Further education is a lifetime pursuit

Greta Paa-Kerner, Principal Lecturer at Bucks New University, discusses the importance of lifelong learning and how it is needed in today's economy

My sister recently told me that she was returning to university to get a master’s degree in conflict resolution. My first reaction was surprise, followed by delight, and then I was surprised that I had been surprised. The fact is that she’s 51-years-old and the last time she walked across a stage in a cap and gown was when Push It by Salt-N-Pepa was topping the charts.  

According to a white paper commissioned by the UK government’s Foresight Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning, lifelong learning ‘increases skills and qualification levels, and in the right circumstances contributes to economic productivity and social wellbeing’. My sister is contributing to our collective good. 

In fact, we need more people like my sister. Why? Because it’s a perfect storm of workforce issues in the UK. The population is not only living longer, but it is ageing, meaning the ratio of workers to retirees is worsening and this means that productivity needs to rise in order to maintain our current standard of living.

The need for higher productivity has been a simmering issue for a while but it recently received even more attention in the Autumn Budget because the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) revised its forecast for productivity growth downward. Skills are intrinsically linked with productivity improvement, competitiveness, innovation and economic growth.  

This workforce demographic issue, coupled with radical changes to the ways we work, live and communicate due to the disruptive digital age means that our ability to maintain and renew skills for new types of working requires lifelong learning. Flexible learning and retraining is the key to a fit for purpose workforce in an era of ambiguity and transformative change. 

Technological trends such as workforce automation and improvements in artificial intelligence as well as other changes to employment patterns mean that the workforce must learn new skills and take alternative routes on their career path more often. According to another UK government report, these changes point to ‘lifelong learning as the pathway for skills-driven economic growth… enabling workers to adapt to changing demands for skills and manage transitions in the future’. 

As one can expect, forecasted job growth is not equal amongst sectors, or between education levels. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) predicts that within England between 2014 and 2019 job growth in professional services will increase by 15 per cent for university graduates, but will stagnate at 0 per cent for the non-graduate workforce. According to these statistics, the non-graduate work force will actually shrink -3 per cent in the media-related sector and up to -9 per cent in the financial sector. At the same time, the job market for the degree-holding workforce will increase by 4 per cent in the media sector and increase by 1 per cent in the financial services sector.

While a graduate can’t be guaranteed a job, the statistics indicate that having a university degree will improve employment prospects. The report states: “The demand for skills, as measured by the numbers employed in higher level occupations, and the numbers employed holding higher level qualifications, is also projected to rise.”

Attitudes towards lifelong learning and up-skilling an ageing workforce are improving and it is important that higher education providers take an active part in this national effort

Attitudes towards lifelong learning and up-skilling an ageing workforce are improving and it is important that higher education providers take an active part in this national effort. Universities must be open to the concept of ‘widening participation’ within education. They should retool their educational offering to make sure they teach students to think creatively, solve problems and work flexibly with others, as these skills will be needed despite what happens with artificial intelligence and automation. 

And a university’s educational offering should be flexible too, including evening courses, distance learning opportunities, part-time as well as full-time and short courses.  

At Bucks New University we understand the value of lifelong learning and offer a portfolio of courses to meet the changing needs of today’s workforce. The university believes in widening participation in higher education in order to enhance career progression in a world of digital disruption and radical transformation.  

The article’s author, Greta Paa-Kerner is a Principal Lecturer at Bucks New University. With over 20 years of practitioner experience, she now develops course content and lecturers on business, leadership and marketing at the University. She is actively involved in industry as a guest lecturer and as a content contributor. And, as a side note, Chorus by Erasure was top of the UK charts when she walked across the graduation stage for her first degree.