The concept of lifelong learning is not new. In fact, the concept goes as far back as 1929 when Basil Yeaxlee wrote his book Lifelong Education and argued that informal education was as important as formal education. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the emphasis started to emerge by researchers on lifelong learning as a phenomenon.
Fast forward to today. We see the language of lifelong learning being much more pervasive in mainstream media and espoused by educators of all types. However, it is also clear that the higher education sector is struggling to realize any substantive value proposition in lifelong learning to both current students and alumni. In a recently released report, “Alumni Matters,” by U.K.-based Carrington Crisp, comprising a study of alumni from 82 countries, some 70% wanted more opportunities in lifelong learning and deeper engagement.
Here lies the rub! On the one hand, there are clear market signals that universities just aren’t delivering on the expected value proposition, but on the other hand, factors like traditional business models, lack of commercial maturity, lack of market agility and the institutional inertia of traditional academic cultures all combine to create barriers to change. This leaves enormous potential value on the table for institutions as well as students and alumni.
At the same time, the last few years have seen the need for a massive, and almost instantaneous, shift into online learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Low technology maturity across the board has made this an interesting journey, and indeed, I think it is safe to say many institutions are only now at the stage they should have been at 5-6 years ago. Compound this with the increasing criticism of universities putting out graduates who are not "job ready" due to the increasing rapid skills shifts across many career pathways, and such market and other external forces have created a perfect storm for universities to navigate. So it’s not overly surprising that many are struggling with where to start "eating the elephant."
Empty space, drag to resize
So what does a lifelong learning strategy really look like?
The starting point must be to get a clear understanding of what the customer's needs are from their institutions. Based on my time working across the sector, I believe lifelong learning can be grouped into several key categories:
• Skills-based education: Institutions could offer short courses and microcredentials that are aligned to the competency standards of major employers. This would mean flexibility and "stackable" non-award education that can contribute to a qualification (but doesn’t need to) and which is driven by the needs of employers. This format could allow the learner to quickly adapt to changing jobs requirements and new career opportunities.
• Engagement: As with many adult learning contexts, the networking effect across the learner ecosystem plays an important role not only in learning but also the aspiration of giving back. This extends to support for student- and alumni-led startups as potential mentors, investors or influencers who can give back to the organisation. Again, the data from the Carrington Crisp report indicated that alumni also want to give back.
• Thought leadership: How is the institution delivering the latest in research to communities as content consumers? I think institutions should do more than just promote academic publications (largely written for other academics). Rather, this involves reconsidering how research is being translated for the latest insights.
• Collaboration: Publicly funded universities around the globe have a core business of research and impact. To what extent does the institution make it easy for businesses to find expertise and research capability within the institution? Keep in mind every alumnus is an employee, leader or influencer in their employer organisation.
• Career support: While most universities have been offering career advisory support for graduating students for many years, it is crucial to continue such support, particularly given the changing landscape for skills and emerging career options.
So, what then are the implications for the disruption of the university business model and the role for lifelong learning?
I believe the solution must go beyond just more and varied types of education. The key underlying notion I would propose here is that the current business model needs not just tinkering, but rather to be thrown out!
To become truly supportive of lifelong learning, leaders should focus on pivoting the institution from being a transactional seller of education to a trusted provider of a deep community experience—of which education is just one element. Rather, prioritize delivering on all five of these value services—I think that is how a community-based learning experience can be realised.
Those that are able deliver on new value propositions in this way, with current students, alumni and the broader business community that they serve, could create for themselves new revenues and collaboration opportunities and start to be regarded as a partner for a lifelong career journey.