Participation in lifelong learning is becoming a reality in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, countries which have developed comprehensive and coherent lifelong learning strategies. The United Kingdom? It’s enough to make a woman choke on her cornflakes – especially as the quotation is taken from no less a document than the EU Commission Staff Working Document, Progress Towards the Lisbon Objectives in Education and Training, Indicators and Benchmarks July, 2008.
As the well-supported campaigns (example, example2) of the last couple of years have shown, there are plenty of people in the UK who would be surprised to find there is any positive lifelong learning strategy in the UK. Or perhaps there is a strategy but no implementation? That cynicism cannot be right, the European Commission Document‘s authors are well-respected. So, what is it that puts such a gap between public perception and officially reported success?
The official EU target for lifelong learning participation is 12.5% by 2010 and the UK official and provisional figure was 26.6% in 2006 – four years ‘early’. The obvious question is, ‘what is lifelong learning’ in this context? The EU definition is: “all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence, within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective.” That means anything from a quick runthrough on how to set up the church sound system to an advance professional qualification. So, what questions were asked and were they the same in all countries? What was the relative international level and duration of the participation? How much of the lifelong learning could be attributed to required re-certification and certification updates that are prevalent in industries such as finance and catering where the UK has a disproportionately large percentage of its employment? One can play that statistics game for hours and get nowhere in trying to understand the perception gap so it may be better to look at the EU criteria for a successful lifelong learning strategy.
- Partnership working
- Insight into the demand for learning in the knowledge-based society
- Adequate resourcing
- Facilitating access to learning opportunities
- Creating a learning culture
- Striving for excellence.
The Commission states that the higher the basic level of education, the more likely people are to engage in lifelong learning. The UK has one of the highest levels of ‘high’ attainment at 28.2%, 8% above the EU average. Consequently, it would be reasonable to expect more people to want to continue learning. Yet the row over ELQs and the noticeably thin ‘evening class’ brochures show that ‘facilitating access to learning opportunities’ is certainly not being applied to all sectors. Can that be construed as a government striving for excellence? Is resourcing ‘adequate’ when public spending on HE in 2004 (p66), was 0.77% of GDP against an EU average of 0.95% and even the public+private funding figure was slightly below the EU average of 1.3% at 1.27% of GDP.
Within the context of the Commission’s Document, the UK is not doing too badly, yet that choking on the cornflakes feeling remains. We need more insight into the demand for learning so that this knowledge-based society of ours can continue to grow, feed its learning culture and strive ever harder for excellence.