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‘Universities must engage in lifelong learning’ – UNESCO

The future of universities depends on their ability to provide ‘lifelong learning’ that equips non-traditional students with in-demand skills, UNESCO warned last week. 

Lily Kong, president of Singapore Management University, speaking at the Global Lifelong Learning Summit. Photo: GLLS/SkillsFuture Singapore.

The OECD found that manual skills are in surplus in its member countries, while digital and STEM skills are in shortage.

David Atchoarena, director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, called on universities to engage with continuing and adult education at the first Global Lifelong Learning Summit held in Singapore in November. 

“As we face salient changes in citizenship, climate change, health and wellbeing, among others, more countries are seeing the increasing importance of lifelong learning and are putting measures and strategies to make it a reality,” said Atchoarena, later adding that universities should “really define their mission so that they play their role”.

What is lifelong learning?

Lifelong learning refers to education beyond formal schooling and degree programs – something governments around the world continue to invest in as they grapple with ageing populations and changing workplace skill requirements.

“Fundamental forces are reshaping the future of work and society,” said Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a senior minister in Singapore’s government, speaking on the first day of the conference organised by the Institute for Adult Learning and SkillsFuture Singapore

“New, more powerful forms of digital automation are very likely to impact a much broader swath of jobs.

“You can’t predict with precision exactly which tasks and jobs are going to be displaced. And indeed, there will be many new jobs and tasks created by technological advances.

“It is very likely that much broader sections of the workforce are going to be in a position of some insecurity.”

The OECD found that manual skills are in surplus in its member countries, while digital and STEM skills are in shortage. 

“Training and lifelong learning could help us fill these shortages,” said Michele Tuccio, economist at the OECD. 

“More countries are seeing the increasing importance of lifelong learning”

What role do universities play?

In a panel discussion at the event, experts discussed the role that higher education institutions play in providing lifelong learning and teaching in-demand skills. 

Speaking about Singapore’s higher education system, Lily Kong, president of Singapore Management University, said, “All the universities have really geared up and gotten into the act of delivering continuing education.” 

“A large part of it is because the government has pushed this as a major theme and agenda in Singapore for upskilling and reskilling the workforce.

“And that’s critical in the context of Singapore, because we’re a small country, we’re a city, a country and an island all at the same time. And we have precious few natural resources, if any. And so all that we rely on is principally human resource.”

But Kong also pointed out that higher education is not monolithic: “There are some types of institutions that are maybe better suited to this new role, perhaps this new responsibility, and others which if they pivoted might actually lose something of their value proposition in trying to become something else.”

Universities that do focus on lifelong learning need to ensure their products fit the needs of the adults they are targeting if they want to see higher takeup, advised Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD. This could include modularising learning, part-time provisions and “better integration of the world of work and the world of learning”. 

“Perhaps the biggest threat to current universities is not the questions around efficiency and alignment, but actually the loss of relevance,” Schleicher said. 

Emerging providers

Experts also discussed the role of non-traditional providers in supporting lifelong learning. 

“There are a number of individuals who are not served by traditional higher education,” said Christen Bollig, chief operations officer at General Assembly, a private education provider that focuses on digital skills. 

“A big part of what I think allows us to be successful is the nimbleness and the speed with which we can introduce new concepts, introduce new curriculum. Those things tend to be more challenging in a traditional academic structure.” 

Glenda Quintini, senior economist at the OECD, told The PIE News that there is already a drive among higher education institutions to invest in lifelong learning and deliver education that addresses labour market demand.

This is particularly the case at universities in countries that are “naturally seeing a smaller cohort” due to low birth rates and need to instead target non-traditional students.  

“Also the funding models are changing in many countries,” Quintini said. “So universities are assessed also in many countries based on how they place students on the labour market and based on the labour market prospects of their students. So there is, in fact, an interest from universities to do that.” 

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