Samia Wadie Hannah began her working life at the age of five helping her father collect garbage in the streets of Cairo. She never went to school and remained unable to read until she enrolled in an adult literacy class run by the priest of her local Coptic church. Later she gained a primary school diploma by correspondence. She now works as a supervisor for an environmental association in Cairo.
A few years ago an immigrant from a Pacific rim nation came to Houston, Texas with almost no English and little understanding of American culture. He enrolled at San Jacinto College, a two-year community college where he learned the basics of English and acquired an understanding of life in the United States. He went on to take a series of degrees, culminating in a Ph D from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is now a successful scientist.
Kerstin Herz-Habbert grew up in Montabaur, Germany, where her father was a heating mechanic. After leaving school she did an internship with a newspaper hoping to become a journalist. Failing to find a journalistic job, she trained as an office assistant in a public relations firm, where she was very unhappy. At the age of twenty-three she decided to go to university. Supported by her parents, various grants and a part-time job in the Post Office, she completed six years at the Universities of Heidelberg and Hamburg and emerged with an MA in German literature, sociology and pedagogy. She now plans to study for a doctorate in literature.
These three people experienced a profound change in their lives because of the educational opportunities offered to them as adults. Millions of people all over the world are at this moment engaged in some form of education, but millions more are denied that opportunity. Huge reserves of human potential remain locked away, unrealized. A new global effort is needed if this potential is to be released.
Against this backdrop, over 1,500 delegates from all over the world are gathering for UNESCO's Fifth International Conference on Adult Education (COFINTEA), which is being held from 14 to 18 July in Hamburg, Germany (see box). The conference will address a wide range of adult education issues, including the following.
WORK AND EMPLOYMENT
The world of work is changing rapidly and dramatically. Technology is developing at ever-increasing speed, industry is continually seeking greater efficiency, global competition is intensifying, and secure jobs are becoming a rarity. The British sociologist Charles Handy believes that in a few years time firms in some industrialized countries will be cutting their work force by half, paying staff twice as much and obtaining three times the productivity. Wholesale closures of departments and factories will continue, and more and more work will be contracted out to small, specialized companies. All of this will demand new solidarity as well as sound and flexible policies, so that adults can continue to develop their competence throughout their lives.
It is in this context that continuing education and training programmes are becoming so important at the work place. In 1990 the Rover group in Britain launched a massive educational programme costing [pounds]35 million pounds a year, offering employees not only job-related training but also grants to study whatever subject they wished, from poetry to guitar-playing. The outcome was that annual revenue per employee went up from [pounds]31,000 in 1989 to [pounds]122,000 in 1994-the result of a more motivated, flexible and creative work force.
Approximately one billion adults worldwide are unable to read and write. A recent survey revealed that even some of the world's richest nations have a high percentage of adults whose literacy is below the level of a primary school leaver: approximately 20 per cent in the United States, 16 per cent in Canada, 15 per cent in Germany and 10 per cent in the Netherlands. …