The challenge of making learning accessible, anywhere and for all

22 December 2023

Ahead of CarringtonCrisp's new report on the future of lifelong and executive education in early 2024, Elena Liquete looks at the shifting learning landscape and some of the challenges facing business schools and universities. 

Lifelong learning is not a new idea. Continuous education, adult learning, and similar programs have been in existence for decades. Large corporations have long recognized the importance of in-house development and training initiatives and many professions have mandated the need for ongoing Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to maintain one's license or qualifications. However, the landscape of lifelong learning has undergone significant changes in recent years, and it continues to evolve at a rapid pace. 

The catalyst for this transformation has been technology. The advent of online technology has revolutionised how we approach learning. It has opened up new avenues for both offering educational programs and delivering them to learners. Moreover, technology has also altered the demand for learning itself. Emerging technologies have accelerated the obsolescence of skills, reducing what was once referred to as the "half-life of skills" to a mere fraction of its former duration. 

In response to these shifts in the labour market, the demand for reskilling and upskilling has surged dramatically. The traditional social contract between employers and employees, which often guaranteed lifelong job security, has largely disappeared and employees no longer feel strong loyalty to their employers, leading to a growing need for adults to acquire new skills to navigate changing job landscapes. 

The term “Lifelong learning” means different things for different people. The European Commission provides a comprehensive definition, describing it as "all learning activity undertaken throughout one's life, with the goal of enhancing knowledge, skills, and competences across personal, civic, social, and employment-related aspects." 

Lifelong learning manifests in a multitude of formats, often categorized as formal, informal, and non-formal learning. The OECD makes the following distinctions: 

  • Formal Learning: This type of learning is always meticulously organized and structured, accompanied by specific learning objectives. From the learner's perspective, it is a deliberate pursuit of knowledge, skills, and competences. Classic examples include education within formal institutions or workplace training organized by employers.
  • Informal Learning: In stark contrast, informal learning lacks structured organization and explicit learning objectives. It is often described as experiential learning, where individuals absorb knowledge unconsciously through life's experiences, whether at work, home, or during leisure activities.
  • Non-formal Learning: Positioned between formal and informal learning, non-formal learning necessitates some degree of organization but may not always prioritize learning as the primary goal. In some cases, learning emerges as a by-product of other activities. For instance, professionals attending an alumni event where a speaker discusses the latest technology trends.

If universities are to play a significant role in lifelong learning, they need to adapt their offerings to meet the changing demands of the workforce and an increasingly diverse student body, fostering accessibility for individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. This shift involves moving away from their traditional role of primarily educating young degree-seeking students, focusing instead on addressing the educational needs of a wide range of learners who are entering or returning to higher education at different stages of their personal and professional lives. This poses opportunities, as well as challenges:  


  • Universities have a well-established capacity to create knowledge and develop competences.
  • Commercial training firms have been very successful in meeting the needs of individuals with work-life experience, but they often lack theoretical underpinnings and methodological rigour. 
  • They can develop a flexible learning provision with flexible learning pathways.


  • The university curriculum is seldom designed for lifelong learning.
  • Rapid advancements in technology and the need for universities to follow legal and regulatory processes often mean that programmes are already outdated by the time they are launched. 
  • It is difficult for universities to keep pace with fast changes in digital technologies and hence students are often more tech-savvy than their lecturers.
  • University structures often make interdisciplinary teaching challenging. 

What people need to learn, when and how is changing fast. Universities are well placed to deliver lifelong learning and lead the way but only if they are also willing to embrace radical change themselves.  

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