ADULT education is seen as the poor relation of higher education in both industrialised and developing countries despite its importance to economic growth, delegates to the fifth Unesco conference on adult education in Hamburg complained.
In India, policymakers have encouraged universities to take a leading role in adult education and community projects over the past 20 years. Half of all universities have adult education departments.
Renuka Narang, director of the department of adult and continuing education at the University of Mumbai (Bombay), said: "National efforts, particularly by the university system, have contributed to a rise in literacy from 16 per cent in 1951 to 52 per cent in 1991. But most departments are outside the academic framework of postgraduate departments.
Adult education staff were not recognised by other university departments, and they suffered from insecurity owing to their impermanent funding status, she said.
Shirley Walters, of the Centre for Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Western Cape in South Africa, reported a similar identity crisis. She said adult education there "began as a political struggle against apartheid" but since the political turnaround they had lost direction and feared they could lose out in the forthcoming higher education reform.
Adult educators say their biggest challenge is to anchor their work in the universities as a whole.
Dr Narang said she would like all university departments in Indian universities to be required to contribute to continuing education and community work.
Professor Walters said her department, which mainly trains adult educators, now needs to redefine its role and move from the margins to the centre of activities.
"We recognise that the reconstruction and development of South Africa is going to continue to require a very active society", and that adult education should play an active role in this process, she said.
"The challenge is to expand the university's understanding of adult education so that the ethos of the adult education training programme can permeate through more of the university," she said.
A team from the Aboriginal Education Unit at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, reported it had successfully integrated itself into the mainstream by offering courses in aboriginal studies to other students.
Griff Foley, an originator of this project, said one factor in the unit's success was that it was controlled and run by indigenous people.
Several amendments were made to the Hamburg Declaration on Adult Education passed at the end of the vast Unesco congress.
They called for universities, as well as other institutions:
* to open the doors to adult learners, adapting their programmes to learning conditions to meet the needs of adults
* to enhance joint university-community research and training to bring university services to outside groups
* to carry out research in all aspects of adult learning with the participation of adult learners themselves
They also called on the World Conference on Higher Education, due to take place in Paris in 1998, to promote the transformation of post-secondary institutions into lifelong learning institutions.