The importance of public investment in education across the lifecycle, and a particular focus on lifelong learning cannot be underestimated. The latest OECD Skills Outlook 2021 (OECD, 2021) backs this up – pointing out that lifelong learning is key if individuals are to succeed in labour markets and societies shaped by trends including environmental changes and digitalisation, as well as sudden shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic. The European Commission’s proposal to introduce individual learning accounts was conceived out of an urgent need to broaden access to adult learning opportunities. Notwithstanding this need, it remains the case that the cost of courses, loss of income due to taking time off work to train, and lack of awareness of opportunities all perform as difficult barriers across the EU. Cedefop’s latest estimates provide further impetus to the cause, suggesting that 46% of the adult population in the EU-28 area will need to engage with lifelong learning in the coming years. As it stands, however, only 11.1% of adults benefit from adult learning, meaning that the EU failed to reach its target of 15%. If we are to close this evident gap between reality and aspiration It is essential that lifelong learning and skills development is properly resourced and supported.
Investing in lifelong learning, however, does not merely entail allocating funds towards improving employability. While this is no doubt important, particularly for increasing lifelong learning participation rates for adults with lower skills who are still less likely to avail of education and training opportunities, it is equally important to consider lifelong learning in a broader sense. Moreover, it is short-sighted to assume that the ability to ‘learn to learn’ is not an essential requirement for furthering skills and competencies throughout life – which subsequently improves employment prospects regardless. Investing in lifelong learning demands a recognition of personal needs and aspirations and not solely a reflection of job demand on the labour market.
A more holistic idea of lifelong learning takes into account all education and training during a lifetime, including both initial education and training and adult learning. It is, in this sense, ‘lifelong’ and ‘lifewide’, covering learning in institutions, families, communities and workplaces. It is also considered ‘life-deep’, assuming the ongoing and active assimilation and mobilisation of knowledge.
This notion of lifelong learning imagines a sort of ‘universitisation’ of life, wherein learning can occur selectively and broadly at all times. It is as much concerned with building the capacity of people to actively engage and construct meaning as it is with operating as an employment tool fit for the 21st century.
Notwithstanding the popular support for incorporating lifelong learning strategies and initiatives; the crux of the matter remains that funding tends to be relatively low across the EU for lifelong learning. Only around 0.1 to 0.2% of GDP accounts for public expenditure on adult education (EESC 2020 here) and lifelong learning strategies tend to be severely underfunded. If we are to provide lifelong learning for all, an increased level of financial support is required in conjunction with institutional paradigm shifts.
It goes without saying that achieving good educational outcomes requires appropriate spending. For one, increasing public revenues, and allocating more of these additional revenues to lifelong learning is necessary. For two, strengthening social protection measures that improve access to lifelong learning opportunities for all would also make strides towards realising lifelong learning at any point in time as an entitlement for all. The point is simple: if we are to realise current lifelong learning aspirations and achieve EU targets, sufficient and continuous resources and support are required. The value of lifelong learning cannot be understated, and neither can the funding.