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Lifelong learning requires an evolving university

Margaret Andrews

“I am still learning,” Michelangelo reportedly said at the age of 87. He continued to learn, evolve his craft and stay productive until the end of his life. As global life expectancy increases we should all continue to learn, stay productive and evolve our craft – including universities.

The World Health Organization shows global average life expectancy for those born in 2015 at 71.4 years – an increase from the cohort born in 2000, whose life expectancy at birth was 66.4. This has profound implications for individuals, employers, societies – and colleges and universities.

Twenty years ago, higher education thought of a ‘typical student’ as someone between the ages of 18 and 25. Now colleges and universities have expanded educational programming toward working professionals and those in search of ‘re-tooling’ for a new job or career and the student age range has increased apace. But have we expanded our view far enough? 

An increasing number of people want to – and can – stay productive well beyond age 60. Beyond Michelangelo, there have been other very successful (and famous) people who started businesses and new careers well past their 20s and 30s and-or continued working late in life. Notable examples include, Tim and Nina Zagat, who started publishing restaurant reviews at age 51 and grew the Zagat company into a formidable culinary authorityRay Kroc, who bought McDonald’s at the age of 52 and grew it into the world’s largest fast-food franchise; or Rosalie Gascoigne, a prominent New Zealand / Australian sculpture who held her first exhibition at 57 years of age.

More people want to work well beyond what we consider retirement age and an increasing number of them are doing so. According to a Wall Street Journal article: “The 55-and-older crowd is now the only age group with a rising labour-force participation rate, even as age discrimination remains a problem for many older job seekers.

The article goes on to say that “Academics have found that knowledge and certain types of intelligence continue to develop in ways that can offset age-related declines in the brain’s ability to process new information and reason abstractly. Expertise deepens, which can enhance productivity and creativity. Some go so far as to say that wisdom – defined, in part, as the ability to resolve conflicts by seeing problems from multiple perspectives – flourishes.”  

As industries change, the world of work evolves, and people expect to have multiple careers (not just jobs) over their lifetime, so individuals need to continually update their skills.

This represents an opportunity for colleges and universities to support the ageing workforce and the organisations employing them by expanding programming toward the needs of this more mature demographic. 

Lynda Gratton noted in a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article: “It is clear that lifelong learning would meet the needs of the trends that are currently well underway. But this concept demands a focus and society-wide commitment that is not yet in place.  

“We need to change that … anticipating jobs and providing access to lifelong learning demands a complex system involving multiple stakeholders: educators that extend the reach of their programmes from being front-ended on teenagers and 20-somethings to delivering educational options to students of all ages; governments that commit to helping citizens understand future job markets and the skills they will require and that realign tax and financial incentives; and corporations that create work environments that support education and enable employees to engage in extended periods of training.” 

Many of the shifts for the higher education market have been well documented, including evolving employer needs for talent, unbundling the components of higher education delivered by colleges and universities, and how universities are evolving 

And yet, most colleges and universities continue to operate much as they did 100 years ago.

Universities are full of very smart people, those who can see the future and understand the implications. Change is difficult, and universities need to learn new ways of thinking, operating and executing – selectively forgetting some of the ways of doing things in the past in order to fully invent and realise the future of higher education. This is not easy. 

 This is an extract from, “Lifelong learning requires an evolving university”.