Grad student travels to Sweden in search of literacy answers
By Amie Lynn Shirkie
Recent doctoral graduate Nayda Veeman has travelled from Melfort to Umeå to answer one question: What does Sweden’s adult literacy program have that Canada’s seems to lack?
According to the results of the first International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), conducted in 1995, Swedish adults have a significantly higher level of literacy than Canadian adults. What’s more, adult literacy rates in Sweden are apparently less dependent on socioeconomic status and parental education levels than in Canada.
Veeman became familiar with the results of IALS while she was the executive director of the Saskatchewan Literacy Network. She says IALS involves more than 20 countries and attempts to look at literacy in everyday society, across languages and cultures.
Intrigued by its findings, Veeman decided to investigate the inner workings of Swedish and Canadian adult literacy programs. She enrolled in Educational Administration at the U of S in late 2000, and received Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funding for her research in 2001.
As she began the complex endeavour of comparing literacy programs across countries and cultures, Veeman decided to use a qualitative approach, in contrast to the quantitative procedure of IALS. She explains that qualitative research relies heavily on sociological method, interviews, and review of documents.
Veeman decided to study a city and a rural centre of roughly the same size in Canada and Sweden, in order to compare the opportunities for learning. She studied literacy programs in Saskatoon and Umeå, Melfort and Kungsör, with the help of her advisors and co-investigators, Profs. Keith Walker and Angela Ward.
Veeman spent a considerable amount of time in Melfort and Saskatoon, speaking to administrators, educators and students. In September 2003, she, Walker and Ward travelled to Umeå and attended a conference where they met with Swedish educators. Veeman also spent one month each in Umeå and Kungsör at adult education centres, interviewing students and teachers.
She found that attitudes toward adult literacy differed greatly between the two countries. “Early in my doctoral review, it became clear that the terminology was different in Sweden – adult education involving basic literacy wasn’t segregated. In Sweden, literacy means basic reading and writing and adults upgrade basic skills in adult education classes, rather than volunteer literacy programs.”
The value placed on adult education in Sweden is evidenced by the government’s efforts to expand and diversify adult literacy programs. As a solution to high unemployment rates caused by recession, the government offered education to unemployed workers, as “it was cheaper to pay them to study than to give them unemployment benefits.” In 1997, the Swedish government introduced the Adult Education Initiative, investing $57 more per capita in adult education. The government also required each of Sweden’s 288 municipalities to provide adult education programs.
As a result, according to Veeman, adult education has become “universal” in Sweden.
“There are no education fees in Sweden. Students do not pay to attend school or university, due to the government’s system of grants and loans.” These actions, Veeman believes, have created a society brimming with opportunities for learning and advancement.
By contrast, adults in Saskatchewan who need to upgrade their literacy skills often have difficulty receiving education. Unless they can pass a pretest and get funding, says Veeman, they are left with the volunteer sector literacy programs, which are often unable to provide a complete education. “The volunteer system provides positive support, but only so much time, money, and effort get put in.”
Ultimately, it boils down to values. “In Sweden, education is perceived as a public good and an important part of the social fabric. In Canada, there is a stigma attached to literacy programs and literacy needs. Education in Canada is perceived to be an individual responsibility and an economic imperative.” The difference, Veeman says, lies in access to learning opportunities rather than motivation.
Discussing what can be learned from Swedish education programs, Veeman ponders: “How much money would we save if we invested in education agencies, if we devoted our energies to educate the least educated? How would our society change? How much time and resources are wasted on administering targeted programs rather than universal programs? How can the government talk about the importance of literacy if they don’t put money into basic adult education? Why, for example, do they tax reading material?”
Though Veeman received her PhD in May, she plans to carry on with her research: “We need to take the study beyond Saskatchewan, and make it more reflective of Canada.” She has begun to collect data from Toronto and Nova Scotia, and intends to conduct research in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories. She hopes her findings will be complete by 2005.
Amie Lynn Shirkie writes graduate student profiles for the College of Graduate Studies & Research.