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15 Jun 2023

Can Higher Education Institutions become beacons of lifelong learning?

New research on lifelong learning in higher education shows some promising efforts to improve the offer and widen access to it. However, as Edith Hammer and Paul Stanistreet explain, provision is often narrowly focused on skills for work and disadvantaged groups are still most likely to miss out.

The Marrakech Framework for Action, the outcome document of last year’s Seventh International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VII), recognizes the multi-sectoral nature of lifelong learning and calls for the reinforcement of institutional capacities for the promotion of lifelong learning for all, across a range of learning spaces, including in higher education institutions (HEIs).

It echoes the acknowledgment of the final report of the International Commission on the Futures of Education that education is a “social project” and a “shared societal endeavour” that “enables individuals and communities to flourish together” and that universities should do more to foster relationships with the communities to which they belong and the institutions that they neighbour.

Some HEIs take this role seriously and have well-developed local strategies to fulfil it. However, this dimension of higher education – a part of what is sometimes termed its “third mission”, alongside teaching and research, to cooperate with and contribute to their local communities – remains comparatively under-valued and under-developed in many institutions, as well as in terms of how we tend to fund and rank universities and other types of HEI.

Recognizing both this variation in approach and the failure of many institutions to live up their third mission, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) began a three-year cooperation with Shanghai Open University (SOU), in the People’s Republic of China, in 2020 to explore how universities and other higher education institutions contribute to lifelong learning. While HEIs, as traditional hubs of knowledge, are very well positioned to be lifelong learning institutions, fulfilling this role and looking beyond traditional cohorts of young students to provide more and better opportunities to people from different backgrounds and at different stages of their lives, means, in most cases, a major shift in mandate and outlook.

The traditional three- or four-year, full-time residential model of higher education has proven remarkably resilient in most countries, but as the world of work changes and humanity comes to terms with rapid transformations in technology and climate, as well as major demographic shifts, it has started to look badly out of date.

Strategy and governance

We wanted to explore the national policy environment that influences lifelong learning in higher education, as well as existing institutional strategies and governance structures. In terms of implementation, we focused on diversified learning provision, flexible learning pathways and alternative credentials, technology-enhanced learning, as well as community engagement and private-sector partnerships.

Our research, an international survey, conducted jointly with the International Association of Universities, coupled with six institutional case studies, indicated that there had been some positive advances in this direction. However, it also revealed important limitations as well as some significant challenges.

More than two-thirds (68.2%) of the 399 HEIs in 96 countries that took part in our international survey reported that national legislation in their country defined lifelong learning as a mission of higher education, although nearly a fifth (18.3%) said there was no relevant law in their country.

At institutional level, 68.2 per cent of surveyed institutions said they had a strategy for lifelong learning in place at some level. The survey also showed that institutions that reported the existence of national legislation defining lifelong learning as a mission of higher education were much more likely to have an institutional strategy for lifelong learning in place – as compared to institutions where no such conducive legislation exists.

The case studies revealed that lifelong learning was mandated in the strategic plan, constitution and charter of different institutions. They also showed that where an institutional strategy exists, it is not always as a specific policy document but is rather constituted through a variety of texts that refer to it, and materialized through a series of more or less coordinated measures. An “institutional lifelong learning strategy” is therefore understood differently by different stakeholders.

Just over half of the responding institutions (53.6%) reported having a dedicated lifelong learning unit. These covered a range of functions, most prominently offering and selling education programmes and trainings (73.4%), followed by curricula development and community engagement (both 65.6%). Other common functions of lifelong learning units include staff development, facilitating flexible learning pathways and enhancing graduate employability.

The case studies suggested that dedicated lifelong learning units usually have as their main responsibility the coordination and delivery of continuing education.

Who is missing?

Institutions were asked which groups they addressed through their lifelong learning activities. The top three groups targeted strongly or to some extent are working people requiring upskilling/reskilling (89%), public and private organizations (84%), and women (82%), followed by higher education staff.

Older people, unemployed learners, and people with disabilities were targeted to a lesser degree. The priority further decreases for persons living in remote or deprived areas, and ethnic and religious minorities. The least prioritized group is prisoners and former prisoners.

This suggests that the most vulnerable groups are a lesser priority, while labour market-oriented learning has become an important part of institutions’ lifelong learning agendas.

There is a need to diversity access and participation in higher education in order to make lifelong learning available to all groups of society.

Learning formats and pathways

When it comes to flexible learning formats, 70.3 per cent of institutions responded that they offer dedicated programmes for adult learners that potentially lead to a graduate or post-graduate degree. The results indicate that the main form of provision for bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate programmes is still full-time and on campus. There is more flexibility for shorter qualifications, such as certificates, diplomas or postgraduate courses, which are more commonly available as part-time, distance and blended learning options.

The survey showed that two-thirds of institutions (66.4%) have policies in place to support flexible learning pathways while 57.4 per cent have information and guidance services in place to ensure that pathways are not only available but also used. Some HEIs used technology-enhanced learning to support flexibility of learning processes, with live online lectures and seminars and increased use of blended or hybrid learning the most common methods.

The data show that a third (34.6%) of institutions offer MOOCs, while 16 per cent had stated to use artificial intelligence in the context of lifelong learning. The case studies show that the rapid expansion of digital learning technologies in higher education has enabled universities to better address the learning needs of non-traditional groups of learners, including learners with disabilities, part-time students, older learners, and people living in remote areas. However, it needs to be said that access and participation in online learning among disadvantaged groups of learners remains a challenge for many higher education institutions.

Engagement with local communities

Almost all surveyed institutions (98%) said that they engaged with stakeholders and their local communities. The most common ways of doing so were by organising public lectures and workshops and by collaborating with other universities. The majority indicated that they also collaborate with NGOs, cultural institutions and local communities to promote research and continuing education programmes.

Similarly, 98 per cent of institutions said they had established relations with the private sector, including collaborative research projects, training provision for employees or involving working professionals in teaching activities, among other forms of engagement.

A right to lifelong learning

The picture that emerges from the research is mixed. However, it is clear that while some strides have been made, they are not yet sufficient. Provision remains too narrowly focused on skills for employment while the usual suspects – disadvantaged groups who have had the least opportunity to learn – continue to miss out.

For higher education institutions to fulfil their lifelong learning mandate, it is crucial that they widen access and participation and diversify learning provision. Importantly, lifelong learning provision must go beyond the upskilling of already well-educated people and address the needs of vulnerable and non-traditional groups.

Universities are key for extending learning opportunities to local communities, but they are not doing enough to realise their potential contributions to promoting social equity and community resilience and strengthening local economies – all critical in light of the climate crisis.

We need to renew higher education as part of our efforts to rethink and transform education. To achieve this, higher education institutions need to develop holistic institutional strategies that guide their lifelong learning implementation. This needs to be supported by conducive national policies that recognise lifelong learning as a right which forms an essential part of the mission of HEIs.

The resources associated with the project, including the two publications, International trends of lifelong learning in higher education and Institutional practices of implementing lifelong learning in higher education, are available here:



Edith Hammer is Programme Specialist, Skills Throughout Life, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

Paul Stanistreet is Head of Knowledge Management and Communications, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

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