International research project: The contribution of higher education institutions to lifelong learning
Following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, lifelong learning has become the overarching concept and vision for education, as reflected in the wording of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4, which calls on countries to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’.
Our societies are rapidly changing because of environmental, scientific and technological transformations and the impact of globalization on all dimensions of life, including culture and education. Coping with these changes and shaping the future accordingly require creative and innovative policy responses. While promoting lifelong learning to achieve a sustainable future constitutes a goal in itself, it is also a requirement for reaching many of the other SDGs. To address this challenge, mobilizing higher education institutions (HEIs) is key, and universities have a special role to play in that respect.
While the university sector, because of its unique capacity and mandate to advance knowledge, foster innovation and educate, constitutes a huge potential for promoting lifelong learning, its actual contribution remains unclear. Many universities continue to prioritize academic excellence and research, with less attention being paid to teaching and providing lifelong learning opportunities to the community. Hence, achieving the vision expressed through the SDGs and precisely articulated in SDG 4 will require a substantial transformation of HEIs, in particular universities.
To further explore these issues and provide guidance to policy-makers and higher education institutions, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) and Shanghai Open University (SOU) are conducting a comprehensive research project on the contribution of universities and other HEIs to lifelong learning.
The comprehensive research project consists of several components, including an extended literature review; an international survey of universities; institutional case studies to capture trends and innovative practices; interviews with key informants; and specific thematic studies, including a survey on open universities in China, an exploration of universities of the third age, and a study on universities in learning cities.
The final comprehensive report, covering the results of all sub-projects, will be published and launched at the 2021 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education.
Aims and objectives
The research project aims to develop a knowledge base on how and to what extent universities and other types of HEIs contribute to lifelong learning, but also to capture how the lifelong learning agenda plays a role in the transformation process of the university sector in response to current societal developments.
The specific objectives of the project are to:
- draw up an overview of the state of the art of HEIs’ contribution to lifelong learning with a focus on universities; assess the current situation in different regions; identify particular patterns according to countries, types of institutions and innovations, particularly related to new technologies for learning; look at attempts to monitor, etc.;
- identify the gaps, e.g. lack of effective legal frameworks, policies and measures at the national level to support and encourage higher education strategies for lifelong learning, lack of institutional strategies for a concerted approach towards lifelong learning, etc.;
- identify examples of best practice that could inspire policy-makers and HEIs, notably the university sector;
- formulate policy and strategic guidelines for policy-makers and institutions.
The research methodology includes the following components:
- Literature review;
- International survey on universities;
- Survey on open universities in China;
- Thematic studies;
- Case studies of innovative institutions;
- Interviews with key informants (university presidents, researchers, national or international institutions).
This is a collaborative research project between UIL and Shanghai Open University (SOU), which is strongly committed to providing flexible and convenient ways of learning through open and distance education in order to meet the lifelong learning needs of all members of society.
The project also benefits from the collaboration of a several partners within UNESCO, namely the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (UNESCO–IIEP) and the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNESCO–IESALC), and the university sector through the International Association of Universities (IAU).
As the quality of the research activities relies on a foundation of expert knowledge, UIL has invited a body of experts to serve as an advisory group for the project. Members of the advisory group include university leaders, professors, representatives of regional universities associations and UNESCO specialists. This group will contribute its knowledge and experience to guide the design and implementation of the various components of the research project, including the global survey to be carried out in 2020.
During the project’s initial expert meeting, which took place on 4 and 5 February 2020 at UIL, the advisory group together with the project team discussed the role of universities in promoting lifelong learning, particularly considering enabling conditions and barriers. The experts also examined recent initiatives by higher education institutions around the world to widen access and fulfil their so-called ‘third mission’, which is to engage with societal needs and market demands by linking their activities to the socio-economic context.