When will lifelong learning come of age?

Continuous retraining is widely seen as the answer to the coming job losses caused by automation and artificial intelligence. But are universities the best places to provide it? And are their courses, structures and funding systems optimised to do so? Anna McKie reports

August 8, 2019
car and plane on runway
Source: Getty

Last month’s announcement by Amazon that it plans to spend $700 million (£569 million) over six years to retrain a third of its US workforce was eye-catching for many reasons. One was the price tag: even for the world’s second most valuable company, spending three-quarters of a billion dollars over half a decade to retrain 100,000 workers is a huge undertaking.

Also noteworthy was the firm’s reasoning. Amazon explicitly attributed its move to the rise of automation, machine learning and other technology: the so-called fourth industrial revolution. There was a sense that the pioneer of online retailing, famed for its use of automation, was merely an early accepter of an inescapable truth that all employers will soon have to face: that the skills of their existing workforces will no longer have any market value as their old roles are taken by machines and new roles are created. The company reportedly has 20,000 current vacancies.

But, for universities, the most conspicuous aspect of the announcement may well have been their omission from it. According to The Wall Street Journal, even its advanced computer science training will be taught by Amazon's own staff – “some of whom are former university professors” – at a new in-house “Machine Learning University”.

Of course, this is partly just a reflection of the high level of internal expertise that a vast, wealthy and innovative company like Amazon possesses. But might it also, in part, be seen as an indictment of universities’ efforts so far to get to grips with the provision of lifelong learning?

According to David Atchoarena, director of Unesco’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, the concept of lifelong learning emerged in the 1970s. However, the advance of technology, and particularly the rise of AI, has seen the concept rocket up the policy agenda in recent years. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2018 report says that machines could displace 75 million jobs across the globe by 2022, while 133 million new roles could emerge from the new division of labour between humans and computers. Hence the incorporation of “inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all” in the United Nations’ list of Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by all member states in 2015.

“The nature and pace of these changes mean that it is not enough simply to retrain or upskill workers,” says Atchoarena. “[We need to] foster in workers the ability to adapt, to be creative and, most importantly, to learn throughout their lives.”

In the UK, for instance, lifelong learning formed a key plank of the recently published Augar review of post-18 education. It is also about to be the subject of an inquiry by the House of Commons Education Committee. However, those higher education institutions taking bold steps to embrace it remain scarce. Nor is it entirely clear what those steps should be. How do you best facilitate retraining for working adults who have to juggle numerous other commitments, such as jobs, children and caring for elderly relatives? And are universities the most appropriate institutions to take on the task?

Man with helicopter blades on head

“Right now, we have an education system predicated on a number of people going to university aged 18 to 21, possibly doing a master’s, then getting a job and staying in the same job,” says David Latchman, vice-chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London. “Life is not like that any more and we need an education system that recognises that.”

In the sphere of lifelong learning, Birkbeck is seen as a potential model for other UK universities because it caters specifically to the needs of mature students. But the recent deficit posted by the institution highlights the fact that concerted moves within the sector are unlikely until it is clear how lifelong learning could be paid for.

Latchman welcomes Augar’s recommendation that each individual should receive a lifelong student loan entitlement of £30,000 – equivalent to four years of full-time undergraduate degree funding if the recommended fee cap of £7,500 per year is adopted – that could be used for vocational or academic courses at any time of life, either full- or part-time. However, he believes that the review’s proposals do not go far enough to properly facilitate lifelong learning. While it proposes abolishing the existing ELQ rule that forbids people from accessing student loans for another qualification at the same level as one they already have, its four-year funding entitlement is likely to be mostly eaten up by undergraduate study; Latchman believes that the lifetime entitlement should be at least six years.

However, he also notes that older students are more debt-averse than younger ones, which may prevent them from using their entitlement later in life. This is borne out by the huge drop in part-time study following England’s tripling of undergraduate fees in 2012, which accounts for Birkbeck’s deficit in 2017-18, as well as the bigger financial problems that afflict the UK’s major institution for mature students, The Open University, obliging it to launch a painful series of cost-cutting measures that culminated in former vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks’ resignation last year.

Mary Kellett, the OU’s vice-chancellor, agrees that funding policy “needs to change” if lifelong learning is to take off: “Affordability is crucial to upskilling and to lifelong learning.” She points to recent Welsh reforms that allow part-time students to claim comparable support to those studying full-time, including access to maintenance grants for the poorest. Recent data from the Student Loans Company show that the number of Welsh-domiciled part-time applicants for student support grew by 35 per cent in the year following the changes.

Earlier in 2019, the Labour Party launched its Lifelong Learning Commission to develop its policy of free, inclusive education from cradle to grave. But the party will need to be quick, Kellett says: “Even in the next five years, the world is going to change rapidly. By the time a student starting now finishes their degree, some of the knowledge they learned at the beginning could be redundant.”

car on train tracks

In the US, the mushrooming free college movement, which has been embraced in various forms by several Democratic presidential contenders, could be a way to make further study affordable in an era in which student debt is considered to have reached crisis point. However, the idea remains deeply contested and may prove unaffordable.

But might employers pitch in? According to Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, there is already “a very active effort in higher education to pursue partnerships with large employers”. Many companies already offer to subsidise the tuition fees of employees who want to pursue a degree, and various companies have sprung up to match employees with universities offering online provision. Despite US employers’ reported $20 billion annual outlay on employee education, such subsidies have “historically been an underused HR benefit”, according to LeBlanc. But “given the war for talent, employers now want to more actively deploy those educational benefits for the purposes of retention and upskilling”.

LeBlanc points out that Amazon already partners with higher education “in pretty substantial ways” to train its workforce – although mostly with community colleges. And the company’s new initiative strikes him as “a significant expansion of an overall strategy around workforce that will be layered on to the existing work with higher education”. But Amazon is not alone in concluding that its “voracious need for more qualified employees” is such that it “can’t wait for higher education to ramp up enough and produce the graduates they need. Higher education – especially the two-year sector – is responsive to workforce needs, but no one would accuse our industry of being agile and fast-paced. So we lag,” Le Blanc says.

On the other hand, he suspects that the fourth industrial revolution will ultimately see demand for human labour decrease. “Yes, the tech wave will produce new jobs as well, but not commensurate with those it destroys – and new jobs may be as likely taken by algorithms as humans,” he says. Through that lens, “one might see the Amazon initiative as a more powerful version of the government job retraining programmes that are often underfunded and not very effective, directed at its own soon-to-be-displaced workers. If that’s the case, good for them.”

Norway also has an issue with funding lifelong learning. Its government recently created an expert committee to examine how to reduce the obstacles that hinder higher education institutions in their efforts to develop and deliver programmes that facilitate it. Since tuition is free in Norway, enabling repeated access to higher education across a lifetime could be very expensive for the state. Gunnar Bovim, rector of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told the Science|Business website in June that the government might have to consider introducing tuition fees for courses later in life: “It has to be paid for in some way – by government, individuals, or by a combination of the two,” he said.

man with motorised skates

But even if the finance is in place, what exactly should university-delivered lifelong learning look like?

Inge Jan Henjesand, president of BI Norwegian Business School, says it is important not to waste energy agonising over what competencies people might need in the future, because the world is changing too fast. “The example I use is that at the turn of the 20th century people predicted London would face a horse manure problem in the next 20 years thanks to the huge number of horses and carts entering the city – but they didn’t foresee the invention of the car. Technology is changing even quicker now,” he says.

“The most important thing that the government has to do is to strengthen the dynamics between individuals, businesses and the suppliers of higher education, so that programmes are flexible and reactive to changes," Henjesand says. "We have to be able to close down some programmes and start new ones easily.”

He notes that business schools can be seen as an area of higher education that has already tapped into lifelong learning, as those who undertake MBAs are often those who have already embarked on a career. However, he adds that his institution still has to adjust to fully address lifelong learning: “We now have modular offerings, blended learning – we have to make it flexible for people to come back [to university].”

In Singapore, the National University of Singapore (NUS) has joined with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Manpower in an effort to create a culture of lifelong learning, heavily subsidised by the government. Last year, the NUS announced that it will offer its alumni continuing subsidised access to a raft of new continuing education and training courses for up to 20 years after admission. The first block of 500 courses will be introduced in August, with more to follow; students will be able to stack them into graduate diplomas or even entire degrees.

“Other universities should do this to keep the brand of their alumni up in the workforce over time,” says Nancy Gleason, former director of the Yale-NUS College Centre for Teaching and Learning, who recently became inaugural director of the Hillary Ballon Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and visiting assistant professor of practice in social sciences at New York University Abu Dhabi. “Overall, not enough is being done to promote lifelong learning, and many higher education institutions do not see this as part of their mandate.” Part of the reason, she thinks, is that lifelong learning inevitably needs to be developed in conjunction with industry – “which is not always something academics see as appropriate. Many do not see themselves as teaching vocational skills, but that mindset has to change.”

Birkbeck’s undergraduate degrees are delivered on campus during the evening, and, according to Latchman, its academics appreciate the fact that this leaves their days free to conduct research. However, he acknowledges that if a standard university wanted to supplement its daytime offer with an evening programme, it would need to recruit an extra set of staff to do so.

Many observers, though, see online rather than campus-based programmes as the key to lifelong learning. Distance learning has, of course, been the OU’s bread and butter since its establishment 50 years ago, and Kellett agrees that the flexibility it offers can be invaluable.

“[Lifelong learning] has to fit around your work, your commitments, your abilities,” she says. “That’s what we do at the OU: we offer people the ability to learn anywhere and at any time, as flexibly as they like, in small chunks, and [we] work closely with employers to work out what their needs are and then tailor our curriculum as closely as we can.”

In 2013, the OU launched FutureLearn, the UK’s first platform for massive open online courses (Moocs). Mark Lester, FutureLearn’s co-founder and managing director for universities and educational partnerships, believes that lifelong learning will be delivered almost entirely digitally since “the campus model doesn't scale and the sheer volume of people that need to upskill or reskill runs into millions. University campuses can’t accommodate that.”

But “a whole suite of options” will need to be available online since while some lifelong learners will only want to top up their learning in specific areas, regulations will dictate that others need whole new degrees. FutureLearn, like other Mooc platforms, has therefore embraced “micro-credentials”; in its case, these are awarded for 100 to 150 hours of study and can count towards a full degree. That bite-sized approach, Lester says, will enable people to continuously dip in and out of formal education.

Bike with propeller

Latchman, though, is not alone in his view that “for many people, purely online learning is not the best solution” because the classroom experience is still valuable. “Combining it with online teaching: that’s the way of the future,” he says. To that end, Birkbeck offers master’s courses that are mostly taught online, but whose students “come in for a week of intensive study with our academics, go back online, come back later”.

Joseph Aoun, the president of Boston’s Northeastern University, agrees that purely online study is not for everyone. Northeastern’s answer is to open branch campuses around the US and the world – from Silicon Valley to Canada and soon the UK – which enable online learners to interact in person and facilitate “experiential learning”, often enhanced by work placements. One new Northeastern programme, for instance, allows graduates from the arts or humanities to do an internship in the tech industry, leading to a master’s in computer science.

Lifelong learning is key to Aoun’s mission to create “robot-proof” human employees. But he cites a 2019 survey conducted by Gallup and Northeastern that found that most respondents would not see higher education as their first port of call to update their skills. Around 95 per cent of the American, Canadian and UK adults polled saw the value of career-long learning, but the most popular option was on-the-job programmes provided by employers.

Moreover, while 52 per cent of Canadian and 45 per cent of British respondents said higher education is doing enough to meet the need for lifelong learning, only 25 per cent of Americans said the same. However, Amazon notwithstanding, for many Americans, universities may be the only shows in town. According to Aoun, the number of US employers offering lifelong learning opportunities has dropped “because the average tenure of employees in the US is less than five years. In Silicon Valley it’s three. So who is left to do it?”

For this reason, “universities have to assume that lifelong learning is part of their core mission. But it’s not enough to just say it: we have to learn to provide programmes and teach based on the needs of learners,” Aoun says. “We have to go to the learner, meaning we have to provide on-demand, customised and personalised programmes…This will require universities to be humble – and they are not used to that.” Many academics, for instance, take pride in creating their own courses based on their research interests. However, Aoun emphasises that “we are not saying [to staff] ‘You have to do this’ or ‘You should do that’. We are inviting staff to take part. We are saying: ‘There is a need; who would like to test it? Who would like to experiment with it?’”

Northeastern has co-designed stackable certificates with employers that, like those planned by the NUS, can ultimately add up to a degree. Aoun sees the recognition of such certificates by other education providers, employers and professional bodies as a crucial part of implementing lifelong learning.

Indeed, for FutureLearn’s Lester, it is the potential for university microcredentials to be universally recognised that offers the obvious advantage for students over training provided in-house even by a highly prestigious firm like Amazon. He also sees university involvement in lifelong learning as essential to guaranteeing quality. However, that doesn't mean that employers don't have a major role to play in programme design, Lester believes: the new credentials must address the long-standing criticisms of traditional graduates’ employability by balancing academic rigour with input from employers about what they need.

For her part, Kellett thinks there is a need for much greater cross-sectoral collaboration on lifelong learning, most notably with the further education sector: “If we get too precious and possessive about this then we are not serving learners’ needs,” she says. “If delivering on that mission is more doable through partnerships and working with other institutions, then bring it on.”

amphibious vehicle

One issue with programmes tied to employability has always been that the demand from students for them does not always match the demand from employers. In the case of AI courses, for example, Southern New Hampshire's LeBlanc points out that “these fields are hard. So even if the programmes exist, there is the challenge of persuading people that these are fields into which they should enter.” Another issue is “getting people the fundamental skills they need to succeed in these programmes”: in LeBlanc’s estimation, 50 per cent of American students come to college unprepared for the level of work involved: “Getting them across the finish line is tough,” he says.

Meanwhile, William Locke, director of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, notes that it is important to bear in mind that not all learners are driven by a career focus, and that this will also be true for lifelong learning. Some people may pursue additional qualifications simply as a hobby, or to be part of a community, or even to improve their mental well-being.

Kellett, too, stresses that lifelong learning is not merely about “skills and jobs, or promotion and pay rises, but also the social benefits of learning itself and how that equips you to deal with life’s challenges. If you think about how much longer people are going to be living, we also need to equip people with the skills to learn to manage the later stages of their lives, so they are more resilient.”

But, clearly, it is the changes in the workplace that will primarily drive the demand for and design of lifelong learning. And although companies like Amazon may be in too much of a hurry to wait, the changes already being adopted at institutions like Southern New Hampshire and Northeastern are evidence that the higher education supertanker may be starting to turn.

For his part, LeBlanc suggests that while the Amazon initiative is a good example of the “new providers and ways to upskill” that he expects to emerge as lifelong learning takes off, he still expects significant involvement from “traditional institutions of higher education”. And Aoun agrees.

“It is a shift, but it is a welcome shift,” he says. “If you look at the demand, this is where it is. Everybody needs to redefine, reskill and upskill. Everyone.”



Print headline: Learning for life

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (5)

We could change the DWP rules so people doing a Bachelors, or higher degrees like Masters, PhD, could also sign on - without the actual obligation to prove to the DWP fortnightly that they are looking for x number of jobs, because of course they're doing a Degree. At a stroke we elimininate for many the burden of seeking grants to fund their studies, lots of man-hours saved for more productive stuff like actually studying/researching rather than grant-form-filling -and we get a better educated workforce. However - now we have to ensure that claimants are actually bone fide doing a course, rather than finessing 3 years not having to jobhunt and still getting Jobseekers Allowance, Universal Credit, Housing Benefit etc. So we need the University to certify, say every term, 3x a year, not a massive admin burden, that the student is progessing in their work. Oh dear, now we have an aptitutde/suitability based criterion for going to University, rather than the universal money-based access we have now, and we can't go back to that, can we?
Lots of the problem here stems from differing perspectives on that loaded phrase "lifelong learning". Much of the discussion centres on this in the context of "employability". Most of what is seen as useful for employability is not in fact education, but *training*. Historically, training is not where universities have been, and we have to ask ourselves whether that's a place they *should* be. Training is much more domain specific and focused, and it also tends to be far more compressed. As a method of learning it runs almost entirely contrary to what a degree-level education was historically about: a chance for a more holistic and reflective experience. It's another reason why two year degrees are very popular with politicians and their more instrumental brethren, and far less so with those who would be delivering such teaching: there's less time to absorb what is being learned for longer term benefit. Until the tension in that is resolved, the "lifelong learning" questions been asked will remain unanswered.
There's another side to "lifelong learning" and in Canada that is referred to as "continuous education". I have seen perfectly capable individuals sucked into this pastime, claiming to love learning, but it seems to me that the ones who gained from it were the ones who were teaching. It can be a social experience for some, but when you realize the knowledge that has been gained from those who have worked all their lives, who ought by now be teaching what they know, it seems a waste that they are still out their learning. Maybe it's because if they were teachers, they need to discover the other side of that, while those who only learned and didn't get to impart their knowledge of that feel frustrated, leaving them with no feeling of joy at the wonders of life any more, having experienced so much of the other side of that, too.
For a massive company, providing training in house is feasible. For most - even multinationals - it's easier & more affordable to outsource to a training provider (which may or may not be a university). We have several multinationals who purchase training from my university at various levels from foundation degree to masters, as well as those taking degree appenticeships. Either way, it's a lot better than the large number of companies who sit around moaning that people coming out of education lack the skills they want... but cannot be bothered to train them in.
So what they're saying is this is purely voluntary, whether those who already have university degrees at various levels have to (or can) return for further training - for 20 years, is it? Or is it just until they have the power to say No, to anyone who suggests it, while those still in the lower ranks will be obliged to submit, even though they may be on the brink of contributing important knowledge or research to academia. This sounds like a moneymaker for universities and colleges, and another method of getting even intellectuals in society to conform. Getting your first degree can be an eye-opener, your next one perhaps a little more knowledge gained (of the political side of learning more so) , but after that, surely if a person is going to learn how to think and write and communicate it will have been accomplished by this stage and no more courses are necessary. What they need to learn they can do on their own. No, I see that there is definitely an agenda here, and it's not to better society.


Featured jobs