Lifelong learning – From imagining to reality

"Lifelong learning is a team sport, not the job of a single player,” said Jeyhun Karamov, Deputy Director of Azerbaijan’s State Agency on Vocational Education. Thus encapsulating one of several strong consensus ideas to emerge from the first day of the High-Level Event – the need to involve all stakeholders, in partnerships, as a precondition for lifelong learning success, including connecting to people and communities – especially the marginalised.

Also prominent in debates were the cascading impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (one step back); the need to break radically from the status quo to achieve progress in supporting the green and digital transitions and the rapidly changing world of work (two steps forward); the need for improved resources – financial as well as human, to support teacher development and system delivery; and the imperative of equality, to ensure nobody gets left behind.

The pandemic has rolled back decades of development gains with, for example, 11 million girls worldwide at risk of not returning to school and worsening inequalities in learning due to the digital divide. But speakers also stressed innovations spawned that will support a recovery that promises a better world than before, such as the widespread deployment of digital learning and new levels of human awareness and solidarity.

Italy’s Minister for Education Patrizio Bianchi said the pandemic had placed education at the centre of economies and societies. “This means we must invest more in the capacities of people and in our education systems.” In the ability of people to maintain the capacity to learn, as only this would relaunch a new and sustainable economy.

ETF Director Cesare Onestini said the conference aimed to imagine a better future through lifelong learning (LLL), and to draw on the experiences of countries to find ways to achieve this future. An array of strategies and actions were outlined to break the mould of current often stagnant practices and overcome plentiful obstacles. 

Analysis of ETF Torino Process research suggests: identifying and prioritising policy areas of relevance for LLL; accelerating national LLL strategic plans; boosting the ability to collect and interpret evidence – including before new policies are forged – and looking beyond formal education to a new generation of governance and financing arrangements.

Maki Katsuno-Hayashikawa, Director of the Division for Education 2030 at UNESCO, said COVID-19’s reversal of past gains had made achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education a challenge for developed as well as developing countries.

Strategies were needed that focus on system-wide transformation, targeted interventions for those at risk, greater inclusion and equity in tertiary education, improved global cooperation, and strengthening an intersectoral approach and partnerships in education and training.

Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO, called for urgent action to tackle challenges across three dimensions of lifelong learning – equity and inclusion; quality and relevance; and resources and system efficiency.

There is no doubt about the importance of equality; surveys have shown that people with the lowest levels of education also have the lowest participation in lifelong learning. Who needs the most, benefits the least, which is paradoxical since the origins of lifelong learning lie in the aspiration to deliver learning to people who missed out on school.

There must be access to lifelong learning for all, participants underscored, but also targeting specific groups. “Learning poverty translates into lifelong learning poverty,” Chakroun said. To succeed, lifelong learning must be built upon quality foundational education.

Another paradox was highlighted by Harry A Patrinos of World Bank Education. “We have more people at school than at any other time in human history – but we also need more and more lifelong learning.” With demand for new skills outpacing supply and the need for people to keep learning and unlearning and relearning, he stressed a need for a better model. 

For a start: “Let’s look to Nordic countries, with their high levels of literacy and education, high levels of participation in continuous learning, and low levels of inequality.”

Overall, the event recognised the overarching need for collaboration at the local, national and international levels – and for massive efforts. Filip Van Depoele, of the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture of the European Commission, described the effectiveness of the European Education Area in providing policy and resource support for education at all levels across the region.

Resourcing LLL systems

A parallel session on “Resourcing LLL systems” outlined a UN-recognised ‘learning city’ in Columbia; a regionally operating university-based LLL centre in Turkey; and Amal, a national school network in Israel. Three disparate experiences in mobilising institutional capacities to deliver effective LLL, but with some striking commonalities, the need for autonomy was a call heard throughout the day.

For Dr Ronit Ashkenazy, Deputy CEO of the Amal Education Network in Israel, and Dr Tamer Atabarut, Director of Bogazici University Lifelong Learning Centre in Turkey, inspiration came from the potentially deadening hand of centralised and inflexible policy-making. Local autonomy is critical for success, both emphasised.

“Just don’t bother us!” said Ashkenazy, pointing to the centrally imposed rigid and old-fashioned matriculation exam system, which curbs the room for principals and teachers to train students for a new world of work. 

For Atabarut, too, the dominating role of the education ministry overshadowed all other actors. “Centralised policies can create gaps in practice,” which means that implementation does not address the needs of all the actors. Juan Pablo Zuluaga, in the Medellin Mayor Office in Colombia, stressed that social transformation “takes a long time”. But if policy-makers are consistent and patient – for example with budgets – the results can be dramatic.

But even within traditional state institutions, innovative funding solutions can be found. Anna Canato of the European Investment Bank outlined how the EIB – aside from its underwriting loan finance to education projects – developed low-interest loan instruments for tertiary education. 

Ensuring inclusiveness and access for all

To involve people in lifelong learning we must create meaningful, engaging environments. But different people consider different things meaningful and engaging. As a consequence, we need to move down from strategies and master plans, and towards a focus on individuals and tailored solutions. This was confirmed in a parallel session on “Ensuring inclusiveness and access for all”. 

Online learning has gone through a sped-up version of the development that school education has also experienced: from being almost completely supply-driven to being increasingly tailored to learning outcomes and individual needs. This means it is crucial to keep an eye on smaller players, such as SMEs and individuals, if we are to keep them motivated for learning.

Partnerships was another pivotal word. Again, the bottom line was: if no one is to be left behind, everyone needs to be involved. We must co-create, also directly with learners, instead of being experts creating what we think is best for our audiences.

A final word underlined the importance of guidance in engaging those who are hard to reach – a critical challenge. Not two hours of guidance at age 15, but lifelong guidance that is, again, tailored to individual needs.

Accompanying the green and digital transition

During a parallel session on “Accompanying the green and digital transition”, Chiara Riondino, Head of Unit for VET, Apprenticeships and Adult Learning at the European Commission described Europe’s extraordinary ‘Marshall Plan’ of investment to support post-pandemic reforms and recovery, which places education at its centre and is resourcing it accordingly.

On top of a flurry of other strategies, the Commission will publish two proposals this year, on individual learning accounts and micro-credentials. “These will allow people to take control of their learning, and have lifelong learning recognised.” Further, centres of vocational excellence are driving innovation and international networks that are encouraging coherence and partnerships.

The session also heard examples of a world-class open education platform in Ukraine that has trained tens of thousands of people, powered by the private energy sector; and of a successful development partnership in northern Denmark created through partnerships across sectors. “It took lots of coffee and a round table, and years,” laughed education chief Charlotte Bisbjerg. 

Session leader Anastasia Fetsi said these were great examples of how to make lifelong learning happen and support the green and digital transitions  – at the regional, national and international levels. And they proved one of the key conclusions of participants: “Things don’t happen by default.”

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