The disruption caused by COVID-19 to the everyday life of citizens around the world over the past six months has made it clear that that the future will entail new definitions of normal life. Most dramatically affected is the formal education system, from primary and secondary to tertiary.
What also became obvious is that local leaders, supported by local communities, found local solutions to deal with the virus, solutions that relied on local experiences, local knowledge and local resources. As schools shut down, and with weak digital access in many communities, mobile smartphones, small study circles and ‘travelling’ tutors were appropriately galvanized to support the learning of young and old alike, outside classrooms and campuses. Suddenly, the compartments of life, study, work and leisure became meaningless divisions, and learning, studying, cooking, caring and chatting were inter-mingled, almost seamlessly and effortlessly.
What theories, champions and institutions of lifelong learning could not accomplish over decades, the pandemic made possible almost immediately: integrating all education in a lifelong learning perspective.
The narrative of lifelong learning begins with a simple proposition: learning takes several forms, including formal, non-formal and informal learning. Learning happens throughout life, in all aspects of life, and from all ways of living life (work, leisure, community service, family, etc.). Learning is life-long, life-wide and life-deep.
UNESCO has been championing and supporting the development of lifelong learning for decades. The fourth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA IV), in Paris in 1985, recognized the ‘fundamental right of each and every individual to education, and that lifelong education is becoming an absolute requirement for social, economic, scientific and technological development in the modern world’. The declaration of the conferences noted that the right to learning is:
the right to read and write;
the right to question and analyse;
the right to imagine and create;
the right to read one’s own world and to write history;
the right to have access to educational resources;
the right to develop individual and collective skills.
CONFINTEA VI, held in Belém, Brazil, in 2010, recognized that:
Lifelong learning is critical in addressing global educational issues and challenges. Lifelong learning from cradle to grave is a philosophy, a conceptual framework and an organizing principle of all forms of education, based on inclusive, emancipatory, humanistic and democratic values.
UNESCO, furthermore, in 2015, urged Member States to understand education as an important public good, essential to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals:
Education must also change … new approaches to learning for greater justice, social equity and global solidarity. Education must be about learning to live on a planet under pressure. It must be about cultural literacy, on the basis of respect and equal dignity, helping to weave together the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.
And, more than two decades ago, CONTINTEA V’s 1997 Hamburg Declaration called for closer linkages between adult education, lifelong learning and higher education:
The establishment of joint university/community research and training partnerships, bringing the services of universities to outside groups; carrying out interdisciplinary research in all aspects of adult education and learning with the participation of adult learners themselves; creating opportunities for adult learning in flexible, open and creative ways; providing systematic continuing education for adult educators; and the transformation of post-secondary institutions into lifelong learning institutions.
In the post-pandemic era, institutions of higher education must find holistic approaches to re-connect with society around them. As educational institutions embedded in local contexts, their core missions of teaching, research and service need to be integrated in a proactive manner. Socially responsible higher education needs to connect with all providers of education in their contexts. The past division between primary, secondary and tertiary is artificial now, since new competencies are to be learned by all – students, learners, teachers and parents alike.
As we emerge into an uncertain, still-malleable future, individuals, families and communities need to take greater responsibility for their own health. Such a shift entails learning new behaviours. As adult educators know, learning also entails unlearning, often quite stressful and challenging. Support for such life-protecting learning comes from family, community and schools, working together. How can higher education institutions support such local efforts? How can they undertake community-based participatory research to support the generation of local solutions for healthy and sustainable communities?
The second UNESCO Conference on Higher Education in 2009 called for deepening and broadening community engagement in a socially responsible manner. At the heart of these recommendations is a call for embracing learning in all its forms, for all purposes, and, most importantly now, for global citizenship education.
COVID-19 has already laid bare the inter-connectedness of all humanity; as higher education institutions begin to respond to these challenges, integrating a lifelong learning approach into their teaching, research and service activities will re-connect them to their local contexts and societal efforts.