Adult lifetime skills: a literature review

A literature review on adult lifetime skills.

What can Scotland learn from the approach to work-based learning or upskilling and retraining elsewhere?

Key points

  • Individual learning accounts, career guidance and digital learning were highlighted as areas in which some other countries do well. The evidence on micro-credentials is still emerging and tends to be more mixed.
  • The international literature also provides some general lessons for lifetime skills, work-based learning, upskilling and retraining. These include: the importance of awareness raising and accessible opportunities; the need for stakeholder engagement and for government, employers, training providers and stakeholders to work in partnership; the importance of overcoming barriers to learning; and the need to ensure quality training provision.
  • Specific examples of workplace training are provided for the following countries: Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Estonia and New Zealand. However, the country search did not find any evaluations that provide robust evidence of impact or what works combined with a clear analysis of why.


This section explores what Scotland can learn from the approach to work-based learning, upskilling and retraining from elsewhere, in an international context. It starts by looking at some best practice and general lessons from the international literature before moving on to focus on five case studies: Singapore, Denmark, Estonia, New Zealand and Finland.

The case studies were chosen as they emerged as potential countries of interest during the literature search and were identified by policy colleagues as being important to include.

Best practice

The international literature tends to provide examples in the following areas when exploring 'best practice': individual learning accounts, career guidance, digital learning, and micro-credentials.

The OECD (2019) report the findings from a literature review and case studies that review Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) in OECD countries. The report takes a wide approach, looking at Individual Learning Accounts (virtual, individual accounts in which training rights are accumulated over time); Individual Savings Accounts (real physical accounts in which individuals accumulate resources over time for the purpose of training); and vouchers (which provide individuals with direct subsidies for training purposes, often with co-financing from the individual). They find that Individual Learning Schemes present attractive features including boosting individual's choice and responsibility towards training and increasing competition among training providers and thus the quality and relevance of training provision. Their ability to make training rights 'portable' from one job to another is also seen as an attractive feature. Some of the key lessons emerging from the review are:

  • targeting individual learning schemes can be beneficial;
  • individual learning schemes should be kept simple in order to maximise participation;
  • individual learning schemes need to be accompanied by other measures to boost participation among under-represented groups; and
  • training quality should be guaranteed, the main instrument for this is the certification of training providers.

In their evidence review, Hughes et al (2019), note that Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) provide individuals with the resources they can use to take up further training at their own initiative. They state that by linking training rights to individuals rather than specific jobs, ILAs can be used throughout an individual's career. However, the authors found no research evidence of impact within their review.

Hughes et al (2019) also find that career guidance and career learning, particularly those that encourage self reflection, show emerging promise in the development of career adaptability skills. However, they found a lack of evidence as to what works to motivate learners to develop digital career adaptability skills.

The benefits of digital learning are also discussed by Rickard and Brown (2021) in their literature review. They note that good quality digital learning can be just as effective as traditional in-person / classroom learning, with the majority of studies in their review finding little or no significant difference in the learning outcomes achieved. They identify the following success factors linked to digital learning:

(1) the design of online learning programmes (for example, providing an easy to use digital platform);

(2) the level and nature of support provided within online programmes (for example, peer support, senior management support); and

(3) actions linked to boosting learner engagement (such as promoting the benefits of online learning, establishing achievable goals and personalising content).

One way in which digital learning can be encouraged is through micro-credentials, with the OECD (2021) noting that digital learning platforms are becoming increasingly important for the delivery of micro-credential programmes and that the COVID-19 pandemic has further strengthened their position.

Micro-credentials are an emerging area in the literature, with Desmarchelier and Cary (2022) noting that it is still "early days". They are seen as a way of meeting upskilling requirements for individuals looking to advance their career as well as to provide a skilled workforce to rapidly changing industries in an ever changing world of work. Oliver (2022) notes that acceptance and recognition of micro-credentials by employers is hampered because there is no universally recognised definition that clearly communicates to learners and employers what micro-credentials are. Following a consultation with 47 experts worldwide, they propose a definition of micro-credentials, that is:

"a micro-credential is a record of focused learning achievement verifying what the learner knows, understands or can do; includes assessment based on clearly defined standards and is awarded by a trusted provider; has standalone value and may also contribute or complement other micro-credentials or macro-credentials, including through recognition of prior learning; meeting the standards required by relevant quality assurance" (Oliver, 2022).

Micro-credentials, then, indicate smaller units of study, which are usually shorter than traditional forms of accredited learning and courses which lead to conventional qualifications such as degrees (Brown et al, 2021).

In their review of the international literature, Brown et al (2021) conclude that micro-credentials are likely to become more established over the next five years. They note that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) conducted three micro-credential pilots in July 2017 to July 2018. As a result of the pilots, the NZQA has now released a micro-credential system that aligns with their National Qualification Framework. The New Zealand Tertiary Education Committee also introduced a public funding system for micro-credentials which means that New Zealand Higher Education institutions are eligible to apply for the funding that will help them deliver micro-credential programmes.

From an Australian perspective, Desmarchelier and Cary (2022) examine the literature on the potential of micro-credentials. They state that micro-credentials should be assessed, quality assured, transferable and provide an understandable credit.

In their literature review of micro-credential innovations in higher education, the OECD (2021) explore evidence on the economic impact of accumulating micro-credentials over time. While they note that the evidence is limited, they find some evidence from North America which suggests that accumulating short-term credentials improves learners' labour market performance. They cite evidence from the United States, which shows that individuals who obtained multiple credentials within the same field of study between 2000 and 2019 are four percentage points more likely to be employed and earn USD 570 more in quarterly wages than those who only completed one credential during the same period. The OECD (2021) also find that learners who take part in micro-credential programmes provided by higher education institutions tend to be more educated, more skilled and have greater levels of financial and social support from employers.

One final journal article worthy of note in regards to micro-credentials is a literature review by Moodie and Wheelahan (2022). They are critical of micro-credentials and find that, from the little evidence available, that micro-credentials have only weak employment outcomes. They cite evidence from the USA which found "only weak positive and inconsistent gains" from micro-credentials. Completing a certificate of up to a year's duration increased graduates' chances of being employed, but not their median salary compared with non-completers. They cite a further study which finds that micro-credentials impacts on labour market outcomes are considerably smaller than the impacts of other factors such as past work experience. It seems, then, that there is mixed evidence on micro-credentials in the literature.

Lessons learned

The international literature also provides some general lessons for lifetime skills, work-based learning, upskilling and retraining. While it is hoped that some will be transferable in a Scottish context, it is worth noting that any international comparisons are weakened by the different contexts and cultures in which policy development takes place (for example, different skills system, different populations and so on). As noted by the Scottish Government (2019), a "one size fits all option may not exist" and as the OECD (2020) state, "there is no magic bullet".

Despite these caveats, there are some general lessons from the literature outside of Scotland. These include: awareness raising and accessible opportunities; stakeholder engagement and working in partnership; overcoming barriers to learning; and quality of training provision.

Awareness raising and accessible opportunities

Pennacchia et al (2018) conducted 37 in-depth interviews with learners and non-learners. They conclude that learning as an adult is predominately a voluntary activity and that opportunities need to be visible and accessible, and accompanied by good quality information (Pennacchia et al, 2018). Hughes et al (2019) reiterate such findings, with their evidence review highlighting the importance of raising awareness and promoting the benefits of training.

In a study of data sources across 37 European countries, the European Commission / Eurydice (2021) find that although public initiatives and campaigns for raising awareness of adult learning opportunities are widespread across Europe, increased efforts may be needed to reach out to adults with low skills and qualifications.

Stakeholder engagement and working in partnership

A number of articles suggest that lifelong learning should be implemented in partnership and systematically across government, beyond the responsibility of education departments, with strong co-ordination needed to support learners (for example Pember et al, 2021; OECD, 2021).

The OECD (2020) similarly find that stakeholder involvement is crucial in both the development of adult learning policies and in their implementation. Through an evidence review and 58 expert interviews with government stakeholders, social partners, adult education providers, non-government organisations, academics and other relevant stakeholders, the OECD (2020) also find that reforms to increase adults' participation in learning "do not have to come with a high price tag". They cite education and training reforms estimated to cost from around EUR 200 to EUR 2,500 per participant. They also promote the importance of monitoring and evaluation to achieve a programme's objectives. OECD (2020) conclude that " to enable more adults to reap the benefits of participating in learning activities, policy-makers must not only focus on participation rates, but also on training quality, participants' subsequent labour market outcomes, and the alignment of programmes with individual and labour market needs".

Cedefop (2020) conducted a literature review and stakeholder consultations with policy representatives from across the EU. Again, they highlight the importance of stakeholder involvement when developing upskilling and retraining pathways, providing examples at decision-making, support and implementation levels. At the decision-making level this includes a shared vision, grounded in political commitment and characterised by strategically allocated and / or earmarked funding. At the support level, this includes the integration of appropriate strategies to reach out, motivate, engage and support particularly low-skilled adults to navigate upskilling pathways and opportunities. At the implementation level, this includes flexible, adaptable and tailored pathways building on prior learning, tailored learning and training opportunities, and stakeholder engagement, co-operation and trust.

Overcoming barriers to learning

A further lesson in the literature is the importance of addressing barriers to learning. In their evidence review, Hughes et al (2019) recommend that countries incentivise or fund training for workers employed in non-traditional forms of work who are more likely to face barriers to learning (for example, on casual contracts, fixed term contracts and the self employed).

In their study of adult learning systems, the OECD (2019) find that the coverage and inclusiveness of adult learning must be improved by helping adults to make informed choices, tackling barriers to participation and encouraging employers to offer training.

Similarly, flexibilty in training provision is seen to be important to help overcome barriers to participating in adult education and training (European Commission / Eurydice, 2021).

Quality of training provision

The OECD (2019) recommend that training content should be strongly aligned with the skills needs of the labour market, as well as assuring quality of training by using only high quality training providers. The OECD (2021) reiterate the importance of quality training provision to ensure successful outcomes for participants.

Further lessons in the international literature

Andriescu et al (2019) review 28 country reports about adult learning policy and provision as well as issuing a questionnaire to "country experts". They find that the main types of adult education and training programmes across the EU are measures aimed at:

(1) helping adults achieve a recognised qualification;

(2) helping adults develop other knowledge and skills, not for vocational purposes;

(3) facilitating transition to the labour market for the unemployed;

(4) opening up Higher Education to adults; and

(5) enabling adult employees to develop their work-related skills.

For work-related skills, the country reports highlight work-related skills training measures that are funded by public institutions as well as employers and other private organisations.

One specific example from the international literature is Sweden where a large proportion of adults across all age groups are involved in formal and non-formal lifelong learning activities. In a Swedish data review for the European Commission, Andersson (2018) show that a key strength of the Swedish adult education system is that it has a long tradition and wide range of learning opportunities available to adults. Another strength is the level of state grants provided, including for non-formal learning activities, with a large proportion of participants in non-formal courses above 65 years of age. There is a Swedish Strategy for Lifelong Learning, which focuses on the right of everyone to a good education. Quality, accessibility and co-ordination are keywords in the strategy. Pember et al (2021) conducted an evidence review and consultation with stakeholders and policy leads and reiterate the strengths of the Swedish system. They show that Sweden uses a key statement to create a shared understanding across all government departments and find that this is a useful model as it facilitates implementation and can act as a function as the basis for further lifelong learning developments, including more government departments becoming involved in the programme.

Case studies

Case studies tend to have little by the way of an independent evidence base around a programme's effectiveness. There are very few programme evaluations that provide robust evidence on what works combined with a clear analysis of why. With these caveats in mind, this chapter concludes by exploring relevant workplace training programme examples from five case study countries: Singapore, Denmark, Finland, Estonia and New Zealand. The key points from each case study are presented here, with further information available at Annex B.


The government of Singapore offer the SkillsFuture initiative, which aims to provide a variety of opportunities for all individuals to train, learn and develop at different stages of their lives.

One programme introduced in 2015 and administered as part of the SkillsFuture initiative is the SkillsFuture Credit (SFC). This provides every Singapore Citizen aged 25 and above, regardless of their employment status, with an opening credit of S$500 (£274) to access lifelong learning opportunities and advance their skills in an autonomous and flexible manner. Singapore Citizens aged 40 to 60 (inclusive) can also use the Additional SkillsFuture Credit (Mid-career support) of S$500 (SSG | SkillsFuture Credit).

Lessons learned from Singapore's SkillsFuture Credit Scheme include that creating a culture of adult learning requires significant investment, the identification of training needs with government support, and subsidy (Webb et al, 2018).

Very little evidence was found on the effectiveness of the SkillsFuture programme, with the OECD (2020) noting that the reforms should be evaluated within their broader policy context.


In their review of adult learning systems, the OECD (2019) note that Denmark has a well-financed adult learning system that is inclusive, flexible and aligned with labour market need. In their data review of adult education and adult skills in Denmark, Rasmussen (2018) find that the strengths of the Danish system are: (1) vocational education through the AMU courses has strong links to social partners; (2) the adult education and learning system is versatile and offers relevant types of education and learning for different purposes and different groups; and, as such, (3) there are high levels of participation in adult education.

Again, no evidence was found on the impact of labour market training courses in Denmark.


Two Finnish skills programmes worthy of note are the NOSTE programme and the Finnish Workplace Development Programme (FWDP).

The NOSTE programme is a Finnish basic skills training programme for adults, implemented by the Ministry of Education and Culture between 2003 and 2009. It aimed to raise the educational attainment of adults without secondary education who were already in the labour market. An important project feature was to link education to the work environment. Participation was free of charge apart from examination fees and the total budget was EUR 124.5 million. The programme was delivered in the form of 59 regional projects provided by a network of various education institutions including vocational adult centres, schools and job centres. While the NOSTE programme was found to improve self esteem and work motivation, there was no evidence that it improved labour market outcomes (for example, higher wages or new positions) (OECD, 2020).

The Finnish Workplace Development Programme (FWDP) was launched in 1996 and ran until 2009. It was a government-funded programme that aimed to improve productivity and the quality of working life in Finnish workplaces. Its focus was on innovation and the use of skills in the workplace. It used an application based system to fund the use of external experts in workplace development projects (Payne, 2004). Evaluations of the programme are limited, with Payne (2004) arguing that there is very little evidence available to answer the question as to how effective the programme has been in delivering "the better job".


The Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy has been cited by the OECD and others as an example of a comprehensive strategy that is used to set priorities, guide funding decisions and faciliate collaborative working to deliver lifelong learning (OECD, 2020; Andriescu et al, 2019).

To implement the Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy, the Ministry of Education and Research has adopted nine programmes, including the Adult Education Programme 2017 to 2029. The main goal of which is to motivate adults to learn and to create flexible and high quality learning opportunities that are based on the needs and developments of the labour market (Haaristo, 2018). However, evidence on the outcomes or impact of the Estonian Adult Learning Programme was not found during the literature search.

New Zealand

The New Zealand Workplace Literacy and Numeracy Fund supports the provision of literacy and numeracy programmes for employees to increase their literacy and numeracy skills and contribute to workplace productivity (TEO-led Workplace Literacy and Numeracy Fund | Tertiary Education Commission ( Gray and Sutton (2007) conducted interviews with a sample of employers and providers that applied to the Fund in 2006. Employers and providers identified the following factors for a programme to be successful: making the programme a priority; quality teaching by a tutor who "fits" the company; programmes that meet employer needs; and good employer-provider relationships. However, as noted by Guy and Harvey (2013), there is a lack of evidence on the outcomes of Fund delivery.

New Zealand has also been "one of the front-runners in national policy making around micro-credentials" (OECD, 2021). The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) created a quality assurance system for micro-credentials in 2018, defining them in specific regulations and quality standards. The New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission started providing funding to higher education providers for the development and delivery of micro-credential programmes in 2019. Providers of micro-credentials must demonstrate that their programmes do no duplicate existing higher education programmes and address unmet skills needs. The providers are also required to prove their capacity to deliver quality education. In their 2021 report, the OECD state that there are currently about 150 NZQA-approved micro-credential programmes offered by higher education institutions and other training providers. However, OECD (2021) does not report on any evaluations of the programmes and as such programme outcomes are not apparent.

In general, the country case study search did not find any evaluations that provide robust evidence of impact or what works combined with a clear analysis of why.



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