all important parts of this programme.

The curriculum covers the following subjects:

  • German (emphasis on communication and society).
  • English (emphasis on globalization and Interculturality).
  • Mathematics.
  • Occupational orientation.
  • Two compulsory modules of the following:
    • Creativity and design
    • Health and social issues
    • A third language
    • Nature and technology.

Aims and Objectives

The overall aims of the Initiative for Adult Education are:

  • To guarantee access to advanced training in the areas of basic skills and lower secondary education,
  • To offer comprehensive and regionally balanced education programmes.
  • To ensure the provision of high-quality education adapted to fit the needs of the respective target groups.
  • To align educational offers in terms of lifelong learning opportunities and subsequent trainings.
  • To work towards social equality.

Quality Criteria for Funding

Austrian institutions that wish to take part in the initiative have to apply for accreditation and provide evidence on the following three quality criteria: (1) they must fulfil the general requirements of an educational establishment; (2) they must submit an appropriate conceptual overview of their programme; and (3) they must prove that their trainers and counsellors are qualified, in accordance with the initiative’s guidelines. Quality criteria include the elaboration of a competence-oriented pedagogical approach, tailored to the specific needs of the target group. In addition, providers are encouraged to offer professional counselling, coaching and guidance throughout the course. Further programme cost structures have to be disclosed and explained comprehensively by the provider.

Management and Funding Process

An accreditation group, comprising six adult education experts, surveys the applications to assess the degree to which they meet the initiative’s quality guidelines. In the case of successful accreditation, the institution can then apply for funding. Approval depends on the balance between the various courses in the different programme areas, and the different target groups in the particular region. Approval is granted if the guidelines are met and the programme fits the needs of participants in the region.

The Accreditation process from the perspective of a potential programme provider

Institutions taking part in the initiative's programme commit themselves to continuous monitoring and evaluation. A monitoring board supervises the process and the results. In this way, the initiative expects to gain further knowledge about the specific problems and possibilities of adult education.

The initiative’s Vienna office serves as a communication platform and supports the partner organizations. A steering committee consisting of state and ministry representatives, as well as social partners, supervise the project’s strategy and design.

Evaluation and Monitoring

Institutions taking part in the initiative's programme commit themselves to continuous monitoring and evaluation. A monitoring board supervises the process, as well as the results, which are published regularly in monitoring reports.

Following the initiative’s first programme cycle, the Institute for Labour Market Supervision and Research in Styria (Institut für Arbeitsmarktbetreuung und Arbeitsmarktforschung) conducted an evaluation of the programme and its projects according to seven main themes:

  • The achievement of objectives in terms of the programme structure and content.
  • The impact of acquisition strategies and network-building among the target groups.
  • The achievement of nationwide educational quality standards and curricular goals.
  • The impressions of programme participants.
  • The cost-benefit calculation of selected programmes in terms of content, concept and target groups.
  • The impacts of the programme’s quality requirements on the working life of professional staff.
  • The positive impact of the supported programme on Austrian adult education.

Accompanying research has been carried out using various methodologies. Qualitative expert interviews with programme specialists have been conducted and formed the basis for further evaluation. Subsequently, online surveys of programme trainers and consultants and explorative interviews with course leaders were carried out. Additionally, interviews with former course participants were gathered. The intention of these interviews was to analyse projects in terms of their approach, intensity and duration, and to assess the provision of social consulting and coaching.

Impact and Challenges

Analysis of participant evaluation showed an overwhelmingly positive picture. On a five-grade scale (with 1 being very good and 5 being unsatisfactory), 83 per cent of former course participants assessed their course as ‘very good’. The majority of participants reported feeling more self-confident and motivated to further their education.

Education providers were generally satisfied with the first cycle of the initiative. They highlighted the great variety of course design, both in basic skills and secondary education. The cooperation and networking possibilities created by the programme were also valued by providers.

According to the monitoring report, 22,905 participants took part in the two programme areas during the first cycle, exceeding the initiative’s expectations. In the basic-skills programme area, 70 per cent of participants were migrants and 64 per cent were women. This might be due to the fact that some courses target only women, e.g. Mama lernt Deutsch (Mommy learns German) or Frauen College (Women’s College). In the lower-secondary programme area, 60 per cent of participants were migrants and 43 per cent were women.

Lessons Learned

Retention of course participants is one of the initiative’s main concerns. According to the monitoring report for the first cycle, 17.4 per cent of participants did not finish the basic skills course. In terms of lower secondary education completion, 15.9 per cent left the programme early. To reduce these numbers, the monitoring council proposes to make greater use of recent PIAAC findings in order to better differentiate the target groups.

Nevertheless, the Initiative for Adult Education is perceived by the majority of those people as strongly enriching the Austrian educational landscape, especially in terms of providing greater educational access to marginalized and disadvantaged adults


The second cycle of the Initiative for Adult Education began in early 2015. It has taken into account the insights gained from the evaluation of the first cycle. In terms of financial sustainability, programme providers can now make use of resources provided by the European Social Fund (ESF), in addition to resources from central government and its nine federal states. As of July 2015, more than 100 learning offers had already been approved for the 2015–2017programme.


Website for Volkshochschule Tirol: www.vhs-tirol.at.

Website for ISOP - Innovative Social Projects: www.isop.at.


Mag. Maria Groß

Head of Office
Universitätsstraße 5, 1010
Telefon: +43 1 523 87 65 - 614
Fax: +43 1 523 87 65 - 20

Last update: 4 December 2015

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.). Last update: 24 July 2017. Initiative for Adult Education, Austria. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 23 September 2021, 23:10 CEST)

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