Lifelong Learning: A Challenge for our Universities
You no longer need an Abitur (the German advanced school-leaving certificate) to study at a German university. In Germany, universities are now developing new ‘lifelong learning’ programmes for working people who wish to pursue academic studies.
In Germany, someone who has completed vocational training and has at least three years of work experience may now continue specialised study in his or her field at university level. The Meister – master craftsman's certificate or diploma – is now recognised on a par with the Abitur. In response, universities are giving more and more thought to concepts that would be appropriate for 'non-traditional' target groups. Sabine Remdisch is a professor of economic psychology. She heads the Institute for Performance Management at Lüneburg University.
Ms Remdisch, you are doing research on how universities can make lifelong learning a reality. Why is this topic of particular interest these days?
Sabine Remdisch: Up-to-date know-how is becoming increasingly important in businesses, which need more and more skilled workers and academically trained specialists. It is not easy to meet this need, and demographic developments are making the situation even more critical. Companies find themselves obliged to train and retrain their employees on an on-going basis. To close this gap and meet corporate needs, non-traditional target groups need to have the chance to go to university and acquire further academic qualifications. Lifelong learning can make this possible. And lifelong learning is an interesting option for the universities as well. By 2015 at the latest, the numbers of students enrolling in courses of study in the traditional way will be on the decline, so universities need to attract other population groups for continuing education.
Recent legislation now enables people without the Abitur to access German universities more easily. Isn't that enough?
Sabine Remdisch: Much remains to be done in terms of the actual design of the learning processes. A major challenge is the work-learn-life balance for students who continue to pursue their careers while studying. These students want to take courses in the evenings, at the weekends, or during set blocks of time. Our surveys show that there is considerable interest in knowledge that can be integrated into people's working life, such as projects or case studies taken from the actual working world.
Another important question is how skills acquired on the job are to be evaluated in terms of academic qualifications. Certain fields of learning from professional life should be included, such as leadership experience or project management. This can lead to synergies among the various possibilities for further education.
Working people gather a lot of experience on the job. This informal learning often happens spontaneously, so it is hard to evaluate in academic terms. What is the current situation in Germany?
Sabine Remdisch: The ANKOM initiative by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has conducted a systematic investigation of this subject. As a result, we now have various alternatives for giving university credit for different skills. Many can only be applied to individual academic fields or degree programmes, however. The approaches are only comparable if they are set within a common framework. In the Open University model project, for example, we are investigating what skills master craftsmen and women acquire in the course of their everyday working life. They are then to get credit for these qualifications if they apply for further study. We are now devising uniform criteria and quality standards that will enable us to do this.
Sabine Remdisch is head of the Open University model project at Lüneburg University. She is conducting research on how lifelong learning might take the form of academic studies at university.
When it comes to lifelong learning, how do German universities rate internationally?
Sabine Remdisch: Lifelong learning at universities has a venerable tradition in some European Union countries. The largest such university is the Open University in England, with more than 205,000 students and a broad range of degree programmes. In Finland, an open university is attached to every standard university. These institutions offer programmes for personal or professional higher education as well as preparing their students for an academic degree later on. In France, qualifications gained during professional life can even, in certain cases, replace university study altogether. Looking beyond the borders of the European Union, South Africa provides an interesting example of lifelong learning at university level.
In Germany, we are working on courses of study that fit in with the students’ working hours. These programmes attempt to combine theory and practice and are designed to implement what they learn directly at the students’ place of work.
There are few such possibilities in Germany to date. Nevertheless, an increasing number of universities are gradually showing an interest in further education.
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