Lifelong learning is more relevant than ever beforeEuropean Universities’ Charter on Lifelong Learning was published. It outlines 10 commitments for universities and governments to support the development of lifelong learning in order to secure what was once referred to as the ‘Europe of Knowledge’.
The charter, inspired by 21st century learning expectations in a context of globalisation, demographic change and rapid technological advancement, acknowledged that the term ‘lifelong learning’ encompasses first-time education for disadvantaged groups, continuing education, training for graduates and post-retirement opportunities. Notably, it highlights the importance of access to lifelong learning and the recognition of prior learning.
A decade later, this fundamental topic is highlighted in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which call on the world to “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”. It is therefore the right moment to ask ourselves how far European universities have come in advancing this very crucial responsibility and to re-examine the relevance of lifelong learning to better prepare our next steps.
Historically, lifelong learning has played an important role in times of radical evolution or crisis by widening participation to new student groups. Democratic and economic crises following World War I brought women into higher education in the West.
The aftermath of the Second World War saw the recognition of prior learning open doors to parts of the population that traditionally had not been in higher education. The GI Bill in the United States is the most well-known example of this.
Today, the link between sustainable development, lifelong learning and the recognition of prior learning has become essential.
Research from the University of Oxford indicates that we can expect about half of the jobs we know today to disappear in the coming decade as the Fourth Industrial Revolution progresses. We are, therefore, living the changes we anticipated when writing the charter and the need for lifelong learning is indeed even greater today.
It is telling that today’s rapidly-evolving labour market may cause more significant change than the 2008 global economic crisis. Thus, the charter is undoubtedly very pertinent to today’s education landscape. However, its implementation has been less than stellar.
The European Union is still challenged by its goal of having 15% of the population in lifelong learning by 2020. In fact, progress is modest. In 2011, 9.1% participated in lifelong learning according to Eurostat, and in 2016 that number had only grown to 10.8% – notably as digitalisation led to an increasing need to (re-)educate workers, whole sectors shut down and new types of jobs opened up.
This trend continues, making lifelong learning a clear, but underused facilitator for change. Nothing is more economically, socially and personally wasteful than not acknowledging and building on all of the qualifications, skills and competences that we acquire throughout our lives.
A more integrated approach
To raise the bar to meet the EU 2020 goal and to support the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, European higher education institutions should define themselves more clearly as the lifelong learning platforms that they are.
They should also consider lifelong learning and research and innovation in a more integrated way. For example, if new research findings on the future of work were quickly introduced to both young, more traditional students and to lifelong learners who are already in employment, we would be able to truly call Europe a learning society. This would be a major step forward that our governments should support.
Another way to meet those goals would be to recognise that globalisation and demographic changes also mean addressing migration and mobility.
Refugees and migrants with higher education and work experience should have their qualifications and prior learning (even non-formal and work-based learning) recognised as quickly as possible through access to lifelong learning courses. That way they can take the professionally-oriented courses (including language training) they need to face everyday life.
The same goes for academic courses on specific national regulations and practices that allow refugees and migrants to continue working in their professions. Lifelong learning and recognition play a major role for refugees and migrants and have the potential to ensure that they have a more sustainable future.
On the digital front, there is a host of opportunities for lifelong learning both in the classroom and through non-traditional means. We have MOOCs (massive open online courses), mobile learning and open universities, all of which have gained momentum over the years.
However, the big question lies in whether European universities are agile enough to provide relevant degrees and targeted courses to lifelong learners in such a complex and evolving landscape. Or will other actors who can work in shorter timeframes and without addressing recognition issues take over the provision?
Flexible and inclusive
Universities have a distinct role in (re-)educating highly-qualified people who are much needed in all sectors of our rapidly-changing labour market. They play a central role in lifelong learning and in sustaining Europe in reaching its ambitious goals. To enable universities to give their best contribution, in line with the European Universities’ Charter, we must close the gap between political intentions and institutional practices.
We can do this by deepening our evidence that lifelong learning and recognition of prior learning can offer flexible learning paths for lifelong learners. We must, therefore, better identify the best ways for applicants to document and argue for the value of their prior learning and ensure access. Only then will we be able to prove on a wide scale that experimental learning can be equal to that achieved through formal learning.
We also need to track the progression of lifelong learners and ensure that they benefit from the courses they are taking. This will help us improve our educational offers and define new ways forward.
We must also ensure that European higher education systems are open to non-traditional learners and that the often-strict requirements for access are not prohibitive. We simply need to be more flexible and inclusive. This will translate into enriching individual lives and reinforcing our society and economy – all through lifelong learning.
I can’t think of a better way to ensure the future of Europe.
Hanne Smidt is the European University Association’s senior adviser for higher education policy. The European University Association produced the European Universities’ Charter on Lifelong Learning, is now on the European Commission’s stakeholder group on the SDGs and will discuss this topic at its Annual Conference from 5-6 April.