Challenges: The impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in Austria
The COVID-19 crisis has been the definite challenge of the last year. It has brought many providers closer to bankruptcy. It has also revealed that digital learning and access to adult education is less accessible for people who are socially and geographically disadvantaged.
ARGE reported that all of their organisations had to close and re-design their courses to accommodate online learning and new forms of face to face education. While ARGE did relatively well in the pandemic, many of its member organisations are close to bankruptcy, had to stop their activities and fire some of their staff. Corona has been a massive challenge for so-called "Bildungshäuser", who are living from the pedagogical concept of "learning and living under one roof". EAEA’s member reports that most people in the sector are not enthusiastic about digital learning provision. Another major challenge is that less advantaged parts of the population, such as migrants and people in rural locations continue to have limited access to digital tools.
More investment is needed on the digital infrastructure
Corona has revealed that organisations financed by a mix of public funds and participant fees are particularly vulnerable and, in some cases, in danger of bankruptcy. The crisis brought an enormous digitalisation push, which was well received by the public. The scepticism against digitally enhanced education quickly gave way, and more training opportunities for instructors were introduced. At the same time online education led to exclusion and widened the digital divide, which is essentially a social one that discriminates based on social and geographical disadvantages.
It is therefore an urgent task to expand broadband Internet throughout Austria and make it accessible to all households and educational institutions in all regions. Affordable internet and an exemption from internet fees would be a worthwhile consideration, analogous to the exemption from broadcasting fees. Finally, access to inexpensive electronic devices must also be ensured. In order to fulfill the educational policy mandate of providing affordable education for all, ongoing costs must be minimized. This also includes the costs for software licenses. In a COVID-19 driven initiative, the costs for some of these expenditures (free access to Office and an online education platform) were covered by the Ministry of Education. The civil society sector hopes that in the future more investments will be allocated to open learning materials to widen the access even further.
Access and inclusion as focus areas
The corona crisis has not only shown the digital divide but also highlighted how many people are excluded from adult learning in the first place. At a moment in time, when democratic institutions in Austria are questioned, life-long and life-wide adult education is as crucial as ever. Therefore, one of the main challenges for VÖV for the next year will be widening access and inclusion in adult learning. For the next year the focus of VÖV will be on financing adult learning, supporting older learners and investing in inclusion practices. Furthermore, they seek to promote learning for democracy and social cohesion. The focus at ARGE will be to widen citizen participation in the region and support the existing facilities financially and with personnel. Overall, adult education in Austria can still be strengthened and should receive more recognition across society.