Fertile functioning of higher education and the capability to participate in non-formal education: the case of young adults in europe

Ilieva-Trichkova, Petya Ivanova; Boyadjieva, Pepka Alexandrova (2019). 'Fertile functioning of higher education and the capability to participate in non-formal education: the case of young adults in Europe' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


During the last two last decades the approaches and policies in education and lifelong learning have been based to a great extent on the human capital theory. It postulates that the investments in education are beneficial for both individuals and societies in economic terms and implies that the main responsibility for (non)participation in lifelong learning lies on the individuals. However, in the contemporary reality of diversification of the educational opportunities and high levels of social inequalities, the way human capital theory conceptualizes education becomes problematic and is criticized as economistic, ahistorical, fragmented and exclusively instrumental (Robeyns 2006: 72–74).

Against this background, the paper’s purpose is twofold. First, it aims at demonstrating the heuristic potential of the capability approach in rethinking the lifelong learning and in particular the non-formal education and training. Second, it aims at exploring the factors which influence the participation in lifelong learning in an European comparative perspective. As education, mainly in terms of its formal settings, is widely studied via the capability approach (eg. Vaughan 2007; Walker 2019), in this paper we focus specifically on non-formal education and training. At theoretical level, the paper applies the capability approach framework (Sen 1992, 2009) to the conceptualizing non-formal education as a capability and agency regarding non-formal education. We follow Vaughan (2007) who distinguishes two types of capabilities: capabilities to participate in education and capabilities gained through education and focus on the first type. The paper builds also upon the bounded agency model (Rubenson & Desjardins 2009) when trying to identify the factors which influence the capability to participate in non-formal education. This model is based on the premises that the structural conditions (the welfare state regimes included) play a substantial role in forming the circumstances faced by individuals and limit the feasible alternatives to choose from, and therefore they can “bound” individual agency. Such understanding of agency is in line with the conceptualization of agency within the capability approach according to which it is a space characterized by freedom and within which people can act. (Alkire, Qizilbash & Comim 2008; Alkire & Deneulin 2009).

The paper argues that the capability approach has a heuristic potential for studying non-formal education and training as it is in line with its essential characteristics and allows their conceptualizing and rethinking. In this paper we will focus on three of them. First, the capability approach takes into account the active role of the individuals regarding their participation in non-formal education and training. Second, it allows grasping the social and institutional embeddedness of agency regarding non-formal education and training. Third, this approach legitimizes and justifies the plurality of roles and functions of non-formal education and training which can be economic, but also social and related to the identity-formation and can be played at individual, but also at societal level.

At methodological level, the paper makes a secondary data analysis on the Adult Education Survey (2016) for about 25 countries and the official statistics by using descriptive statistics and multilevel modeling. Within this survey the non-formal education and training is defined as education that is institutionalised, intentional and planned by an education provider. The analysis is restricted to the group of young adults, defined as those aged 25-34 years olds.

The preliminary findings clearly demonstrate that the capability to participate in non-formal education and training is influenced by various socio-demographic factors, as well as by the welfare regime of the country in which they live. Thus, for instance people with a tertiary degree have a greater capability to participate in non-formal education and training than those with lower levels of education. This refers also to people with high social background, to those with high cultural capital and to people whose household income is higher. The greater capability in this case means more resources which allow people to participate in this type of learning.

The paper contributes to the literature by: 1) applying the capability approach in conceptualizing participation in non-formal education and training as a capability; 2) paying attention to a specific group – young adults (25-34), who are in a crucial period in their life and which has gained less attention in comparison with the group of people aged 15-24. 3) applying a multilevel modeling which allows exploring the influence of factors not only on individual but also on a country level. Besides these contributions, the paper fits into the literature that defends the need for an integrated approach to participation in lifelong learning, which incorporates the influence of factors at different levels (eg. Boeren 2017). In contrast to this body of literature though the offered analysis focuses specifically on non-formal education and training and demonstrates the need for adapting this approach to this type of lifelong learning. This finding is of a great importance for developing policy recommendations for improving the participation in lifelong learning.


Alkire, S., & Deneulin, S. (2009).“Human Development and Capability Approach.” In An Introduction to Human Development and Capability Approach: Freedom and Agency, edited byS. Deneulin and L. Shanani, 22–48. London and Steling: Earthscan.

Alkire, S., Qizilbash, M. & Comim, F. (2008). “Introduction.” InThe Capability Approach: Concepts, Measures and Applications, edited by F.Comim, M. Qizilbash & S. Alkire,1–25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boeren, E. (2017). Understanding adult lifelong learning participation as a layered problem. Studies in Continuing Education, 39: 2, 161-175.

Robeyns, I. (2006). Three models of education: Rights, capabilities and human capital. Theory and Research in Education, 4(1), 69–84.

Rubenson, K., & Desjardins, R. (2009). The impact of welfare state regimes on barriers to participation in adult education: A bounded agency model. Adult Education Quarterly, 59, 187–207.

Sen, A. (1992). Inequalities reexamined. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Sen, A. (2009). The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Vaughan, R. (2007). “Measuring Capabilities: An Example from Girls’ Schooling.”In Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach and Social Justice in Education, edited by M. Walker & E. Unterhalter, 109–130. New York: Palgrave.

Walker, M. (2019). The achievement of university access: conversion factors, capabilities and choices. SocialInclusion, 7(1), 52-60.

scroll to top