2010 Policy Paper “Lifelong learning”

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The European Students Union (ESU) established in 1982, is the umbrella organization of 45 National Unions of Students from 37 countries. It is a democratic, non-governmental, not-for profit and non-partisan organisation promoting the educational, social, economic and cultural interests, rights and views of students in higher education. Such principles are reflected in ESU’s own policy papers, statements and publications, which highlight ESU’s aims and goals in the higher education sphere.


Lifelong learning has become one of the priorities in the European education debate, being strongly promoted by European and national policymakers. This can be explained by the goal to lower unemployment rates and to re-skill the employees that have dropped out of the labour market. However, the concept is still not tackled in a coherent mater when it comes to policies and implementation. Being able to participate in educational system throughout life has a positive impact on the personal development of students and potential students. As such, the participation of students is crucial in the decision-making processes related to lifelong learning, at all levels. This policy paper reflects the view of the national unions of students in Europe, sets out their vision for the concept of life-long learning and shows how it affects other policy areas.

Student vision

Lifelong learning is the formal, informal and non-formal learning process in which all individuals have the right to be engaged, at any stage of their life, with the aim of both personal and professional development.

Lifelong learning should aim at improving quality of life and helping individuals to cope with changes in society. It does not just serve individual development, but also serves society as a whole by reducing inequalities and ensuring personal emancipation to all, inevitably leading to a positive development of all parts of society. Consequently, lifelong learning has to be seen as a public, employer and individual responsibility, where the implementation and regulation of it is primarily a public responsibility. In the context of increasingly aging and heterogeneous societies, proper tools need to be created to enable people to access lifelong learning, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Current situation and obstacles

To date, the concept of life-long learning has been interpreted in many different ways, which has lead to misunderstandings and incoherent implementation. It is sometimes used as a synonym for adult education. Others link it strongly to distance teaching and e-learning. ESU deems these to be elements of a broader vision and as tools to a much wider concept of lifelong learning to overcome the current obstacles.

Lifelong learning is not limited to higher education. It is a concept that applies to all forms of education, formal, informal and non-formal. Higher education has however an important role to play in realizing the concept of lifelong learning within the public sphere. This concept must thus be included as part of overall higher education policy as opposed to a separate issue.

Lifelong learning is often focused on the up-skilling of those with professional experience and formal qualifications on the one hand, and to continuing education for qualified people on the other. ESU believes that if not enough effort is put into widening access and offering education to those who missed out earlier in life, lifelong learning will further enlarge the gap between the higher and lower educated. In this way, lifelong learning is reproducing and even reinforcing inequality in society.

ESU condemns the approach adopted by some institutions whereby lifelong learning is promoted simply as a means of generating income and is completely market-driven. Lifelong learning is not a money-making machine and so economic benefits should not be the driving force. We insist on a long-term approach, in which every individual is given the full chance to contribute to societal development. ESU holds that lifelong learning is a multidimensional, yet natural part of education, equally subscribing to the necessary principle of public responsibility and public funding.

Widening Access

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone should have the right to free education. ESU believes that governments should extend the right to education in order to include free access to basic skills for all citizens. ESU strives for a European Higher Education Area that is the foundation of a democratic and sustainable society implemented inter alia through active participation within higher education. It is in this spirit ESU promotes lifelong learning as a way to create a more inclusive higher education system that provides equal opportunities for all.

Lifelong learning is strongly related to the concept of universal access. Access issues that institutions are already working on should be combined with a policy of mainstreaming lifelong learning understood as above, following the principles of public funding and public responsibility within the institutional missions. The aim should be to increase average participation rates on the one hand, and to increase the participation of underrepresented groups on the other.

Diversified student population and its needs

Central to ESU’s political priorities is the emancipation of underprivileged and minority groups. ESU emphasises the need to address the different needs of all groups of students. People who enter or re-enter higher education at a later stage should be entitled to the same benefits that the typical age cohort students enjoy.

Overall, a variety of elements need to be adapted to the needs of life-long learners: The development of core competences should be an integral part of life-long learning, especially for people who have not benefited from adequate access to education in the past. If lifelong learning programs do not offer learners the possibility to develop the capacity to be flexible within society as a whole, some of the social risk factors that effect underrepresented groups might lead to cycles of poverty and exclusion.

The pedagogical aspects of lifelong learning should be developed through teacher training. A dynamic teaching environment, which is student-centered is needed in order to address the particular learning needs of all students within the lifelong learning concept.

Student representation is the basic fundament of ESU. We are committed to representing lifelong learners and their diverse needs. All students should be able to participate at all levels of higher education decision making. Students’ Unions should strive to represent lifelong learners, address their needs within their activities a include them in the Students’ Unions work.

National Students’ Unions should strive to represent lifelong learners and address their needs within their activities.

Student support systems must be adapted to the philosophy of lifelong learning. This implies that any age limits or other discrimination on student benefits, student

financing and social services are not acceptable.Investment in adequate infrastructure such as nurseries and child support facilities is needed, as many lifelong learners are parents, and lack of such infrastructure may constitute an important obstacle to studying.

Lifelong learning within a culture of quality

Quality assurance of lifelong learning programs provided across Europe is of paramount importance. Lifelong learning programs should not be exempt. This should ensure that no students fall victim to diploma or certificate mills. ESU reiterates the importance of student participation in quality assurance both in formal and informal decision-making processes as well as in basic procedures such as curricula design. All mechanisms of recognition of prior learning must also be subject to quality assurance exercises.

Recognition of Prior Learning is part of lifelong learning. Lifelong learning means that adequate recognition is given to a person’s competences and knowledge, irrespective of how this has been attained. Recognition of prior learning is a tool for creating greater flexibility in learning paths, linking formal, informal and non-formal educational attainment. The biggest problem remains the lack of consistency in institutional practices and in some study areas and cultures the reluctance to accept any recognition of prior learning as formal qualifications. This is making it harder for a streamlined system of recognizing prior learning experiences. Unfortunately, where such institutional practices exist, the procedures are either cumbersome or imply costs to the learner.

As stressed in ESU’s policy on Recognition of Prior Learning, procedures for the recognition of prior learning should be made easily understandable, freely accessible to all applicants and without needless bureaucratic procedures. Furthermore, such procedures are to be based on the principles of the Lisbon Recognition Convention.

The Qualifications Framework relates to lifelong learning paths in the sense that it often leads to non-traditional qualifications. This leads to a review of the way educational achievements are measured. The attention is being directed to learning outcomes and competences and the need to map out a qualifications framework that helps in refining the classic definition of a qualification. Lifelong learning must be seen as an alternative learning path towards qualifications.

Both the lifelong learning way to acquire competences as well as traditional ways shall be translated into one qualifications framework. Where this is not the case, different existing frameworks have to be made compatible. Qualification frameworks can facilitate the development of lifelong learning because they provide a bridging element between traditional Higher Education and non-traditional Higher Education. As such, they facilitate the flexibility and recognition of learning outcomes, which is a necessary condition in making lifelong learning a reality. In addition, qualifications frameworks can foster social cohesion and ease access to higher education through multi-entry/ multiexit points for non-traditional learners.


ESU is concerned with the lack of awareness amongst employers of the benefits of lifelong learning. ESU encourages the notion of an awareness campaign, launched at a European level. It should promote the wide benefits of a holistic concept of lifelong learning to employers, by ensuring the development of the full potential of their staff and thus generally benefiting society as a whole and the respective employers as a societal component. Higher Education within the concept of lifelong learning must be seen as a right.

ESU further encourages the involvement of employers in the discussions on the support measures required to realize our vision of lifelong learning, such as giving tax incentives and other stimulants that allow lifelong learners to combine work and studies without any repercussions for the employer or the employee. However, the inclusion of employers as external stakeholders must not lead to a single sided short term perspective of how to develop the lifelong learning range.

Flexibility is a key issue when dealing with lifelong learning. Flexible provision of education includes increasing the options for part-time, distance or evening courses. The quality of lifelong learning flexible options provided by educational institutions needs to be ensured.


ESU believes that lifelong learning can only become reality when there is sufficient governmental support for its multifaceted development. ESU believes that education institutions need to be provided with sufficient and sustainable resources to deliver high quality teaching and research, and to meet broader educational, social, cultural and economic goals.

Public financing should be offered without any discrimination when compared to graduates of secondary education. By tuition fees and increased private funding of higher education institutes, the concept of lifelong learning turns higher education into a market as it is not possible to prevent the perspective on higher education as a source of additional income for the institutions. In order to prevent such a development, the necessary financial contribution of companies to a Lifelong learning-based educational system must be publicly regulated.

Lifelong learning must be developed in the context of the public responsibility and must not be treated as a source of extra income by institutions.


Lifelong learning is a broad formal, informal and non-formal learning process that involves individuals of all ages who aim at gaining new abilities, skills and competences. Access to lifelong learning should be broad and facilitated to people who come from disadvantaged situations. Social support services should be extended to lifelong learners and cater to their specific

In order to clarify and implement the concept of lifelong learning, national strategies for lifelong learning are needed.

Flexible learning paths and the recognition of prior learning are indispensible tools in enabling lifelong learning to function.

Lifelong learning should benefit from adequate quality standards and should lead to learning outcomes that can in no way be deemed inferior to those gained in classical
educational programs.

Lifelong learners have should have both rights and responsibilities similar to other learners, but the educational process needs to take into account their special situation
in terms of family, employment and time constraints.

The concept of lifelong learning is often viewed merely as a means of up-skilling or reskilling for mature students only, while in addition to this, it should also serve society and all individuals as a whole. date, many countries still do not have any strategy or policy at a national level, rather the higher education institutions are left alone with the implementation of the concept without any framework in which this should be done.

National (or regional) incentives for both higher education institutions and individuals, with a legislative framework which helps the recognition of prior learning and a real willingness from higher education institutions to implement comprehensive lifelong learning strategies are needed in order to make it a reality.

The demographic and social realities of Europe are increasingly making lifelong learning an integral part of the educational realities of our times. As such, ESU fully reiterates comprising higher education and must thus have realized the full implementation of all Bologna Action Lines, lifelong learning should be supported by adequate organisational structures and sustainable public funding.

Adopted at Board Meeting 58, May 2010


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