Role of actors in lifelong learning – Partnerships, trust and resources

The need for lifelong learning has become urgent, driven by the digital and green transitions, a rapidly changing world of work and continuous demand for new skills. While there is general consensus around a vision for lifelong learning, it has proved difficult to implement worldwide. Progress demands new governance models and partnerships, mutual trust and resources.

“Lifelong learning is not a new idea. What is new is the emphasis put on it,” says Siria Taurelli, Senior Specialist in Governance and Lifelong Learning at the European Training Foundation (ETF). “We now recognise the crucial importance of lifelong learning in today’s world.”

Lifelong learning is prominent in current European Union policies. One of the pillars of the European Skills Agenda is access to education, training and lifelong learning for all; and lifelong learning features in two of the six dimensions of the European Education Area.

Taurelli is leading one of six thematic sessions – “Role of Actors in Lifelong Learning Systems” – at an international conference being held from 21 to 25 June 2021. The virtual conference is organised by the ETF and UNESCO in collaboration with UNICEF, and is titled “Building lifelong learning systems: Skills for green and inclusive societies in the digital era online”.

Digitalisation is one of the drivers of change and one of the reasons why lifelong learning must flourish, says Taurelli. A lot of learning shifted from face-to-face to digital during COVID-19. Before that and today, there has been an explosion of learning and courses and qualifications.

Digitisation calls for more learning and more continuous learning. It means faster labour market evolution and changing value chains that imply new roles, new skills and new ways of dealing with others actors in the economy and in education and training.

“Digitisation can only accelerate the move from more static to more fluid and mobile governance and management of vocational, education and training systems.”

The conference will bring together practitioners from ETF partner countries, to explore lessons from real-life practices, identify conditions that support change and discuss new directions. What is learned will be translated into guidelines and policy suggestions.

The context

“Embedding vocational education and training into lifelong learning is a process that affects all aspects of the system,” points out a Concept Note for the ‘role of actors’ session. “It involves all the people and institutions that contribute to developing human capital.” This includes state and non-state actors, all of whose roles are changing.

State actors are public bodies such as ministries and sub-national authorities, government agencies for quality assurance and qualifications, education and training providers with their principals and educators, centres of expertise on skills needs or curriculum, pedagogical and teacher training institutes, and public employment and career guidance services.

Also essential are non-state actors operating in the private sector or civil society including, for example, chambers of commerce, employee expert centres, companies and employers, NGOs, learning associations and research centres. While there is focus on overarching institutions, in reality things happen locally. Partnerships and trust need to be forged in districts and regions.

Taurelli elaborates: “With lifelong learning the education and training system expands its boundaries, and the boundaries are more blurred.” The system embraces more learners, and therefore more people who engage with and provide learning.

“So more functions, new actors, more people, new dynamics, more interactions, more complexity, and more partnerships and collaboration.”

Lifelong learning calls for creating new paths between education and training, expanded and flexible provision for learners of all ages, elimination of educational dead-ends, recognition of non-formal and informal learning, accessible upskilling and reskilling, comprehensive skills needs assessments and guidance services for people of all ages, among other things. The session will focus on two further issues: 

  • Creating partnerships for lifelong learning: state and non-state actors will need to explore new cooperation mechanisms, including new types of partnerships, many of which will bring together actors who do not necessarily cooperate in a traditional education and training system.
  • Ensuring resource mobilisation and higher-level outcomes: a lifelong learning system needs to mobilise financial – as well as human and institutional – resources on a much larger scale than a system covering only vocational education and training (VET), as it needs to include non-formal and informal learning at all ages.

“These two issues intersect the digitalisation and greening of the economy, which are driving change,” says the Concept Note. But there are challenges to implementation.

Actions, progress, challenges and needs

In the past five years, EFT partner countries have made progress in building consensus around policy visions, but have found it very difficult to devise actor coordination and cooperation mechanisms for the practical implementation of their strategies.

There are two general lessons to be learned. First, highly centralised VET systems are out of step with the move to hybrid governance models. Second, centralised governance carries hierarchical relationships with limited room for inter-institutional and inter-actor trust. 

Significant progress is required in hybrid models and inter-institutional trust, says the Concept Note, and: “This is being promoted by the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals dealing with institutions and partnerships – goals SDG16 and SDG17.”

Taurelli stresses: “With well-performing public institutions, we can hope to have better lifelong learning. It has been empirically proven that where public institutions are effective and efficient, education and training works better.”

The 2020 European Skills Agenda underlines that mechanisms for partnership are needed to attain high quality outcomes in skills and employment, and to unlock financial resources. It proposes a Pact for Skills among state and non-state actors, committing to high quality learning with targets, adaptable to different situations at national and sub-national level. 

“Actors must build a new common vision. They have to agree on long term and short term objectives. Having a pact must go way beyond occasionally meeting together round a table. This is no longer enough,” Taurelli explains.

The ETF calls for innovative financing schemes, given that both state funding and market-based principles have failed to mobilise sufficient resources to ensure lifelong learning for all. “In EU policies, the increasing mobilisation of resources is seen as an important condition – perhaps even a precondition – for all the rest to happen,” she adds.

International relevance

The discussions will be of significance to a wide international audience.

The ETF has observed the increasing relevance of ‘process experience’, says Taurelli – in moving from situation A to situation B. “It does not matter much what situation B is. More and more, people and actors want to learn from each other what happened, how a move started, who influences decisions, how trust develops, what have been the impediments and success factors. 

“It's about the process. No matter what a country’s level of ‘development’, the way things happen is very important. At the heart of what we need to discuss is: how can change happen?”

Quality assurance has always been complex and has become more so with the growth of lifelong and online learning and the expanding range of qualifications and micro-credentials. Definitions may vary between countries, but all systems must be steered by the aim of quality.

The starting point, Taurelli suggests, is to forge a common understanding of what is meant by – and what is expected of – quality. “Then systems follow by putting in place an array of tools, mechanisms and procedures to ensure quality.

“This will affect everything” – the way education providers are managed, the pedagogy, the interactions between schools and companies, the qualifications of educators, the way trainees are recruited and so on. “A perhaps endless process.”

Indeed, there are many actors in lifelong learning systems, many technicalities – tools and procedures and mechanisms – and many motivational factors, policy visions and learner perspectives. “Taurelli concludes: “Creating lifelong learning is also about forging a new language that brings all these perspectives together.”

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