Lifelong learning for all, by all

Reporting from the opening session of 'Building Lifelong Learning Systems', a week of debate on #Skills4Change

Global forces of change are transforming the world we live and work in at an unprecedented pace. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this transformation. This has put a premium on the capacity for adaptation and resilience of individuals and systems. At the same time, it has highlighted the digital divide and exacerbated inequalities. Lifelong learning is now seen as essential to enable people to navigate the multiple transitions they will face in this fast-changing world. The increasing need for lifelong learning is undisputed but the debate on the exact form it should take and whom it should address has gained new urgency during the pandemic. The digital boom of Covid 19 showed us at one and the same time that a readiness for swift change is an enormous asset in the modern world and that this readiness is still far from universal. The pandemic painfully exposed the ugly face of the digital divide.

So how can we, around the world, build lifelong learning systems that are green, inclusive and digital?

This will be the guiding question for the next five days as the European Training Foundation and UNESCO launch their co-hosted five-day conference on the future skills and lifelong learning together with the EBRD, the ILO and UNICEF. 

True to its aims, the entire meeting is held in what ETF director Cesare Onestini called “the virtual space that has become a sort of home this year,” with live sessions broadcast live to a dedicated web space as well as universally accessible social media.

“Never before in human history have we gone through such a shared experience as the pandemic. This has been a challenge, but it has also made us stronger and showed our ability to focus on shared commitments,” Mr Onestini said, before passing the floor to Borhène Chakroun, UNSESCO’s Director of the Division for Policies and Lifelong Learning.

Mr Chakroun also opened with a reference to the pandemic, stressing how it had exacerbated inequality, seriously threatening development gains made across the globe in recent years. 

“We need to cooperate more closely than ever before to make sure we leave no one behind,” he said. 

He quoted statistics that showed poverty, which was expected to decrease in 2021, had instead gone up. Too many people settle for underpaid jobs in the informal sector or rural livelihoods, he said.

“We must be bold about our ambitions. This is what makes me get out of bed every morning and excited to go to work.”

“Today, in this landmark event, we should say: enough is enough. It is time that every human being on this planet gets access to high quality learning opportunities.” 

His call for international cooperation on this was echoed by all subsequent speakers this morning, but they also agreed that international cooperation alone is not enough.

Afshan Khan, Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia at UNICEF stressed that because lifelong learning is about the development of individuals, we need to consult them in our development work.

“We need to co-create, using the principles of human-centred design. We must use the ideas of young people,” she said, referring to a recent joint exercise of the ETF and UNICEF reaching out to young people in the ETF partner countries to hear them out about why they feel schools do not prepare them for their future.

Linking into this, Sangheon Lee, Director of the Employment and Policy Department at the ILO gave the meeting a friendly reminder of some of the critical questions that a meeting like this should help to answer.

“Whose responsibility is lifelong learning? What should be the delivering mechanisms and who will finance it?”

Lee’s answer to the first question echoed the opinion of other speakers: everyone’s. 

Srinivas Reddy, Chief of the Skills and Employment Branch of the ILO was no exception. The whole of society must come together to achieve reskilling and upskilling, he said, stressing his belief that it can only be achieved through social dialogue.

“It is a shared responsibility between individuals, enterprises and governments.” 

Barbara Rambusek, Director for Gender & Economic Inclusion at the Department of Country and Sector Economics of the EBRD warned that the focus of pandemic recovery should not just be on regaining losses. 

“We need to make sure that we not only to reverse the regressive developments of the past 18 months, but also improve the status quo that we had before the crisis.”

Manuela Geleng, Director of Skills at the European Commission’s DG Employment placed the discussions in the current EU context by referring to the social summit in Porto, just weeks ago, where the target was set to increase the number of adults in training from 37% now to 60% in 2030 and the number of people with basic digital skills from 42% to 80% in the same timeframe. 

“Lifelong learning is not an option,” she warned. “It is the key to our collective success.”

Closing the session, David Atchoarena, the director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, reiterated what also has been one of the core messages of the ETF during the preparation of this conference: that lifelong learning needs to be accessible and affordable for everyone as a basic human right. 

“Lifelong learning is a common good. Lifelong learning cannot rely entirely on the market or on public sector provision,” Mr Atchoarena said.

He also noted that we need to move from a right to education to a right to lifelong learning – a comment which has more implications than meet the eye because in Europe we are coming from a starting position where education is not only a right, but also an obligation.

What it must become is a universally and continually accessible and affordable opportunity to develop as people and, through that, as a society. 


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