Universities as lifelong learning institutions – Some way to go

How to provide lifelong learning is not a new topic and it has been on the agenda for decades in regions such as Europe. But the advent of SDG 4 has given a new impetus and created a new sense of awareness among universities of their role in providing this form of learning.

So said David Atchoarena, director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, when presenting a recent study on universities’ contribution to lifelong learning at the third UNESCO World Higher Education Conference – WHEC2022 – in Barcelona in Spain.

He reviewed the essential ingredients.

First, the existence of a legal framework for lifelong learning can encourage universities to get involved. Funding tends to come from a variety of sources, although 67% of survey participants identified funding as a problem and tuition fees still make the biggest contribution.

In order to increase participation in lifelong learning, higher education institutions must ensure content and opportunities are relevant and able to attract non-traditional students.

Building partnerships with local actors is another ingredient.

World Higher Education Conference 2022. This conference is convened by UNESCO and University World News is the exclusive media partner.

Bogotá and Shanghai

The local government of Bogotá in Colombia was already working with universities and schools on lifelong learning when the pandemic struck. Together with 40 universities, it launched a series of short courses aimed at addressing short-term needs for training.

“The pandemic showed us the need to transform universities into providers of lifelong learning,” said Edna Bonilla Sebá, secretary of education in Bogotá District. “We have learnt that our role is to articulate all the possibilities that higher education offers.”

Shanghai Open University (SOU) began life in 1960 using radio and television to provide mainly remedial education to adult learners. It now sees itself not as a traditional university but as one for the whole city, according to university President Wei Jia.

The university offers online provision together with schemes such as the 15-minute circle, ensuring learners are never further than 15 minutes away from a SOU centre.

Boot changes foot

Asha Kanwar, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning, believes the flexibility of open and distance learning makes it a natural provider of lifelong learning.

“If you look at the mission statements of open universities, even 30 or 40 years ago, lifelong learning was one of their aspirations,” she said.

The disruption of face-to-face education due to the pandemic is altering people’s perceptions of open and distance learning – from the poor relation of higher education to a means to impart valuable know-how. “In the past, open universities always wanted to become campus universities but now the boot is on the other foot,” said Kanwar.

Make lifelong learning more visible

The proportion of European universities that offer lifelong learning varies strongly per country – anything from 20% to 70%, according to Michael Gaebel, director of higher education policy at the European University Association.

This can take several forms including widening access and increasing the diversity of learners with initiatives such as universities of the third age.

Delivering skills for the labour market, including training for a recent graduate who needs an upgrade or reskilling someone who is already in work, is a second strand.

Universities have always educated their members, typically students, but more recently they have had a role in training staff, such as in using new technologies for teaching purposes during COVID.

But these lifelong learning activities are not very visible.

“If you look at a university, you may not realise it is a lifelong learning institution, it is not on the front page, so you may have to check through the website to find it,” says Gaebel.

Such activities are usually not assessed either. Lifelong learning has not become a mainstream activity for most universities in Europe and Gaebel described it as an “emerging debate” right now rather than a hot topic.

Universities are showing interest in areas such as micro credentials and learners are interested in more flexible forms of learning, such as online or short courses or student portfolios. “We are aware we can’t leave this to the market,” said Gaebel.

“We have public frameworks and responsibilities for conventional education and we need to extend this to lifelong learning.”