Making the most of lifelong learning

Malak Zaalouk, Chair of UIL’s Governing Board, explains why lifelong learning is at the heart of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – and why it should be central to the plans and policies of nation states

© Asian Development Bank

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 puts lifelong learning at the heart of the global education policy-making agenda by enjoining Member States to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’.

This is already important recognition. However, we have yet to fully realize the potential contribution of lifelong learning either to SDG 4 or to the wider 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This demands the development of inter-sectoral solutions to challenges such as social exclusion, poverty, climate change, mass migration and technological transformation..

We need a coherent approach to ensure the 10 SDG 4 targets are met. While UIL has taken a leading role in addressing SDG target 4.4, on skills development, 4.5 on gender equality and inclusion, 4.6 on literacy, and 4.7 on education for sustainable development and global citizenship, we also believe that lifelong learning represents an important organizing principle to support an integrated approach to addressing the wider SDG 4 agenda, not to mention the entire set of SDG goals.

The scale and interdependency of the challenges we face in our societies means that we can no longer afford to work in silos; the approach that, in very many cases, has typified education governance around the world. Lifelong learning, on the other hand, represents a coherent, integrated approach to governance, including sector-wide, cross-sectoral and multi-level dimensions.

While lifelong learning has a clear and significant contribution to make to SDG 4, it is also relevant to the achievement of the other 16 SDGs, and, more generally, to the development of inclusive, democratic and sustainable societies. Increasingly, Member States want to know how lifelong learning can help them, for example, improve the health and wellbeing of their populations, exploit new technological developments or foster global citizenship.

It is gratifying to see the potential of lifelong learning more and more widely recognized. Technological change, mass population movement, demographic shifts and climate change, among other issues, all point to a need for more lifelong learning, delivered in a more cogent, far-sighted way.

Lifelong learning is critical to the longer-term, sustainable development of societies, but, too often, this case can get lost among competing priorities, which can lead to the prioritization of short-term results above long-term success and stability.

Raising the profile of lifelong learning, persuading policy-makers of its wider relevance and producing evidence of what works and where progress is lacking, are all critical parts of the case we need to make to nation states.

This is critical work. While there has been some progress at policy level, there remains much to do to ensure we realize the role of lifelong learning in enabling countries to rise to the challenges they face.

Many countries are still falling short of the commitments made in the 2030 Agenda. Too often, politicians focus almost exclusively on the formal system of initial education and do too little to foster the long-term benefits of learning throughout life and cultivate the sort of learning societies our contemporary challenges demand.

If the potential of lifelong learning to the 2030 Agenda is to be realized, and lifelong learning is to become – as I believe it must – the leading educational paradigm for inclusive and sustainable learning societies, collaboration across sectors will be critical.

We must develop partnerships and cooperation that cross the boundaries between formal, non-formal and informal learning. We must involve the private sector and civil society, as well as different levels and departments of government. This is the only way to realize the potential of lifelong learning in areas such as health, environmental sustainability and justice.

When we work together, focusing on a common vision, we are much more than the sum of our parts.

Malak Zaalouk is Chair of UIL’s Governing Board and Professor of Practice and Director of the Middle East Institute for Higher Education, at the American University in Cairo, in the Arab Republic of Egypt

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