Richard Taylor

“Lifelong learning” has been a key concept of adult education in Western Europe since the 1980s, and its importance has been stressed in numerous reports and commissions. But how can it be defined: does it mean the same in different countries, and what are its policy implications? In 1977, the EU funded a two-year project under its Socrates Programme to investigate the approaches to lifelong learning and the implementation of lifelong learning projects in universities in four selected countries (Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom). Professor Richard Taylor, Director of Continuing Education Development, School of Continuing Education, University of Leeds, who headed the project, describes its aims, implementation and conclusions.

Lifelong Learning in Higher Education in Western Europe: Myth or Reality?

Lifelong Learning has been the reference point for policy makers, and to an extent senior managers, in post compulsory education and training throughout Western Europe during the 1990s. The EC has exemplified this commitment in numerous policy statements and funding programmes. In 1994, for example, the EC White Paper on ‘Growth, Competitiveness and Employment’ concluded that: “Lifelong Learning is therefore the overall objective to which the national educational councils can make their own contributions” (EC, 1994). The same paper went on to propose that: “All measures must therefore necessarily be based on the concept of developing, generalising and systemising Lifelong Learning and continuing training. This means that education and training systems must be reworked in order to take account of the need ......for the permanent recomposition and redevelopment of knowledge and know-how” (EC, 1994).

Numerous other Reports and Commissions, both in the EU and in Member States, have emphasised similarly the importance of Lifelong Learning, a prominent example being the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the Dearing Committee) in the UK (National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, 1997; Watson and Taylor, 1998).

This strong advocacy of Lifelong Learning development has been prominent in all sectors of post compulsory education and training, not least in higher education. In 1997, the Socrates programme of the EC funded a two year research study (‘Making it Work: European Universities and Lifelong Learning’) designed to analyse the extent to which, in reality, Lifelong Learning perspectives and practices were practised in universities in four selected countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Finland and England and Wales.1 The research also explored key related but in a sense preliminary questions: how is Lifelong Learning defined in different societal contexts? And, even more fundamentally, is there any commonality across the societies concerned about how data, student categories, financial systems, and bureaucratic processes are practised and comprehended?


There are fundamental problems of definition and terminology in the context of Lifelong Learning and related concepts. This applies both to our specific focus on Lifelong Learning and higher education, and to the generality of Lifelong Learning policy.

In summary, Lifelong Learning is used in all four countries in two ways: in the broad sense, to mean the social, cultural and economic development of individuals and groups through education and learning throughout their lives. And secondly, in the narrow sense, to focus exclusively upon instrumental education, Lifelong Learning being seen as the development of a range of specific skills training to meet the urgent need for new and varied abilities in the workforce. With increasing technological change, and the development of the so-called ‘knowledge-based society’, continuous learning and retraining are argued to be a high priority to ensure economic competitiveness.

These definitional problems clearly reflect ideological tensions both within and between the nation states concerned. Whereas the former, broader definition involves a commitment to widening participation and social inclusion, as well as to skills development, the latter stems from a market-oriented, ‘HRM’ view of learning. Of the four countries involved in the Project, the higher education view of Lifelong Learning inclined more to the broader definition in the UK and in Finland, and more to the narrower definition in Germany and the Netherlands. (It is, though, important to note that this does not imply necessarily that Lifelong Learning policy as a whole in those latter societies is more restrictive in its objectives: rather, it is that higher education’s role is seen as concerned more specifically with the vocational elements.)

At the risk of over-simplification, it seems that, in all four countries, though to different degrees, there is something of a retreat, in general, from following through the radical rhetoric of Lifelong Learning in higher education and a move to the narrower and more cautious articulation of Lifelong Learning policy: from a redistributive rhetoric to a market-led practice, and from a social purpose rhetoric to an instrumentally vocational practice.

It is also apparent that, at the higher education level, the full and fundamental implications of Lifelong Learning have not been understood – let alone adopted – in any of the four countries. For Lifelong Learning to be ‘operationalised’ in higher education, the system has to be seen as open and flexible – a certain sort of learning experience from which a variety of people, studying at a variety of ages, and through a variety of modes, could benefit. In reality, of course, in most higher education systems, higher education level learning is constructed bureaucratically, financially and culturally on the premise that students will be from a narrow range of age and social class, and will be full-time. In other words, the practice remains elitist and conservative, despite the rhetoric of both university authorities and Governments. On the whole, and with marked exceptions, adults and other non-traditional learners are seen as both lower status and marginal to the mainstream.

Numerous practical manifestations of this are evident in the different national contexts: the UK’s ‘University for Industry’ (not a University at all), the Finnish Open University (which does not have degree awarding powers), and so on.

The context for Lifelong Learning in higher education is thus far from unproblematic. Higher education systems are largely oriented to research (and research achievement is what gives institutions and individuals status and advancement) and to mainstream undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. Lifelong Learning is beginning to make an impact upon policy and upon the culture of higher education – but it has yet to secure fundamental changes in attitudes and practices in higher education in the EU. At best, therefore, the context for Lifelong Learning development in higher education can be seen as at an early stage of development, with both structural and cultural changes yet to be implemented.


The policy formation for Lifelong Learning in higher education in the four EU countries studied reflects this general context. It is clear that the following policy characteristics are prominent in all four countries:

  • an increasingly high profile for Lifelong Learning in policy statements on higher education, but a persistent lack of clarity over its definitions and purposes
  • the priority, within Lifelong Learning, given to Continuing Professional Development (CPD)/Continuing Vocational Education (CVE)
  • higher education institutions (HEIs) being regarded by Government as both more autonomous and more geared towards private sector and other non-state funding. This is usually accompanied by a strong emphasis upon higher education institutions/business links
  • overall, higher education institutions’ priorities are seen clearly as research and mainstream teaching/learning (especially the former), with Continuing Education (CE) regarded as something of a 'cuckoo in the nest' (Finland’s description)
  • the increasing market orientation of higher education institutions, which interrelates with the emphases upon Lifelong Learning in its various forms.

With the partial exceptions of the UK and Finland, nation states’ Lifelong Learning policies do not give a high profile to higher education, but concentrate rather on other parts of the post-compulsory (and, in some cases, schools) sector. Only in the UK and Finland (the latter through its Open University system) are higher education institutions concerned with the delivery |f adult and continuing education and thus with issues of social inclusion and ‘social purpose’, and citizenship education.


What structures have emerged thus far, in the countries concerned, to facilitate the development of Lifelong Learning in higher education? Although practice varies considerably in the four countries, in none of them is Lifelong Learning fully integrated#into the higher education system.

The Open University is an important structural element for Lifelong Learning in the UK, and in Finland and the Netherlands. However, the Open University has very different structures in the three systems. In the UK, the Open University is a separate university with full degree awarding powers and uses both distance and face-to-face teaching. (The UK Open University also makes extensive use of television in co-operation with the BBC.) In the Netherlands, the Open University is concerned exclusively with Higher Distance Education – the other two elements of the Dutch system being Higher Vocational Education provided by higher vocational schools (HBOs), and University Education (on very traditional lines) provided by the universities. In Finland, the Open University is an important, but separate, element within the mainstream university structure, but it has no degree (or other award) bearing powers. In Germany, no such structure exists and the extensive adult education system is centred on the community adult education centres, with little Lifelong Learning (or Continuing Education) element in universities, except for research and PhD programmes in Continuing Education.

In the UK and Finland in particular, Continuing Professional Development elements in universities are important and are organised very often through Continuing Education Departments or Centres. With the increasing ‘marketisation’ of higher education, this Continuing Professional Development element is likely to increase in importance – though, structurally, much of this work may be undertaken by subject departments or faculties themselves, rather than by specialist Continuing Education Departments. (An alternative structure may be for a partnership relationship to develop between a specialist Continuing Education Department or Centre and the relevant subject department or faculty.)

In Germany, Finland and the UK, structures exist to facilitate the admission of more non-traditional learners into Higher Education. (Only the higher education institutions concerned specifically with Higher Vocational Education have this role in the Netherlands: universities per se have no access or widening participation mission.) In the UK ‘widening participation’ is a particularly important aspect of both Government and university policy (Government White Paper ‘The Learning Age’, 1998; Learning and Skills Bill, 1999; HEFCE, 1998, 1999). These strategies are particularly pronounced in the ‘new universities’ in the UK: that is, the former polytechnics which became universities following Government legislation in 1992, and which have always had both a strongly vocational and a strongly regional identity and mission.

An increasing amount of Lifelong Learning in all four countries is delivered via open and distance learning making use of new technology. This applies in particular to Continuing Professional Development provision at graduate level and beyond.

Despite all these considerable and significant advances, it is clear that Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning have a secondary role in universities and other institutions of higher education. Often, such provision is organised and delivered separately from the mainstream activities of the institution. Whilst there is a growing realisation that Lifelong Learning in higher education – and especially Continuing Professional Development and related areas – are not marginal, there is as yet no fully formed, integrative, cohesive structure to enable Lifelong Learning to become central to the missions and practices of higher education institutions.


There has been a huge increase in participation internationally from the 1970s onwards in education generally and in higher education in particular. For higher education, UNESCO’s statistics show an increase in the developed countries in the 18–23 age group from 15.1% in 1969, to 21.7% in 1979, 30.7% in 1980 and 40.2% in 1991. UNESCO predicts an increase in student numbers in higher education world-wide from the 1991 figure of 65 million, to 79 million in 2000, 97 million in 2015 and 1000 million by 2025.

All four countries in this study have experienced a large increase in higher education participation in recent years. In the UK, student numbers expanded by almost 70% between 1989 and 1995, and the participation rate for 18–22 year olds has doubled to over 32%, and continues to rise. In Germany, currently about 29% of the cohort are in higher education. The policy aim is to increase the numbers following community adult education centre programmes who subsequently progress to university. In the Netherlands, there has been an expansion in university numbers, but a larger increase in those enrolling in the Higher Vocational Education institutions. (Between 1980 and 1990, for example, the numbers of students in universities increased from c.135,000 to c.152,000, whilst in the Higher Vocational Institutions they increased from c.132,000 to c.194,000.) Finnish higher education has also increased the numbers participating – from c.126,000 in 1993 to c.143,000 in 1997.

In all four countries, participation by women in higher education institutions has increased. Generally speaking, there are equal numbers of men and women in higher education – though there is a large disparity in subject areas, with fewer women in engineering and science, and correspondingly more in arts and social science, and the ‘caring professions’ programmes.

There has also been a marked shift in the age range participating in higher education. The majority of tertiary students in Finland, Germany and the UK are in the age group 22-25 years old (in the Netherlands the 18-21 age group still predominates). Students over the age of 26 are also increasing in number, except in the Netherlands where financial and legal restraints for students above 26 years of age have only recently been relaxed and now apply to those up to the age of 30.

There has been little progress, in any of the four countries, in developing access for those (of any age) from the lower socio-economic groups. Whilst absolute numbers of working class students have of course increased as the higher education systems have expanded, the percentage of the total has increased only marginally, if at all. The same rather depressing picture would seem to apply to disabled student numbers – though data here are far from complete for the four countries concerned.

Overall, then, it is quite clear that participation in higher education has increased substantially in all four countries. However, in all cases hierarchies of institutions interrelate with conservative or traditional perspectives of the university’s proper role to produce a culture in which the prestigious higher education institutions at the top of the institutional hierarchies see their cultural purposes and roles as the education of elite, late adolescent groups, drawn very largely from the higher social classes. Undoubtedly, more people now participate in higher education – and equally certainly there is a more even gender balance, (though not across all subject areas). But older learners, disabled students, and, particularly, working class students of all ages continue to be under-represented, especially in the higher status higher education institutions.

Learning Experiences

Flexible approaches to learning are essential for widening participation in higher education institutions and thus for the development of Lifelong Learning. Traditionally, higher education institutions have catered, as noted, for 18–22 year old, full-time students who have few other commitments. Curriculum, pedagogy and the structure of the learning experience have thus naturally been uniform and relatively inflexible. If higher education institutions are to adapt to a Lifelong Learning culture and develop a heterogeneous student body, then a series of fundamental changes needs to occur in the overall learning experience. In practice, this involves, for example, providing credit systems, student support and guidance, extended teaching hours (day, evening, weekend, summer schools/semesters), modularised curriculum, open and distance learning, and teaching at outreach centres in the community. To what extent have the higher education systems in the four countries involved in this study, introduced such changes?

Traditional, mainstream university provision has adapted only marginally to these new imperatives. In all four countries the heartlands of the system remain wedded to cultures and practices that characterise elite rather than mass higher education systems, despite the huge increases in participation noted above.

There are, however, signs of real change in both Finland and the UK, not least in terms of the development of the Open University systems. In Finland, as a result of a policy change in 1993 aimed at reducing youth unemployment, young people between the ages of 18 and 25 have been able to enrol in Open University programmes, and currently c.50% of Finnish Open University students are aged 30 or less. In contrast, in the UK, c. two-thirds of Open University students are aged between 30 and 49. In Finland, as in the UK, both open distance learning and direct contact, seminar methods are used, and summer schools are organised. Local colleges deliver much of the open distance learning, but curriculum design, quality assurance and the production of teaching materials remain the responsibility of the Universities. As in the UK, many of the students have professional qualifications and/or occupations and the majority of students are women. Most students are also in employment, many of them full-time.

The Open University in both countries has been a pioneer of new teaching methods. The one-third of the teaching delivered through open and distance learning in Finland has been developed through earmarked Government funding for technology. (Audio, video, radio, TV, e-mail and audiographics are all used.) Learning packages designed specifically for Open University students are produced, at a high quality, in both countries. Student support and advisory systems are sophisticated, sensitive and – above all – personally rather than ‘bureaucratically’ delivered. Open University provision has also developed in the Netherlands, from the 1980s, as a means of offering second-chance educational opportunities for adults: there are no formal entry requirements.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is another growth area in higher education in all four countries, though most notably in Germany. Since the mid-1970s, there has been a legislative requirement for German higher education to promote a greater relationship between the university curriculum and occupational/vocational competences. In Finland and the UK, and in the Netherlands too, Governments have made strenuous (though largely rhetorical) efforts to encourage higher education institutions to move in the same direction.

In both the Netherlands and the UK, this drive to vocationalism has been focused largely upon particular types of higher education institutions: in the Netherlands, the HBOs and in the UK the ‘new universities’ (former polytechnics). However, in both countries policy is now pushing more strongly for similar priorities in the older, more traditional universities too.

In the UK, these higher education institutions (the ‘new universities’) are also those which register the largest numbers of non-traditional (and especially mature and part-time) students. In the older universities, most provision for mature and part-time students is still undertaken by designated Departments or Centres of Continuing Education, though this too is showing some signs of changing towards a more ‘mainstream’ approach in some higher education institutions.

In general, it appears therefore that – with the possible exception of the UK – the higher education learning experience remains predominantly traditional, and that Lifelong Learning approaches are focused mainly upon Open University and Continuing Professional Development provision.


Emphasis upon quality and quality control across the economy has been a pervasive – some would say obsessive – characteristic of the 1980s and 1990s. Higher education in all four countries has unsurprisingly been caught up in this process. Also, as higher education systems have expanded, and therefore levels of public involvement and employer interest have increased, so there has been greater concern that higher education institutions should deliver high quality ‘products’ – whether these be appropriately educated and trained students or ‘relevant’ research results. Accompanying this has been the demand for greater transparency and accountability.

Monitoring quality in higher education is, however, notoriously difficult. As an OECD study in 1998 argued, failure to acquire a diploma or other award does not mean, necessarily, that the student concerned has dropped out. Crude quality measures of this type cannot therefore be applied.

There is of course a variety of approaches to quality assurance. However, as the Finnish report claims, the bottom-line definition of quality has less to do with the particular quality approach – economic, social, didactic, customer or management oriented, and so on – than with the view taken on the nature and goal of higher education itself.

The traditional view has been that the primary purpose of higher education is the cultivation of knowledge (and wisdom). However, this itself is a contentious claim. Whose knowledge (and wisdom)? In reality, the criteria have been highly value-laden: the inculcation of elite ideas and established canons of knowledge. Socially, the function of higher education institutions has been to reproduce, through educational and cultural socialisation, the next generation of the elite.

However, leaving these more ‘political’ issues to one side, another contemporary view of higher education’s purpose is that the ‘development of the person’ should be the central objective. A variant on this individualistic, but humanistic view, is that this should be construed primarily in economic terms: the employable graduate with appropriately flexible and generic skills, in addition to specific subject-based knowledge.

In both the Netherlands and the UK, initial mainstream higher education has been the focus for the quality debate and the ensuing structures for quality assurance, rather than the concentration being upon Lifelong Learning. The Netherlands report states that higher education institutions have accepted broadly the Government’s instruments for quality assurance – focused strongly upon initial higher education provision. In the UK there has been a complex evolution of quality assurance bodies, all of which have been quasi-autonomous organisations established from within higher education itself and with predominantly ‘internalised’ (in the sense of being higher education-led) criteria. In Finland, teaching quality management approaches have been adopted but there appears to be increasing disquiet about applying to higher education quality measures designed for industries and services in the wider society – a concern shared within Continuing Education in Germany. (Considerable work has been undertaken in Germany to establish internationally recognised standards for Continuing Professional Development with ISO 9000 Plus emerging as the preferred reference point.)

The German and Netherlands national reports refer to the development of so-called ‘satellite constructions’, attached to higher education institutions but comprising a distinct segment of post-initial Continuing Education. Such separate but linked quality assurance systems have not been developed, as yet, for Lifelong Learning in higher education in either the UK or the Finland.

The concern for quality assurance is likely to increase in the context of Lifelong Learning in all EU Member States as students (and employers) become aware of the need for diverse and flexible procedures and as financial pressures on both ‘stakeholders’ increase because of a relative decline in Government support for higher education costs. Similarly, as competition increases between higher education institutions for external ‘customers’, whether this is in the form of students or research and development partners and funders, so quality assurance issues are likely to assume ever greater importance.


Financial issues are of key importance in the development of Lifelong Learning. As higher education systems have expanded, so Governments have become more concerned to halt the steep rise in their levels of financial support for higher education institutions and students. They have sought to broaden the financial responsibility so that students and employers, as well as Government, should meet the costs of both higher education institutions and learner support.

Historically, in all four countries, student grants were available for fees and maintenance costs to full-time students. Now, in the UK and the Netherlands, most students – full-time as well as part-time – are paying a substantial proportion of their costs for higher education study. In Finland and Germany mainstream undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are still provided free of charge to students: but there is discussion about moving towards a system in which students meet at least part of their costs.

Obviously, shifting the financial burden to students militates against widening participation. Whereas middle and upper class families will normally be able and (fairly) willing to meet student costs, this is not the case with those learners from other parts of the community. The development of Lifelong Learning is thus severely threatened by the changing financial context of higher education institutions.

The change to what in the UK is termed the ‘stakeholder’ concept also has a wider significance. Traditionally, the state funded the bulk of higher education institutions’ activity in most Western societies, but expected to exercise relatively little influence on, let alone control over, higher education institutions: ‘university autonomy’ was respected as one of the perceived cornerstones of democratic society.

The ‘stakeholder’ concept is in part a response to the direct financial imperatives to find ways of meeting the dramatically increased costs of a mass higher education system (National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, 1997). But it is also an ideological response to the increasingly market-oriented culture. Students are ‘customers’ in the market place and should be encouraged to behave like consumers, searching for the ‘best buy’; employers also have a direct interest as investors in human capital/HRM via education. The state, too, is a ‘stakeholder’ both in the sense that it has a responsibility to ensure value for money (taxpayers’ money), and in the sense that the wider society has an interest in ensuring high quality higher education.

These changes are thus potentially fundamental in both practical and cultural respects. At different levels, the funding regimes which are emerging are in part cause and in part effect of the ‘massification’ of higher education. In the medium term, these systems are likely to provide a supportive context for the development of a market-oriented lifelong learning system of higher education. In the short-term, however, the potential removal of financial support by the state for higher education institutions and learners is proving dysfunctional to the development of Lifelong Learning. (Interestingly, the recent report on student finance in further and higher education in Scotland presents a moderate challenge to this preliminary view (Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance (the Cubie Committee), 1999)).

Some more generic funding trends should also be noted. In all four countries, the distinctions between part-time and full-time students is becoming anachronistic and will almost certainly disappear, in funding as in other contexts, in the fairly near future. At present, however, part-time students (who by definition include virtually all Continuing Education students in higher education) are discriminated against in financial terms. In Finland, for example, there is no financial support for part-time students except through the deducting of costs from tax liability. The situation is similarly unhelpful for part-time higher education students in Germany, and the Netherlands, and only marginally better in the UK. Secondly, in all four countries Continuing Professional Development provision is almost entirely self-funded through a combination of learners’ fees and (increasingly) employers meeting programme costs. Finally, although there are variations between the four countries, in all of them there is state-subsidised provision of various sorts for the development of Continuing Education targeted at particularly disadvantaged groups in the community (for example, unwaged adults and younger people, certain minority ethnic groups etc.). Although such work falls very largely outside the higher education sector in all four countries, there is an increasing emphasis upon the importance of cross-sectoral partnerships – and the provision of funding to support their development – as part of governments’ Lifelong Learning agenda.


An OECD Report (1998) noted the increasing importance of partnerships for higher education institutions in terms of business, regional and local authorities, and groups in the community. In the partnership arrangements within the higher education sector itself, there are clear differences between states with binary and those with unitary systems of higher education. Thus binary higher education systems – such as those in Finland, Germany and the Netherlands – where there is differentiation between universities and polytechnics – remain hierarchical, with very limited opportunities for real collaboration between higher education institutions, and little ‘horizontal transition’ for students. In the UK, with its relatively recent (1992) unitary higher education system, there remains a very marked hierarchy of status, with the older universities clearly having greater prestige and cachet than the newer. However, there is some evidence in the UK of growing collaboration and partnerships within the sector b•tween varied types of higher education institutions, with an increasing concern for widening participation and access for non-traditional learners.

In Finland, Germany and the Netherlands short access trajectories to higher education are not regarded as legitimate solutions to the problem of widening participation, and there has been, as yet, little tangible evidence of cross-sectoral partnerships in these societies. Rather, access to higher education is perceived to be an issue for development in the primary and secondary sectors of education.

In all four countries, those higher education institutions with a more vocational mission and culture have, generally, a more flexible and positive attitude and practice to partnership and accessibility initiatives. In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, an increasing number of vocational higher education courses can be followed on the basis of full-time, part-time and dual modes of study.

Specialised provision of Continuing Education in the higher education context is organised differently in the four countries concerned, as noted earlier, but in all these different environments Continuing Education is clearly oriented towards partnership arrangements. In many ways, the Continuing Education specialist unit or department – whether part of the mainstream faculty structure, as is often the case in the UK and Finland, or a ‘satellite’ system operating alongside the mainstream higher education institution, as often occurs in Germany and the Netherlands – acts as a partnership broker between the higher education institution and the wider community.

Another increasingly important element within partnership structures has been the development of open and distance learning systems at regional, national and transnational levels. The Open University systems have been particularly prominent in this respect. Also, many higher education institutions now have profitable Continuing Professional Development and/or postgraduate programmes on a transnational basis, delivered partly through open and distance learning, and partly through franchising and validation arrangements with overseas higher education institutions. Generally, however, such innovations remain the exception. Even the growth of the international recruitment of students (largely at postgraduate level) has taken place within the mainstream, residential format of higher education.

There is little opportunity, as yet, for adult learners (or for that matter other non-traditional students) to become involved in transnational open and distance learning programmes. The only exception here, and that is at present marginal, is the Continuing Professional Development field where employers and/or learners are able to provide high technology facilities for open and distance learning, and meet the high costs of self-financing programmes.

At the regional level, the development of Lifelong Learning partnerships to meet labour market requirements through higher education provision is becoming increasingly prevalent in all four countries, though the content and process of such partnership arrangements vary significantly. As the national reports indicate, many higher education institutions have traditions of partnerships with organisations in civil society such as trade unions, community groups, voluntary associations, social movements and other providers of adult education. However, the reports also indicate that very often such partnerships are threatened by declining financial resources, the perceived marginality of such activities for the core business of higher education institutions, and the increasing dominance of Continuing Professional Development within Continuing Education. Such relationships need to be rigorously defended and developed: such partnerships are vital to the embedding of higher education institutions in their region and in their communities. If Lifelong Learning ambitions for higher education institutions are to be realised, and positive systemic change is to be achieved, these partnerships are perhaps the key element in building the ‘democratising culture’ which underpins the Lifelong Learning concept.


It is clear from this analysis, which of course summarises much more detailed nationally based research, that universities are generally only just beginning to get to grips with Lifelong Learning. To a large extent, such practice as has been adopted has tended to be in response to financial constraints in the system, resulting from overall expansion and ‘massification’. This has meant, of course, that the emphases have been upon Continuing Professional Development and high income earning provision. This type of high level work, with the already well-educated and professionally experienced, is also well attuned to the cultural perceptions and missions of most higher education institutions.

Are we thus to draw the pessimistic conclusion that Lifelong Learning is, first, little more than rhetorical window-dressing, and, second, practised only where it can be seen as a culturally congruent ‘cash cow’? This is of course one interpretation: but it is in my view overly pessimistic. ‘Big ideas’ and movements like Lifelong Learning are never monolithic, but result from and produce contradictory processes and trajectories. Not surprisingly in a late capitalist world dominated by an increasingly ‘packaged’ commercial culture, where ‘knowledge’ is a key commodity, Lifelong Learning is perceived as primarily a conceptual vehicle to service the demands of capital. Yet there are other prominent and egalitarian dimensions and motivations: for widening participation, for diversifying the curriculum, for instilling a critical, questioning element into the educational process, and, not least, for empowering learners. What eventual shape Lifelong Learning takes, and whether or not it is a force for progressive change, depends as always upon the interplay of political forces within both the educational system and the wider society.


European Commission White Paper (1994), ‘Growth, Competitiveness and Employment’.

Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance (Scotland) (the Cubie Committee) (1999)

UK Government Policy Paper (1997) The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the Dearing Report), HMSO.

UK Government Green Paper (1998) The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain.

UK Government Policy Paper (1999), Learning and Skills Bill.

Watson, D and Taylor, R (1998) Lifelong Learning and the University: a post-Dearing agenda, Brighton, Falmer Press.


1 The Project was directed by Richard Taylor, University of Leeds, and organized in collaboration with the UK Networks, Universities Association for Continuing Education and National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. The author is grateful to colleagues in all four countries for their collaborative work on the Project: Kaj Hellbom, Dr Pekka Kess, Kari Seppala, Dr Ossi Tuomi (Finland); Dr Gernot Graessner, Albert Kommer, Professor Detlef Kuhlenkamp, Professor Ekkehard Nuissl, Professor Jürgen Wittpoth (Germany); Dr Barry Hake, Professor Dr Max van der Kamp, Dr Meindert Slagter (Netherlands); Professor Stephen McNair, Dr Barbara Merrill, Dr John Payne, and Tony Uden (England and Wales). Each country produced its own detailed national report. Requests for further, more detailed informatrion, should be addressed to the author.

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