Whose University is it anyway? The complex world(s) of lifelong (higher) learning, government policy and institutional habitus

Marr, Liz and Harvey, Morag (2012). Whose University is it anyway? The complex world(s) of lifelong (higher) learning, government policy and institutional habitus. In: Access to Higher Education: is it a right, a privilege or a necessity?” EAN 21st Annual Conference, 27-29 Jun 2012, Zagreb, Croatia.


At a time of worldwide economic recession, policy decisions at governmental and institutional level have to balance the basic human rights of access to education with the skills needs for economic competitiveness. This is playing out across Europe in a myriad of ways, as social problems exacerbated by lack of opportunity, add to the complexity of funding decisions.
As part of the OPULL (Opening up Universities to Lifelong Learning) project, four European universities have been conducting research on attitudes to and beliefs about the place of Recognising Prior Learning (RPL) in higher education. Interviews conducted with stakeholders in the UK suggest that whilst there is recognition of the value of RPL, there are concerns about how quality and standards are impacted. Furthermore, the new funding mechanism militates against the concept of lifelong learning and the strong emphasis on skills development limits potential for self fulfilment.
This paper focuses on emerging themes and concepts from this series of qualitative interviews which asked whether university is for everyone. The focus of the OPULL project is about opening up higher education to new target groups, in particular students who have achieved through life and work experiences and need a pathway into qualifications and certification. But analysis of responses suggests wider issues associated with the tensions between economic drivers, access for all and affordability. These responses are bound up in bigger questions about the role and purpose of higher education in 21st century Europe.
We argue here that the concept of lifelong learning is being wilfully misconstrued and the very narrow focus on young people and traditional qualifications limits the potential for self-actualisation amongst a significant proportion of the population. Furthermore it limits the capacity to develop an engaged citizenry able to make a real social as well as economic contribution.

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