The 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, 27 of which are in Africa, have adopted a declaration for promoting lifelong learning in universities, but implementation is still challenged by attitudes which position lifelong learning as the 'poor cousin' in universities.
The Rabat Declaration on Strategic Development of University Education in the Muslim World was adopted at the 7th General Conference of the Federation of the Universities of the Islamic World held at the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or ISESCO, headquarters in the Moroccan capital on 13 February.
The declaration calls for the promotion of lifelong learning programmes as major priorities for universities, “given their vital role in preparing society for sustainable development and community involvement".
In this context, lifelong learning is seen as an opportunity to enhance career readiness, graduate employment, self-sustainability and competitiveness in order to promote the development of a knowledge-based economy.
‘Lifeblood' of higher education
The call is in line with the NMC Horizon Report: 2017 higher education edition which argues that lifelong learning is the “lifeblood” of higher education.
Lifelong learning is defined by the European Commission as “all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competencies within a personal, civic, social and-or employment-related perspective”.
"Institutions must prioritise and recognise ongoing learning – both formal and informal – for their faculty, staff, and students," according to the NMC Horizon report which was produced by the New Media Consortium, a community of hundreds of universities, colleges, museums and research organisations driving innovation across their campuses.
The report is the flagship publication of the NMC Horizon Project, which identifies emerging trends likely to have an impact on learning, teaching and creative enquiry in education.
While the Rabat declaration is generally welcomed, implementation is a challenge for the 27 African members (10 in North Africa and 17 in West Africa) of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
One of these challenges is the need for skills among staff.
"The implementation of lifelong learning programmes in African universities is constrained by the fact that the number of staff who need to update or upgrade their skills is very high while the expertise required to conduct these programmes is limited," said Juma Shabani, former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa.
However, the rapid development of information and communication technologies, or ICT, in Africa could provide opportunities for addressing the challenge through virtual training, he said.
But is such development sufficient? According to George Ladaah Openjuru, deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at Gulu University based in Uganda, some universities in Africa still suffer from poor ICT penetration, which limits access to online learning programmes.
Other challenges, he said, include lack of funds, limited teaching and learning facilities in universities along with limited availability of printed and electronic learning materials specifically prepared for promoting lifelong learning attitudes and skills.
But an even greater problem is attitudes towards lifelong learning.
Ladaah indicated that students who come for programmes that are classified as lifelong learning do not want to be associated with such classification because they perceive it to be demeaning and it distinguishes them from the mainstream traditional students.
"Students’ negative attitude comes from thinking that people who come for such learning provisions are intellectually inferior," Ladaah said.
These attitudes need to be challenged vigorously, said Ladaah, because lifelong learning “is the way to go” if Africa is to develop its human resources.
"Africa needs to devise ways of infusing lifelong learning in all its working life and organisations to bring about continuous and sustained growth," he said.
"Africa must start re-orienting traditional higher education institutions toward lifelong learning… Africa needs to recognise the value and importance of lifelong learning and come up with policies that can guide and promote lifelong learning at its universities as a way of development," said Ladaah.
Acknowledging that lifelong learning programmes in African universities are for the most part regarded as the “poor cousin”, Abdelkader Djeflat, an Algerian higher education expert based at the University of Lille in France, told University World News that the promotion of lifelong learning needs integrated and systematic approaches.
To enhance mobility, recognition and credit accumulation and transfer among African higher education institutions in lifelong learning programmes, Djeflat said coordinating mechanisms such as regional qualification frameworks are needed.
According to Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Cairo's National Research Centre, African universities can become lifelong learning universities by linking teaching and learning to market needs and life situations of adult learners and university students to produce skilful and knowledgeable workforces.
"African universities must enhance access, retention and progression by offering flexible modes for higher learning opportunities throughout life to achieve societal and economic success," Abdelhamid said.
Importantly, African universities should collaborate with employers to facilitate re-training and re-learning to enhance professional and personal development, he said.
Global best practice
African universities should also learn from the best practices of international universities, he said.
Abdelhamid suggested that African higher education institutions and associations covering all sectors of formal, non-formal and informal learning should join forces to form an African lifelong learning platform to promote exchanges of best practice, experiences and expertise along the lines of the European Lifelong Learning Platform, the ASEM Education and Research Hub for Lifelong Learning, an official network of Asian and European higher education institutions, the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning in United Kingdom, and the European University Continuing Education Network.
However, imitation was not desirable. The platform should be “adapted to African conditions and have the African taste and flavour,” he said.
This view is emphasised in a 2015 journal article entitled "Can lifelong learning be the post-2015 agenda for the Least Developed Countries?", which states: “Unless the least developed countries are given a leadership role for setting their goals – according to their contextual realities – the post-2015 millennium initiatives, such as ‘lifelong learning’ as a new educational agenda, will make no sense.”
According to Melissa Howell, director of global programmes at the US-based Africa-America Institute, African universities should develop partnerships with organisations such as hers and seek philanthropic support and private sector sponsorships which offer skills development and degree-enhancing courses for employable, entrepreneurial and advancing students at every stage of their professional careers.
"Courses for lifelong learning must stretch beyond immediate and direct market needs and project into the future development of industry nationally, African continent-wide and globally, if they are to serve the greatest benefit to African youth and working aged population", Howell told University World News.
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