Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

The Role of Higher Education Institutions for Lifelong Learning

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are essential actors in the promotion of lifelong learning (LLL). They have a unique capacity to develop skills and foster knowledge, and the potential to mobilize educational resources and provide learning opportunities for diverse populations. This implies a fundamental shift, from educating young students coming from secondary schools to encouraging learners from various backgrounds to enter higher education at different ages and stages of their personal and professional lives.

While the higher education sector constitutes a huge potential for promoting lifelong learning, its actual contribution is far from being realized.

Many universities continue to prioritize academic excellence and research, with less attention being paid to widening access and participation to learning opportunities. Achieving the vision expressed through the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and precisely articulated in SDG 4, requires a substantial transformation of HEIs into lifelong learning institutions. To further explore these issues and provide guidance to policy-makers and HEIs, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong learning (UIL) and Shanghai Open University (SOU) are conducting a comprehensive research project on the contribution of universities and other HEIs to lifelong learning.

Moreover, a recent survey implemented together with the International Association of Universities (IAU) of almost 400 HEIs, revealed the following significant findings:

Key data

of higher education institutions report that

their lifelong learning policies aim to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals.

of higher education institutions strongly agree

that gender equality is one of the principal goals of their lifelong learning offerings.

of higher education institutions see community engagement

& social responsibility as main drivers for their involvement in lifelong learning.

Reaching out to vulnerable groups, providing flexible learning pathways, promoting an open science approach, and offering learning opportunities for people of all ages constitute some of the fundamentals that should guide higher education institutions in a learning society.
key findings
National governments should define lifelong learning as a core mission of higher education institutions. 

Comprehensive national policies and frameworks show political will and support the institutionalization of LLL; however, while 68 per cent of participating HEIs confirm that this is the case for their countries, 18 per cent do not and almost 14 per cent answered, ‘I don’t know’.

 Does national legislation on HE define LLL as a mission for HEIs? graph
Higher education institutions should develop institution-wide approaches to lifelong learning that adhere to all three missions of higher education.1

Institutional policies/strategies provide the framework for the diversity of learning while defining sound institutional principles. Forty-four per cent of HEIs report that lifelong learning is referenced as a ‘high priority’ in their mission statements.


1To many universities and other HEIs are attributed three major, interrelated missions: education, the generation of new knowledge, and engagement with society or ‘the community’.

How is LLL referenced in your institution's mission statement? graph
Dedicated lifelong learning units are a useful structure to institutionalize lifelong learning in higher education institutions.

Units that take the operational lead of lifelong learning implementation establish a shared understanding, engage different stakeholders, and develop specific expertise. In the sample report, nearly 54 per cent of HEIs responded that they have a dedicated lifelong learning unit.

Does your institution have a LLL unit? graph
Funding schemes for higher education, both institutional and for learners, should extend to lifelong learning opportunities.

Funding and financing remain a major barrier to lifelong learning in HEIs, with almost 67 per cent of participating institutions identifying finance as a key challenge.

What are the challenges faced when implementing LLL in your institution? graph
Quality assurance procedures are key to enhancing the effectiveness and level of professionalism of lifelong learning in higher education institutions

Since funding is often tied to measurable outputs, a mechanism to define and monitor these outputs, including for non-formal lifelong learning, is essential. Over 59 per cent of HEIs in the sample have quality assurance mechanisms in place.

Are there quality assurance procedures for LLL opportunities? graph
To widen access to and increase participation in lifelong learning, higher education institutions need to make educational opportunities and content relevant for non-traditional students

The main target groups of lifelong learning in higher education in the participating HEIs are working people who require upskilling, public and private organizations, women and HEI staff.

Target groups of LLL activities (n=399) graph
Higher education institutions must address the diverse learning needs of lifelong learners by including different delivery modalities, degree- and non-degree-granting formats, as well as alternative forms of accreditation

Only 44 per cent of participating institutions offer non-credit certificates or diplomas, and only 11 per cent badges or other micro-credentials.

Does your institution offer alternative digital and non-digital credentials beyond traditional degrees, diplomas and certificates? (n=218) graph
Flexible learning pathways (FLPs), including the recognition, validation and accreditation of prior learning (RVA), should be introduced and expanded across higher education institutions.

FLPs allow learners to enter and re-enter higher education at various points of their lives and enable individualized and learner-centred education. Just over 66 per cent of participating institutions report having policies to support flexible learning pathways in place, while 34 per cent do not.

Does your institution have policies to support flexible learning pathways? graph
Technology-enhanced learning elevates lifelong learning in higher education institutions in an inclusive way.

Online teaching and learning – recently accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic – along with more sophisticated methodologies provide enhanced opportunities for adaptive and self-led learning. While 80 per cent of participating institutions report offering online lectures and seminars, only 30 per cent have online learning degree-granting programmes.

Share of institutions using technology-enhanced learning innovations (n=399) graph
Higher education institutions should engage with local communities through lifelong learning

HEIs are important players in regional and local development, fulfilling their social responsibility. Almost all participating institutions – 98 per cent – interact in at least one way with their communities, most often through the organization of public lectures and workshops.

Engagement with stakeholders and the community graph