The development and promotion of the strategic goal of the European Union to become a competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy and society (Lisbon European Council, 2000) can only be achieved with the relevant technological infrastructures together with people equipped with the necessary skills and competences (European Commission, 2002). As stated in the European Council (2005, p. 7), “human capital is the most important asset for Europe.” This human capital must be supported by a well-structured initial education, constantly updated by a continuous lifelong learning program, so that people can face the challenges of a series of new jobs, maybe separated by spells of shortterm contracts or even unemployment. This continuous education program should be available to all citizens, regardless of their age and social or economic status.
The development and promotion of the strategic goal of the European Union to become a competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy and society (Lisbon European Council, 2000) can only be achieved with the relevant technological infrastructures together with people equipped with the necessary skills and competences (European Commission, 2002). As stated in the European Council (2005, p. 7), “human capital is the most important asset for Europe.” This human capital must be supported by a well-structured initial education, constantly updated by a continuous lifelong learning program, so that people can face the challenges of a series of new jobs, maybe separated by spells of short-term contracts or even unemployment. This continuous education program should be available to all citizens, regardless of their age and social or economic status. As stated in the European Council (2006):
All citizens should develop knowledge, skills and competencies and keep them updated by education and lifelong learning. One should also take into consideration the specific needs of citizens that might be victims of social exclusion. These procedures will contribute to economic growth and will reinforce social cohesion.
In a knowledge-based society, education and training are among the highest priorities because they are central to the creation and transmission of knowledge and are a determining factor for societal innovation. It is also recognized that human resources are the main assets for every organization and country.
In this context, universities play an important role in the development of human capital as they are instrumental to enable the acquisition of such skills by all citizens, including adults. For a long time these institutions were the domain of an elite, as only the privileged ones had the opportunity to apply for a higher education course (Merrill, 2001). However, in recent years, as a consequence of changes not only in the economy but also in the labour market, leveraged by globalization, this situation has changed dramatically and now, universities have opened their doors to attract a wider range of students with a variety of backgrounds. This expansion has allowed new groups of students, traditionally excluded or under-represented in higher education, to participate (Schuetze & Slowey, 2002); these include adult non-traditional students.
Recognising the essential role of the universities, some European policies were initiated. The Sorbonne Declaration (1998) stressed the need to create a European area of higher education as a key element to promote mobility and employability. In 1999, the Bologna Declaration recognised the need to build a European area of higher education having a system of compatibility and comparability through coordinated policies. Later, in 2005, the European Council refers to the Universities and R&D as “the foundations of European competitiveness” (Commission, 2006, p. 2).
Although there has been an increased use of concepts, such as flexibility, choice, excellence, and personal responsibility for learning in the European political agenda, imposed on universities by governments, adult students are still expected to fit into educational institutions designed for younger ones. It creates a gap between adult students’ expectations and the real situation they face when entering (or re-entering) a higher-education institution.
This article looks at the problem from the perspective of the adult learner in higher education by presenting some of the results of a project, funded by European Commission Socrates Programme, LIHE, Learning in Higher Education. It is structured as follows: first, the background of the project is described, then the experiences of the adult student, concerning their induction and tuition, are presented. Some future trends concerning adults in higher education and lifelong learning are outlined and conclusions drawn.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Biographical Analysis: Is an interpretive research approach to understand how individuals take part in social contexts and make sense of them. The analysis of the interviews helps to reveal the structures of personal and social processes of action. Usually, at the beginning of the interview, there is nothing that would be recognised as “relevant categories”; these should emerge from the analysis of data.
Learning Contracts: Are agreements negotiated between a learner and a teacher stating that certain activities will be undertaken to achieve particular learning goals and that specific evidence will be produced to demonstrate that the goals have been reached. This agreement is a mechanism for reassuring both parties involved about whether a piece of work will meet the requirements of a certain course or module. It is based on the idea that learners are active partners in all the learning and teaching process.
Reflexive Learner: This type of learner is someone who explores their experiences of learning to better understand how they learn and improve their learning and thus, becoming a lifelong learner. This kind of student is more self-aware and self-critical, honest about themselves and open to criticism and feedback, curious and prepared to try different approaches, motivated to improve and more able to carry through independent learning. Strategies that may help to improve and encourage reflection include self- and peer assessment, learning logs, critical incident and fieldwork diaries, reflective commentaries, and action research.
Social Learning Theory: Can be defined as the combination of learning and problem solving activities that take place within participatory systems such as groups, social networks, movements and collectives, operating within real-life contexts and thereby raising issues of social responsibility. It combines learning, problem solving, sociability, and responsibility.
Lifelong Learning: All learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills, and competences within a personal, civic, social, and/or employment-related perspective. Lifelong learning is about the acquisition and update of all kind of abilities, interests, knowledge, and qualifications from the preschool years to post retirement. It also values all forms of learning, including formal learning, non-formal learning, and informal learning.
Experience-Based Learning (or experiential learning): This learning model, first developed by David Kolb, positions the learner and his experience in the centre of all activities. This experience comprises all kind of events in the life of the learner, including those that happened earlier, the current events, or those arising from the learner’s participation in activities implemented by teachers and facilitators. The experience analysis, by reflecting, evaluating, and reconstructing, is a key element. It encompasses formal, informal and non-formal learning, lifelong learning, incidental learning, and workplace learning.
Andragogy: This concept was first developed by Knowles in the late 1960s as a science of teaching adults; its key assumptions, based on the characteristics of adult learners, are 1. Self-directedness and independence increases as a person matures. 2. Adult experience constitutes a resource forlearning. 3. Readiness to learn is related to “needs,” which in turn are related to the different developmental tasks, phases and roles of adult life. 4. As a person matures, his/her orientation to learn is more directed towards the immediacy of application and to one of problem centeredness. 5. In the adult, learning motivation is intrinsic.