Dr Nalita James’s research interests lie in access and widening participation in higher education, with a focus on mature students.

Dr Nalita James’s research interests lie in access and widening participation in higher education, with a focus on mature students. Her research areas include adult education; changing patterns of education, work and identity; social inclusion, lifelong learning and higher education; and education policy. She would be interested in supervising students in these areas.

This blog is based on the following keynote:

James, N. (2021) Reimaging Lifelong Learning in Higher Education. How Can We Do it Differently, European Continuing Education Network Forum, 22 November 2021.

Re -imagining Lifelong Learning  in Higher Education

University Lifelong Learning should embrace learning in its broadest sense, including the social, cultural and economic development of communities and the region (European Universities Continuing Education Network, n.d.). This seems an inclusive standpoint  that  should strongly influence the way that learners learn and teachers teach. However, the recent UNESCO (2020) report on Embracing a Culture of Lifelong Learning, argues that in many education systems, lifelong learning is an auxiliary system rather than a central concept for education and social policies. This has resulted in fragmented reforms, and top down procedures, effectively disconnecting lifelong learning from the core of  education systems and policies. Further, the appreciation of the wider value of lifelong learning often falls short of the ambition to create a learning society in which learning for employability and skills is valued alongside learning for personal growth, community development, active citizenship and the ‘common good’. As Biesta (2006, p.169) suggests, lifelong learning is ‘increasingly understood in terms of the formation of human capital and as an investment in economic development.’ The adoption of this approach in higher education shifts  lifelong learning further and further away from it being about a right, towards it being a responsibility, something which adults need to do ensure they are work-ready throughout their career.  This is further compounded by the neoliberalist model of higher education that  increases social inequality and  in turn drives a more competitive society and economy.

There is another way forward. Higher education systems could  be reorganised so that formal learning does not always dominate and is mainly reserved for young people. We know this is problematic in at least two ways. First, not everyone can afford to pursue an educational degree when they are young: educational attainment is highly influenced by the socioeconomic status and privilege  of families, creating  barriers to  post-secondary education. Second, even for those who have the opportunity to study at a young age, restricting formal education to such a limited time span fails to acknowledge the way humans evolve throughout their life, developing a wide array of interests that might not have been present when the person was considered young enough to study. Lifelong  learning in higher education could therefore better reflect the way in which individuals evolve throughout their lives.  As noted by Peters et al  (2021, p.4 ): ‘…our universities need to recognize it is the individual will that precedes intellect and in what we teach, or are taught, and this should embrace a unity, truth and goodness of all being. ‘ This approach calls for a reconstructing of the curriculum that involves transdisciplinary and holistic thinking, where learning expands human capacities and possibilities,  allows people to lean into their curiosity without always having to ponder the market value of their interests, or gain profitable skills to be more competitive in the job market.  In this way, higher education can be part of a chain of progression for  continuing education and skills that stretches over the life course. The notion of  learning for integrated life comes to mind —where every person’s path through compulsory education and working career is a continual journey, with ongoing opportunities for learning and skills development as enablers of employability, success, and purpose. But to deliver this  requires access to a system of learning that is fit for purpose – that can  capitalize on that journey.

 To return to where I started, the choice to adopt lifelong learning as a feature of, and approach to, higher education must derive from a set of declared values about the purpose of learning through life and learning for life.  These values must not be an elegant mission statement that is never put into action. If higher education can acknowledge the multiple forms of learning and different kinds of knowledge that can be gained from different contexts throughout life, then higher education has the potential to be truly inclusive. This requires sustained efforts and major changes in the way lifelong learning is conceptualized, delivered, organized, structured, funded and valued.


Biesta, G. (2006) What’s the Point of Lifelong Learning if Lifelong Learning Has No Point? On the Democratic Deficit of Policies for Lifelong Learning, European Educational Research Journal, 5, (3 & 4),pp.169-180

Peters, M. et al (2020) Reimagining the new pedagogical possibilities for universities post-Covid-19, Educational Philosophy and Theory, https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2020.1777655

UNESCO (2021) Embracing a Culture of Lifelong Learning, https://uil.unesco.org/lifelong-learning/embracing-culture-lifelong-learning

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