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:
their lifelong learning policies aim to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals.
that gender equality is one of the principal goals of their lifelong learning offerings.
& social responsibility as main drivers for their involvement in lifelong learning.
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’.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Only 44 per cent of participating institutions offer non-credit certificates or diplomas, and only 11 per cent badges or other micro-credentials.
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.
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.
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.