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Lifelong learning is back in focus – how do we rise to the challenge?

Professor Karen Stanton

Professor Karen Stanton

York St John University

​This week, York proudly hosts the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning for its annual conference, which comes at a timely moment. Extended austerity, limited policy and other factors have seen the number of adults in further education decline by around 800,000 over the past five years, while part-time university students are down 44% and mature students down 29% since 2008-09.

Now however, there are indications of a fresh focus on this agenda as the government realigns the UK's approach for the post-Brexit era.  Lifelong learning features notably in the Industrial Strategy Green Paper  published in January and this was backed-up with £140 million in the latest budget to pilot lifelong learning initiatives.

Among the anchor institutions in our towns and cities, universities are strongly positioned to play a leading role in driving this agenda.  More than that, we have a civic responsibility to do so.  Brexit highlighted the fractures in our communities, while political rhetoric attributed this in part to the role of the so called 'urban elite'.  Universities risk being branded with that elitism when in fact we have a vital role to play in creating greater social mobility and community cohesion.  Lifelong learning is a key part of this work.

As a sector we have started refreshing our response.  The University Alliance's Lifelong Learning Manifesto, and its recently published spotlight report  set out some direction and practical actions to help us steer the debate.  Alongside this, we must meet a number of challenges to provide the leadership required.

Firstly, we must ensure we are creating a culture within our institutions in which lifelong learning can thrive.  Are we open and accessible enough?  Are we giving back to our communities? Are we reaching out to connect with those who haven't considered us before? 

At York St John University a number of initiatives demonstrate this effort in action. Green Apples, run in partnership with the University of York and our local colleges, gives school pupils an ongoing programme of access to and support from our universities, with initiatives to improve self-esteem, dispel myths about university and raise aspirations.  We know that earlier participation is the best single predictor of participation in education throughout a person's life, so this type of early access and induction can make a huge difference.

Converge, run in partnership with the NHS, invites mental health service users from the local community into the university for free access to arts, sports and business courses run –  without stigma – by our students.  Over 1000 people have benefitted so far, many maintaining a connection with the university, or becoming course tutors themselves.

Our Prison Partnership sees our students and nationally renowned theatre companies work with female prisoners to help build confidence before their release, through the power of drama. 

Each example represents a different concept of how we can positively influence, or provide lifelong learning.

Our second leadership challenge is about how we collaborate at the highest level with the other anchor institutions in our areas to find common purpose and common endeavour.  This isn't always easy, particularly given the pressures within the public sector, but we are seeing more and more positive examples of universities taking a greater lead on those cross-cutting issues that require a system-wide response.  Lifelong learning certainly falls into that category.

Thirdly, we must stay true to what we know about the transformative power of learning at any time in a person's life.  If the lifelong learning agenda gets framed primarily in terms of economic imperatives – skills gaps and the digital divide, we risk undervaluing the benefits that come from the joy of learning itself and the more interpersonal skills, such as empathy, creativity and self-reflection that universities foster and that are more important than ever in the workplace today.  We must be proud advocates of these benefits alongside those that are more immediately measurable.

If we meet these challenges: creating the right culture; leading local collaboration; and staying true to the value of a university experience, we will be well placed to seize the moment for a renewed focus on lifelong learning.

Professor Karen Stanton will deliver the keynote speech at the University Association for Lifelong Learning's Annual Conference on Thursday 6th April.  This blog summarises the main  points of that keynote.


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