Lifelong learning as a human right

Higher education systems around the world have been undergoing dramatic changes over the past few generations. In fact, the changes have been so dramatic that one could argue we are experiencing an educational revolution that has impacted on every aspect of higher education.

This is perhaps most evident in the fact that participation in higher education worldwide is expected to grow to 262 million students by 2025, up from 28 million in 1970, according to the OECD.

The worldwide demand for higher education is being driven in large part by increasing globalisation and the internationalisation of higher education, resulting in new access and delivery models and increased student choice and mobility.

For example, the European Bologna process aims at providing a continental-wide framework to better connect disparate higher education systems across Europe and also at providing a set of policies needed to facilitate greater student mobility and faculty exchanges between institutions.

It is amazing to see how quickly these innovations and government reforms have developed to address the huge pent-up demand for higher education worldwide. This demand is coming from all demographic sectors and has led to the increasing diversification of institutional types and educational offerings.

In addition, the increasing calls to widen participation by removing unnecessary access barriers and by eliminating the monopolisation of higher education by historically privileged groups and by improving practices that facilitate the free flow of higher education services across borders, have helped fuel this expansion.

As a result, over the last few generations we have experienced, in many countries, a shift from elitist higher education systems towards mass and universal systems. For example, higher education in the UK has evolved from an elitist privileged system to one that is more egalitarian – and that country has been a pioneer and leader in the concept of open education.

Higher education systems in the US and Canada have also become highly diversified and pluralistic by using a variety of access and funding models to widen participation.

Learning throughout life

Traditional boundaries for higher education institutions have become increasingly fluid as they try to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of an increasingly hyper-connected, globalised world. Higher education is entering a brave new era – an era where lifelong (and life-wide) learning is increasingly viewed as a basic human right.

The notion of lifelong learning as a human right (and post-secondary education as a major vehicle for delivering those lifelong learning opportunities) has started to gain more traction because of its growing importance in the work and social lives of people.

Because of the increasing recognition of the value of post-secondary formal learning, whether it be academic or higher skills training, more and more employers are requiring some form of post-secondary education, even for entry-level jobs.

This changing attitude about the necessity for lifelong learning is, in part, also a response to the antiquated notion that all required learning can be achieved solely through a set period in formal education, such as three or four years as an undergraduate. Together with the steadily decreasing shelf-life of new knowledge, this has created a need for people to continually learn through every stage of their lives.

Adopting an inclusive mindset

However, recognising the need for lifelong learning requires a fundamental change in mindset because higher education has been, by and large, rooted in a mindset of elitism and exclusivity for nearly all of its 800-year history.

Fortunately however, we have started to make a shift from that mindset towards one of diversity and inclusivity. This shift is also a reflection of the cultural changes occurring in the broader societies in which higher education systems operate.

For example, with respect to New Zealand’s Aboriginal population, disparity and disconnect have been major themes in that country’s history, similar to the concerns of autochthonous peoples in other post-colonial countries. In spite of these struggles, Aboriginal communities continue their quest to reclaim their culture, history and language by developing their own educational communities.

Given the scale and complexity of the political, economic, social and ecological problems that face the world, it is imperative that higher education serves as a vehicle to help narrow lingering patterns of discrimination, prejudice and oppression.

Higher education – and society at large – in South Africa has historically suffered from systemic racism, inequality and injustice. Nonetheless, South Africa has bravely moved forward to embark on a restructuring of its higher education and beyond to make it more democratic.

Democratising higher education

Education can be used as a means for self-determination or a means to oppress. To democratise higher education further and more globally, we as educators must take the lead in continuing to move higher education from a mindset of exclusivity, which tends to be oriented around power and privilege claims, and towards one of inclusivity, oriented around fairness and self-determination.

Making this shift is important because systems based on exclusion tend to foster closed systems whereas those based on inclusion tend to foster open systems which, in turn, allow for greater lifelong learning opportunities.

Inclusive systems are driven primarily by the needs of individuals and society and are characterised by the democratic ideals of participation, representation and pluralism.

The changing mindset developing around the world has enormous implications for the future of higher education globally. As we argue in Democratizing Higher Education, lifelong learning must be based on a democratic vision of higher education that is diverse, inclusive, representative and rooted in an ethos of political, social and economic justice.

Amid the inherent tensions between these ideals, and the practical realities of governing higher education institutions within national cultures with complex histories, lies the hope of a more democratic worldwide higher education system that works for all.

Patrick Blessinger is the founder of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association and Adjunct Associate Professor St John’s University in New York City, USA. He is co-editor with John P Anchan of Democratizing Higher Education: International comparative perspectives.