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David Atchoarena, UNESCO

UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning works with states to foster learning beyond formal education. David Atchoarena discusses the urgency of doing so and the need for universities to adapt beyond their traditional demographics.


Lifelong learning and adult education is already missing those who need it the most

As the director of UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, David Atchoarena is at the forefront of driving the UN’s sustainable development goals. Specifically SDG4, which focuses on ensuring access to inclusive and equitable quality education and, crucially for Atchoarena, “promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all”. 

The Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) was established 70 years ago under a different name – the UNESCO Institute for Education. In the aftermath of the second World World War, it focused on promoting international understanding and collaboration through education. Since then, the organisation’s mission has evolved. 

“More recently, this topic and this scope was extended to a more comprehensive vision of education as lifelong learning,” Atchoarena tells the PIE. “So not only adult education, but looking at this continuity of learning throughout life, from a very early age until people get older.”

Lifelong learning refers to ongoing education, both inclusive of and beyond formal schooling for personal and professional development. As some countries experience declining birth rates and longer life-spans, continuing to educate and re-skill their populations throughout their lives is becoming increasingly important.  

The Hamburg-based UIL supports UNESCO’s member states to develop policies and provide the tools for everyone to access lifelong learning. 

“One of the responsibilities that we have is also to manage to build a stronger narrative and build more evidence,” says Atchoarena, “so that we can actually explain and demonstrate to policymakers that, okay, if you invest more in lifelong learning, in a certain way you will also contribute to climate change mitigation policies, you will contribute to employment, etc.”  

Atchoarena sat down to speak with The PIE at the Global Lifelong Learning Summit in November. The conference took place in Singapore, a country that is actively investing in adult education and training its workforce for the jobs of the future. Under its SkillsFuture program, all Singaporeans aged 25 and over receive money to spend on educational courses.  

But while countries like Singapore are committed to improving lifelong learning, continuing education is missing those who need it the most at the global level. 

“We’ve known for decades that people with low socioeconomic background, low educational background, women, people with disabilities, people in remote rural areas have less opportunities to actually access education,” says Atchoarena. 

“Although this has been well identified as a challenge, the policies, the strategies – whatever – that have been put in place have not been really up to the challenge.” 

Societies are “weaker” as a result, he says. 

“There is really an issue of a raison d’etre and survival for universities”

As UIL attempts to make lifelong learning a reality for all, Atchoarena believes that universities have an important role to play. 

“I think that often the university is a very traditional… sometimes conservative environment where it’s difficult, for instance, to accept the fact that certain levels of qualifications can be actually achieved regardless of a learning pathway,” Atchoarena says. 

“We are seeing that in many countries with all the difficulties and the resistance in implementing the recognition of prior learning within universities.”

But Atchoarena is confident that change is coming within higher education – perhaps by necessity rather than choice as the number of young people entering universities drops in some regions. 

“There is really an issue of a raison d’etre and survival for universities,” Atchoarena says. “They will have to diversity if they want to remain present. I think that demography, to a certain extent, in many countries will force universities to change.” 

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