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Policy Insights

The Necessity of Lifelong Learning

Interview with Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak
Copyright: Deborah Cheramie

Population Europe: What is your definition of “lifelong learning”?

Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak: For me, lifelong learning is a process in which we acquire knowledge, skills, and other competences during our lives in different ways and forms. That means education through training but also through other informal ways like learning from books, from the internet, from our friends, from experience at work – all new things that we learn for our personal development and for better participation in the labour market.

PE: Why has lifelong learning become such an issue in the context of demographic change and ageing societies?

ACD: Population ageing means that the number of people at working age, especially in relation to people at non-working age, is shrinking. So in the context of a decreasing labour force everyone looks for ways in which we can increase the overall level of human capital, through investing in the skills and abilities of people that are in the workforce. When we look at data we see that people tend to learn when they are young and reduce, even stop learning when they are older. Especially in the context of ageing and in the context of prolonging working lives this is an issue that becomes more and more important.

PE: In the European average, currently only 10% of adults participate in lifelong learning. What are the reasons for this?

ACD: There is huge diversity between countries, but there are a lot of countries in which really very few people tend to learn when they are adults. There may be a few explanations: First is a very traditional way of perceiving life courses, so there is a period in which we learn, during childhood, and then there is a period in which we work and form our families. In the literature and in research there is now a tendency to see that life courses are not that simple and in that context learning should be present at all ages. It is not something that stops when people start to work, as getting new competences is needed due to quickly changing demand for skills. Still, in some countries that traditional approach prevails. Second is the level of development of educational and labour markets. Again, there is huge diversity: Countries that perceive labour markets as very fluid and very flexible usually also have a very developed education and training sector that allows people to modify their skills and competences and to shift between different kinds of jobs. In those countries that have more rigid labour markets, where people stay in the same job for many years, the educational sector is rather less developed. Workers don’t feel the need to update their skills or competences because they believe that what they know and what they are able to do is absolutely sufficient for maintaining their jobs and workplaces.

PE: What is the secret of countries with high percentages of lifelong learning?

ACD: Flexible labour markets and very well developed educational systems. If you look at the countries performing best, they are Scandinavian, and their educational systems are also known as being very good. If we look at Norway, for example, in their strategy lifelong learning is perceived as a policy that starts from a very early age. Countries that realise that human capital is their most important asset are also the countries in which people learn a lot. They see the need to develop the ability to learn throughout the entire life as a part of a school curriculum. This is very important because not everybody is born with the idea “I should learn throughout all my life”. It is a concept we need to understand and realise, and the sooner and better we do that the better we are able to plan our future developments, also to taking into account learning.

PE: Does that mean people with higher formal education are more “ready” for lifelong learning?

ACD: The data that is available through Eurostat, both from the Labour Force Survey and the Adult Education Survey, show that people that have higher formal education levels also tend to participate more in lifelong learning activities. Those that are more highly educated seem to better see the need for learning and participate in it, compared to those with lower educational levels. In that way the current practices actually lead to rising inequalities resulting from education. Those who have better educational attainment when they transfer, better skills and qualifications, tend to maintain a higher level of human capital throughout their entire lives, while those who have lower educational levels and skills tend to lose their skills earlier because they don’t learn.

PE: What are the most common reasons for not participating in lifelong learning?

ACD: People don’t find the time and employers don’t see the need to start training their employees because they see it as a sort of competitive activity to working or family lives. And this is something that is a very short sighted idea. Because if workers have more competences they can be more productive, so it is a good investment – both from employers who can have higher profits and for workers who can get higher wages and improve their quality of life.

PE: Which policies could help to increase lifelong learning?

ACD: That is a very difficult question. In 2008 the European Parliament and the Council issued recommendations with the European Qualification Framework recommending that countries develop their national qualification frameworks and through that, make participating in learning easier and differentiated to better match individual needs  as well as improving mobility. Formal, non-formal and informal learning should be made more available and be treated more equally. The development of qualification frameworks should also be accompanied by the validation of learning outcomes achieved through non-formal and informal learning. And I think this is a good way to develop schemes that are more flexible and more adjusted to the needs of the people, the needs of the labour market, and the needs of employers.

It is also very important to focus on the learning outcomes and not the process of learning. People realise the value of learning when they can gain a qualification that they can then use in the labour market to find a job that is better paid or more interesting; that is also the way we can promote lifelong learning. There are also various financing mechanisms that are important in order to increase participation in education and training to overcome the financial barriers. And it is also very important to develop more knowledge amongst employers who play a very important part in this equation, so they see a value added for their companies if they have better trained people, meaning more human capital at their companies.

PE: Can you give a concrete example of a successful policy measure?

ACD: Maybe I could provide the UK example:  , where qualification frameworks were developed some time ago. They serve not only through supporting lifelong learning, but are a means of communication between the labour market and educational systems. The language the frameworks use is focused on learning outcomes and in this way is very close to the language of competences used by employers. Using a similar vocabulary, focusing on what education systems provide and what employers need is a way of helping employers understand that it is good to invest in lifelong learning. And that way, employees who form a huge part of the entire adult learning community, participate in lifelong learning.

PE: How can institutions like schools and universities adapt to lifelong learning?

ACD: It is important to understand that we learn in different ways and can then go to these institutions to validate competences that we have acquired through other ways. It is also very important that these formal institutions open up to accept that people learn differently and that they can actually learn quite a lot through different ways. Schools and universities should help them to fill in the gaps left in order to get some formal degree through validation procedures. Sometimes people don’t want to go through the whole curriculum because they actually know a lot from different activities they had in their lives.

Agnieszka Chłoń-Domińczak is researcher at the Warsaw School of Economics (Institute of Statistics and Demography) and the Institute for Educational Research. She is co-author of the upcoming Population Europe Policy Brief on Active Ageing. (Picture: Institute for Educational Research)

Interview: Sigrun Matthiesen for Population Europe