Without social inclusion and equity, lifelong learning will be little more than a platitude, warns Maggie Woodrow.
There is an assumption now that everyone knows what lifelong learning is. After all, we should. We have had a European Year of Lifelong Learning (1996), a World Conference on Lifelong Learning (1997) and the Mumbai Declaration on Lifelong Learning (1998). In the UK, we have a minister for lifelong learning and three green papers on the subject.
In some countries lifelong learning is radically different from adult or continuing education. In others the three are indistinguishable. Typically the official view, as expounded by Finland's Committee on Lifelong Learning, presents lifelong learning as a principle that, "when followed, ensures a broadly based and continuous process of learning throughout society". Other interpretations emphasise process more than principle, for example describing a process through which informal and formal learning can be combined in a "natural" form of everyday learning.
Often lifelong learning is presented not just as a principle or process, but as an attitude. Last year's Unesco World Conference on Higher Education described it as "a natural part of the everyday lives of all women and men throughout the world".
At this point a sense of unreality starts to creep in. Can it be that lifelong learning is less an attitude than a platitude? For Unesco lifelong learning is "the key to the 21st century"; for the UK's Department for Education and Employment it is "a renaissance for a new Britain". Lifelong learning will trigger a global economic miracle, make the world safe for democracy and, at an individual level, the DFEE says, "help older people to stay healthy and active, strengthen families and the wider community and encourage independence".
Lifelong learning is all things to all people: it is the Holy Grail, winning the lottery, a double Scotch, Viagra - whatever turns you on. But like all platitudes, lifelong learning conceals a dark side of reality.
It may be not so much a principle, a process, an attitude or a platitude, as a "form of capital". Nothing wrong with that perhaps, but as with all forms of capital, the more you start with, the more you stand to gain. One interpretation of lifelong learning is as a specific form of capital, which follows a logic of accumulation, not of compensation.
This makes lifelong learning no more than a means of status maintenance. As explained by Linden West: "Lifelong learning has become part of the rhetoric of individual adaptability to economic imperatives. The point is to fit in with the established order rather than to change it."
Does all this mean that lifelong learning as a means of widening participation is a lost cause? If it is about "everyday learning" for "anyone and everyone", surely this must be good news? In fact, this kind of meaningless statement simply enables those who have always benefited to go on doing so. What is everyday learning and where does it take place? One typical response is that everyone in modern society, regardless of their class origins, race or gender, is engaged in lifelong learning, through their everyday lives, at work and through communications.
If this is so, are we not in danger of trivialising learning by equating it with incidental acquisition of superficial information? The mythical parity of opportunity implied by "everyday learning" will leave low-status groups on the outside in terms of what they learn and where they learn it, and high-status groups on the inside with all the best of our higher education system.
The solution is to develop genuinely pluralist universities that can reach out to and meet the learning needs of excluded groups.
But the greatest barrier is that lifelong learning focuses on individuals and so helps to marginalise further those already in a weak social position. If it sought the collective benefit of disadvantaged groups, it could meet the needs of those whose exclusion represents a serious waste of economic potential.
This is not happening, and it is rarely envisaged for the future. The Mumbai statement, which applauds "the long tradition of adult education in supporting excluded groups", neither mentions their continued under-representation nor recommends an end to it.
There is a chance, however, of turning the confusion about lifelong learning to advantage by creating a new reality based on "second chance not second helpings". If we can seize the lifelong learning agenda for equity and social inclusion, we must leave no room for doubt as to what it means or who it is for. Otherwise could we not just forget about lifelong learning?
Maggie Woodrow is director of the European Access Network, University of Westminster. An early version of this article was presented at the launch of the Council of Europe's lifelong learning project in November 1998.