Posted by: Gillian | November 19, 2008

Lifelong access to Higher Education

Just back from the World of Learning Conference at the NEC, Birmingham where I was happy to serve at the Advice Clinic for the BILD, meet some great people and have a range of interesting discussions about technology and also about lifelong access to higher education.  I’ll write about some of the great people tomorrow.  Tonight, after this week’s official UK Government announcement that the Qualifications and Credit Framework is to go ahead, I am more interested in today’s conversations about adult (i.e. over age 21) employees and university education.

While it is right and proper that people who somehow never got round to ‘doing qualifications’ while of standard education-system age should have something like the Qualifications and Credit Framework, there are many other employed adults who already have degrees.  It is alarming how many people seem to believe that employer engagement with higher education is some sort of university/employer remedial class for grown-ups and is therefore not for them.  Over on LinkedIn, the Higher Education Management Group has this week had a discussion in which it was posited that universities may be behind the knowledge of [some] organisations and that universities should perhaps just teach core knowledge.  Presumably, the universities should then also do research but not involve the employers.  To me, this is where the various government agencies have somehow dropped the ball between them and universities the world over are struggling to come to terms with a socio-economic reality.

The rapid massification of university education has one very tangible result: a relative shortage of seasoned academics who also have long industry experience.  The employed, however, may need to go back to university to ‘top up’ or change to a more modern subject area or simply to fulfil the very human need to find out more and be the best they can in a subject area.  They may already have one or two (or more degrees).   As they re-enter university, they bring with them a wealth of knowledge that is perhaps challenging to the academic system and some of the people within it.  Yet, by entering university again, they are acknowledging the strength of the academic world in furthering knowledge through research and discourse.

Rather than shy away from this knowledgeable adult returner, universities should be able to welcome them on a more equal footing.  The series of ‘Research Seminars in lifelong learning’ at the University of Cambridge is one UK-based community where the need for better integration of the employed and continued higher education is discussed frequently and positively and there are, of course, many instances of universities working on research projects in partnership with commercial enterprises to the benefit of both.  The practical gap is that facing the ‘portfolio career’ adult who has to fund their own way through a higher education course not once but perhaps several times between the ages of 30 and (ever-later) retirement.  On the other side of the coin, of course, there is the academic who would dearly love some time in industry and be reasonably assured that they could then return to academic research and teaching.

Perhaps if all parties pursued disciplinary excellence rather than labelling the pursuit of knowledge either ‘academic’ or ‘work-based’, some of the human barriers and turf wars could be overcome.  The will to conquer the financial barriers may then increase.

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