The changing shape of lifelong learning

08 July 2024

Elena Liquete examines the role of universities in delivering lifelong learning, what that learning might look like and the nature of demand.


You have probably never heard of Trowbridge, a small town in the west of England. Since the 14th century, it has been a centre for woollen cloth production, with artisans and farming families producing cloth for merchants in their homes using a spinning wheel and hand loom. These were skilled jobs, and as demand grew, more people needed to be trained to produce the required amount of cloth. This changed overnight with the invention of the mechanised loom in the 17th century.

Workers in Trowbridge resisted mechanisation, resulting in several riots in the town, but there was nothing they could do to stop progress. By 1820, Trowbridge had 20 factories producing so much woollen cloth that it was described as “the Manchester of the West.” The Industrial Revolution brought prosperity to Trowbridge, creating more jobs than it destroyed (although these were mostly unskilled) and bringing wealth to the area.

Fast forward to 2024, and we are on the cusp of another technical revolution that will have a major impact on the nature of work. But unlike workers in the 18th century, today we have more choices; we can upskill, change direction, or pursue entirely different paths. Another factor to consider is longevity; as we expect to live longer lives, we are likely to have a number of careers to suit our needs and interests at different life stages. Upskilling and reskilling are key to navigating this evolving landscape.

CarringtonCrisp’s recent report into the Future of Lifelong and Executive Education highlights the skills most demanded by employers. As you may expect, technical skills rank high on the employers’ agenda but so do interpersonal skills. Advances in learning technologies have dramatically transformed the educational landscape, shifting from the traditionally static and mass model of large groups of students in lecture halls, to a more personalised learning experience delivered through apps. Financial pressures and the cost of living crisis have forced many learners to look for alternative paths away from traditional university degrees.

In this sifting landscape, universities are ideally placed to fulfil the need of adults who need to upskill or reskill at different stages in their lives. However, to do so, they will need to change as well. Most universities primarily focused on teaching degrees to young people. They have the expertise and the means to teach other audiences and some of them (Imperial is a good example) have made lifelong learning a key strand of their strategy. Some universities are already exploring how systems and processes designed to assure quality in degree education can be adapted to delivering shorter learning inputs. Others are debating how learning objectives can be translated into skills or how to recognise microcredentials from other faculties or even other universities.

To explore some of these challenges, the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning held its Annual Conference from 1st to 3rd July in London, hosted by SOAS and sponsored by CarringtonCrisp. The conference brought together practitioners, academics, policy makers and strategy experts from across the globe to share their insights and experience in the field of lifelong learning, continuing education and adult learning.

When you get a group of academics together, some time will inevitably be spent debating the meanings of terms, and this conference was no exception. I was hopeful that a session titled “Towards a Lexicon of Lifelong Learning” would provide clarity. It didn’t, but it did serve to frame the debate.

For different audiences, lifelong learning can mean many different things – to begin with when does lifelong learning begin?  For some, the term lifelong learning might be associated with adult education, which in the UK traces its roots back to just after the First World War and organisations such as the Workers’ Educational Association.  More recently, lifelong learning has been associated with upskilling, reskilling and new skilling, delivering the education for those working to advance in their careers.

The landscape of higher education is evolving at an unprecedented pace. Demographic shifts and the rapid advancement of technology mean that knowledge and skills now need to be updated more frequently than they did just five years ago. Whatever your definition of lifelong learning, universities are ideally placed to meet the challenge of delivery to those seeking skills and knowledge. The clock is ticking…

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