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News from Europe: Continuing Higher Education as a Core Mission

As career advancement through education is becoming more of a norm in Europe, higher education institutions are beginning to recognize lifelong learning and adult continuing education as one of the fundamental tenants of their mission. Photo illustration by Kirill Kedrinski.

Until the expansion of the European Union in the late 1980’s, it would have been difficult to generalize about the place of post-tertiary education in European countries. Although each nation had its own expression of forms of adult learning—going back to diverse 19th-century models for worker education—many social, cultural and economic factors contributed to the absence of a developed continuing higher education infrastructure comparable to the U.S. and Canadian experience.

These included the historically small percentage of adults who completed university study; the large government sector comprising a higher percentage of the workforce than in North America, and traditions of employment continuity everywhere. As for those long-serving employees (including those in executive roles) needing to update their knowledge, in-service training delivered in-house had been normative. Perhaps most relevant, until the past three decades, voluntary job mobility was universally regarded as a somewhat alien, American concept. Thus there was not much demand from individuals seeking to access university-validated study opportunities that could help them position themselves for career change.

Moreover, the operational and academic structures that have existed for some time for adults seeking to earn their first degree were—outside of Britain and Soviet-dominated Europe—rarely found within traditional universities. As for non-degree learning opportunities, schools of commerce or of engineering and applied science have long organized programs for the benefit of their alumni (or for in-service training purposes for employees of their official quasi-governmental “industry sponsors”) but each operated generally in specific disciplinary niches and for narrowly defined institutionally affiliated communities.

Conditions have changed in the two short decades since the unification of Germany and the nearly doubling in size of the EU. European governments—singly and together under the EU banner—have marched sometimes fitfully and sometimes in remarkable concord toward greater convergence in many areas, most notably in matters of education, cross-border training and professional certification, within the broad framework of European social policy. Paralleling the earlier successful initiatives to encourage more traditional-age student mobility and facilitate credit-transfer within Europe (manifest in pioneering programs like ERASMUS and TEMPUS), the European Commission of Education and Culture and the Directorate for Education and Training have spearheaded a number of efforts modeling a fundamental commitment to the expansion of continuing education capabilities, by establishing coordinating bodies and funding incentives to facilitate relationships between higher education and industry (it is uplifting to see the leitmotif that Continuing Education is a key instrumentality for nurturing those vital relationships).

A CE leadership community has of course also emerged in Europe over the past few decades. Opportunities for professional development, promulgation of best practices, and inter-institutional and cross-border collaboration are fostered in relatively young organizations like the EUCON (European Union Continuing Education Association), the global ICDE (International Continuing and Distance Education Association), along with interest groups found within EAIE (the European Association of International Education) and the EUA (the European University Association). Brussels has been particularly assiduous in promoting inter-European cooperation among research institutes to study and measure the worlds of lifelong learning and continuing professional development, with the necessary goal of fostering a data framework for research, evaluation and assessment, as well to identify emerging best practices. A multitude of studies often aligned with OECD- and UNESCO-generated research reports, attest to these efforts (some are referenced below).

This blossoming of activity reflects the changing needs of society, of course, but it has not emerged only as a response to market opportunity. It has been accelerated by political initiatives: across the European Union, the education ministries of its 27 member governments (and those in the applicant queue, like Turkey) have all affirmed EU resolutions that lifelong learning and adult continuing higher education are among the fundamental responsibilities of higher education institutions (HEI’s). Because national governments establish educational policy and remain (for the time being) the principal funding sources of higher education across Europe, where private institutions are relatively few outside of self-standing professional schools, these widely shared affirmations come with formal expectations both of state investment and institutions providing evidence of demonstrated outcomes. The overarching commitment is legally enshrined in principles in the Lisbon Treaty (the governing set of laws for members of the European Union). Further, the EU has set specific goals as evidence of compliance: 12.5% of adults aged 25-64 shall be enrolled annually in forms of higher education-based continuing education or vocational training.

There is little doubt that the multi-national endorsements from EU member countries of these policy objectives are shaping the general direction of higher education across the Continent. They are not just well-intentioned pronouncements from government advisory panels or commissions of educational professionals and industry champions of higher education à la U.S. practice. They have the force of law.

Despite the diversity of needs and conditions across a broad landscape, it should be especially heartening for our professional community to note that insisting upon strengthened continuing education and lifelong learning capabilities have consistently emerged as critical elements of the anticipated role of HEI’s for the health of the “Europe of Knowledge” and in the promotion of social harmony—key issues of the Lisbon Treaty. In particular, the governments have articulated a clear correlation between the role CE programs can and should have at the macro level, in disseminating the products of university research labs to fuel the capacity of European industry and commerce to be at the forefront of innovation for high quality manufacturing and services in the global knowledge economy. And at the micro level, in keeping members of the demographically ageing European workforce of professionals informed about new methodologies, technologies, and other changing conditions, to help them stay up-to-date and productive—especially as Europeans are increasingly facing the need to remain actively employed far longer than recent generations.[1]

For these many reasons, it is not hard to understand the ways continuing education is seen as representing a structured higher educational expression of the “social dimension” of universities, as articulated in the Bologna Process. [2]

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[1] See Draft 2008 joint progress report of the Council and the Commission on the implementation of the ‘Education & Training 2010’ work programmer, “Delivering lifelong learning for knowledge, creativity and innovation.” Council of the European Union. No. Cion prop.: 15292/07 EDUC 211 SOC 460 + ADD 1. See also the conclusions of The Council of the European Union of 12 May 2009, regarding a strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (‘ET 2020’), in Official Journal of the European Union, “Notices from European Institutions and Bodies,” May 28, 2009, pp. C 119/2-119/10.

[2] Cf. Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency. Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe: Funding and the Social Dimension. European Commission, 2011. Available at,eurydice

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