What role do universities have to play in creating a learner-centric culture for lifelong learning?

In an opinion piece recently appeared in the TH&MA Higher Education magazine, Prof Dr Robert F. Mudde, Vice Rector Magnificus / Vice President Education at TU Delft, addresses this question in the context of current worldwide trends in teaching and learning and of present developments in the Netherlands; in particular in view of the various Dutch national initiatives contributing towards a scaling up of a lifelong learning culture.  

Together with co-authors Willem van Valkenburg, Executive Director of TU Delft | Extension School for Continuing Education (ES), and Nida van Leersum, ES Policy Advisor on professional education and lifelong learning, Prof Dr Mudde reflects on the rise of the lifelong learner and its implications, a possible educational framework for the future and the call to action for universities  ̶  including a case study from TU Delft.

Read below to know more about how Dutch public universities are being asked to contribute to lifelong learning for working professionals[1] and how they could make a difference. For example in areas such as the scaling up of the provision of self-directed learning and in the building of bridges between national qualification systems and lifelong learning so that skills are recognised globally[2].

[1] Strategische agenda hoger onderwijs en onderzoek – houdbaar voor de toekomst – Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap (december 2019)

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Albert Einstein is known to have said that intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.

There is remarkable value in lifelong learning so it is no surprise that this topic is trending (inter)nationally. In the context of the Netherlands, we argue that with the rise of the lifelong learner, this is a call to action, for universities, for the government and other supporting public institutes to play a crucial role that will ensure a lifelong learning culture is fostered and embedded within our society. A lifelong learning culture that starts and ends with the learner.

Our tradition for linear learning

Our tradition for learning has been largely guided by our own social construct of what education should look like  ̶  a linear (vertical) scaffolding of knowledge. This is provided by educational institutes from one’s life formative years until joining the workforce. In recent years, as lifelong learning discussions take the centre stage, many question are arising with regards to a definition, proper quality assurance and a framework that merge with our current educational landscape.

In the Netherlands, lifelong learning is not a new concept. However, there is opportunity to better structure and recognise lifelong learning and to improve the commitment of public institutes. This cannot be done in a vacuum, but needs to be supported by existing legal and financial structures to lay the groundwork enabling learners to embrace lifelong learning.

The rise of the lifelong learner

There are various reasons for the rise of the lifelong learner. For starters, we are experiencing ‘knowledge decay, where 25% of what we know now is no longer relevant after two years’[3]. We are living longer and retiring later. This means that ‘formal education’ (secondary and higher education) that contributes to personal as well as competencies and skills development ends in our 20s and will not properly sustain us throughout our career. The fourth industrial revolution and future of work are not mere buzzwords. Technology and artificial intelligence are playing a major role in tackling many of the societal challenges we face. Current shortages in many sectors - health, elderly care, education and the transition to a fossil-free built environment and transport sector - requires us to supplement our knowledge, skills and competencies at an increasing pace. Moreover, rapidly increasing digitization in virtually all aspects of society will have consequences for nearly every job. Hiring trends are changing in some companies with the introduction of boot-camps and hands-on training where applicants are required to demonstrate their skills rather than their credentials. As we become increasingly part of a dynamic workforce, the ‘job for life’ model is changing into a ‘life of jobs’ model[4] either through choice or necessity. For a ‘life of jobs’, customised and personalised professional education offerings are required to have maximum impact. Keeping knowledge and skills up to date will allow us to prepare for our next career step as well as staying ahead of the societal and technological changes in society. Additionally, Covid-19 has contributed to expedite the need for digital skills for everyone.

It is therefore hardly surprising that lifelong learning is gaining prominence globally. The increase in acceptance and popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), short learning programmes and micro/nano degrees offers learning opportunities outside the scope of formal education. This non-linear education pathway is one where we are able to continuously look inwards at our talents and learning needs and at how these can best be fulfilled. Our ongoing and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge and skills for personal and professional development is transforming us into lifelong learners. However, what is lifelong learning exactly and which part should universities focus on?

[3] Lifelong learning in the Netherlands: How to stay relevant in the digital age (2018)
[4] MIT Sloan Management review: The Corporate Implications of Longer Lives (Magazine Spring 2017 Issue – Research Feature)

What is lifelong learning?

According to the European Commission, Lifelong Learning encompasses all learning activities undertaken throughout life with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competencies, within personal, civic, social or employment-related perspectives[5]. The OECD’s comprehensive definition covers all purposeful learning activities, from the cradle to the grave, that aims to improve knowledge and competencies for all individuals who wish to participate in learning activities[6].  In both definitions, the intention or aim to learn is the critical point that distinguishes these activities from non-learning activities, such as cultural or sporting activities.

Some universities are focused on the continuing education part of lifelong learning also known as adult learning - education provided for adults after they have left the formal education system, consisting typically of short or part-time courses. At a national level in the Netherlands, public universities are being asked to make a contribution to lifelong learning for working professionals[7]. This would not be a new contribution because higher education institutes are already active in providing continuing education. However, visibility is an issue because these shorter courses/programmes are largely overshadowed by formal education programmes. In many cases, most continuing education is offered in a decentralised manner (faculty driven), and the challenge even at the university level, is having a good overview. This is a big disadvantage to the professional learner who has to navigate their way through information-heavy websites to locate what is of their interest. There is a need to give lifelong its own space (in the literal and figurative sense).

[7] Strategische agenda hoger onderwijs en onderzoek – houdbaar voor de toekomst – Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap (december 2019)

What role do universities have in the Netherlands?

The universities within the Association of Universities in The Netherlands (VSNU) have formed a working group on lifelong learning[8] that aims to position the Netherlands as a qualitative and quantitative leader in this field. One of the primary goals is to create an online national education catalogue on Lifelong Learning. With no clear overview and insight into what is on offer, potential learners are not able to orient themselves properly. What will make this catalogue unique is that it will enable learners to filter and find lifelong learning at universities, all in one place (a one-stop shop). The catalogue will be offered in Dutch and English to be inclusive towards international learners, too.  Moreover, what distinguishes it from other lifelong learning websites is the fact that academic institutes are driving this initiative, and they are well placed to do so because they are subject matter experts and trusted providers of education.

A secondary goal of a national catalogue is to bring to the fore the existing contribution universities are already making to lifelong learning. By having a joint overview, the universities can also gain insights into what is on offer and where the gaps are. With the launch of the catalogue, the universities hope to increase the uptake of lifelong learning offerings. The catalogue will not only be useful to adult learners, but also to employers who would like to identify trainings for their employees.  

The VSNU working group also engages in discourse around the concepts of quality assurance and the importance of recognition of continuing education. For the professional learner and for employers, universities remain a trusted provider of education. To maintain this trust, universities need a proper framework for lifelong learning, where quality assurance and recognition of continuing education is addressed. It needs due attention now, because lifelong learning is gradually scaling up in the Netherlands.

[8] The bestuurlijk trekkers for the VSNU Working group on Lifelong Learning are the Open University and TU Delft

Lifelong learning is gradually gaining momentum in the Netherlands

There are various initiatives contributing towards a scaling up of a lifelong learning culture. The three public education sectors that provide education (MBO, HBO and WO) are lobbying for ‘een leven lang ontwikkelen voor iedereen’ [11](ed. lifelong development for everyone). Public funding in the form of ‘learning rights’ and a STAP budget (STimulans ArbeidsmarktPositie) are being advocated for, whereby Dutch persons could be eligible for individual training and/or self-development budgets for the further development of skills. At the European level, numerous initiatives (e.g. European Skills Agenda and Next Generation EU) indicate further stimulation for the scale up of demand, and eventually of supply, of continuing education. With increased possibilities in the market for professionals, the discourse around recognition and quality assurance is a pressing one, including its possible relationship to our existing national qualification system.

The Economic and Social Council in the Netherlands (SER) mentions that the civil effect and recognition of short-term trainings are low. A wider range of modular education is needed for validation of knowledge and skills for a more successful career[12]. Modular education ‘partitions degrees into smaller, Lego-like building blocks of learning, each with their own credentials, learning and skills outcomes’, for better job prospects[13]. Modular education allows the learner to customize individual learning pathways, which for some, could lead to the completion a professional degree in a flexible and innovative manner. ‘There is a great deal of interest in non-degree programs: ~50% in single subject courses; ~30% in some type of professional qualification or credential’[14]. Professionals want credible knowledge that is applicable to their workplace, and a credential that has a larger civil effect for recognition in the marketplace than a single course. The discourse is shifting from singular courses to micro-credentials and modular learning.  

Integrity of learning is embedded within a trusted quality assurance system. In the Netherlands, like in many other European and international counterparts, a national level framework for quality assurance for continuing education is absent. Within the universities, whether continuing education is centralised or decentralised, there is on-going ambiguity between who is ultimately responsible for its quality and how it should be addressed. The universities have to ensure that there is an ever present quality culture for continuing education, whereby the learner is guaranteed a quality experience that meets their needs. This is how universities can foster sustainable and reliable collaborations with industry partners. This is how the learner is guaranteed a credential that is recognised and adds value to their career progression. However, ensuring quality and recognition should ideally be addressed through a national level framework for lifelong learning.

[12] Pearson Global Learner Survey 2019

The most important thread binding the entire discussion together should be the learner. As universities, we have a tendency to think we know what the learner needs. This assumption is driven by our long-standing experience in providing education for students (a largely homogeneous group) pursuing formal degree programmes. However, professional learners are a much more diverse group, comprising varied professional and educational backgrounds and juggling multiple day-to-day commitments. Their learning needs are constantly changing, driven by the market and/or their own desire to enrich their knowledge and skills.

How can we ensure it all starts and ends with the learner? The corporate giant Amazon keeps the customer at the forefront of every discussion. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is famously known for placing an empty chair in every executive meeting to constantly remind his team of the customer. Similarly, shouldn’t we be placing an empty chair in all our discussions to signify the learner?

In closing, learning should not be seen as a means to an end. Studies show that having a learning-integrated life where we are ‘in a learning mind-set and learning opportunities are woven through the fabric of our lives, not only enriches our careers but has benefits for our mental and physical health, self-confidence and life satisfaction’[15].

We do not all have to be geniuses like Einstein to understand the value of lifelong learning.

[15] The Future of Lifelong Learning: Designing for a Learning-Integrated Life (D2L Desire2Learn https://www.d2l.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Future-of-Work-and-Learning-2020-Digital-Edition.pdf)
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