EUROPE: Universities embrace lifelong learning

Lifelong learning has never been Europe's strong suit. Americans have long recognised that learning should not stop with the end of formal academic education but ought to form a significant element of adult life. An estimated 4-5 % of over-30s in the US are involved in lifelong learning of some kind whereas the European figure is less than 2%. Is this about to change?

There is hope. Europe's universities have now moved decisively to embrace the concept of lifelong learning with the launch of the European Universities' Charter for Lifelong Learning at the autumn conference of the European Universities Association at Erasmus University in Rotterdam last week.

The EUA represents more than 800 universities across Europe so there is no question this represents a weighty step. Behind the move lies the recognition that if Europe is to assume leadership of an IT dominated world by 2010 - as its Lisbon Strategy pre-figures - it will no longer be enough to stimulate investment and research. There will have to be an enhanced role in people's lives for learning.

This has not gone unnoticed by the European Commission which drew up an official communication in October 2006 called It's never too late to learn. The paper, subsequently adopted by EU government leaders, urged that lifelong learning be the core of the Lisbon 2010-process and that in effect the whole of the EU should become a learning area.

Where universities are concerned, credit should go to the French Prime Minister François Fillon for instigating the move for a charter at a seminar last year. But the charter seems to be a genuinely collective effort, based on consultation with all EUA member universities, 34 national rectors' conferences and a wide range of European stakeholder organisations, including students and business.

The document sets out 10 policy commitments ranging, among other things, from wider access to learning, diversifying the student population and increasing the attractiveness of study programmes to the embracing of lifelong learning in a quality culture, strengthening the relationship between research, teaching and innovation, and developing partnerships at local, regional, national and international level.

It also calls on governments to provide "the appropriate legal and financial frameworks to develop lifelong learning". Specific commitments are asked for here too. (The full charter can be downloaded from the EUA website:

"After a decade of higher education reforms that have taken place under the Bologna process, the European stage is set for the realisation of lifelong learning as a key element in the strategic development of universities in the future. We urge stakeholders to engage with the commitments of the charter so that we can take a major step forward to building a Europe of knowledge," said Professor Georg Winckler, President of the EUA.

"In order for Europe to be competitive in today's world we need to look at how universities can become more responsive. They can only do this if they are inclusive organisations that actively look for new target groups in societies that are under-served socio-economically and across age barriers," said Michael Horig, project officer involved in developing the EUA themes.

"By lifelong learning we mean the widening of access, targeting new under-served branches of society. It means providing tailor-made programmes to companies and to adult learners. It's a whole new agenda focusing on a university or higher education institution that is responding to the needs of society," Horig told UWN.

"We are very optimistic," he said. "The message of our conference was well received and our charter has been well received by a variety of groups. But success is not only getting the figures right but in getting the whole concept of how well the universities can perform in the frameworks of the future. Getting more people into education through the various routes, including older students, would be one indicator but not the only measure."

The EUA said that European societies were currently missing out on a huge pool of readily available human talent: "Comparing higher education participation rates in Europe with those in other world regions makes disturbing reading and calls for action," it said.

It was not about introducing less qualified students, "but rather about supporting all learners with the potential to benefit both themselves and society through participating in higher education".

"This meant reaching out to an increasingly broad range of learners with different motivations and interests, not only offering programmes for professional development adapted to a fast-changing labour market, but also catering for the growing demand for personal development opportunities through the cultural enrichment that universities offer."

There was also an urgent need for debate on how lifelong learning provision could best be funded, said the EUA.