the social, political and economic drivers of lifelong learning and lifelong education

November 10, 2013 at 7:30 pm (education, essays)

much less late than usual. I even got to proof it myself!

The Social, Political and Economic Drivers
of Lifelong Learning and Lifelong Education

The educational principle of Lifelong Learning is implicated in neoliberalism. Together they seem to have taken over the world, however the self-representation of an ideology as all-encompassing must not be confused with the notion that there is only one viable economic system and one worthwhile theory of lifelong learning.

This article, the companion to Lifelong Education in the context of community organising, discusses how Lifelong Learning has come about on an international scale, its close ties with neoliberalism in the West and the potential of its alternative strands. Three countries are illustrated, to contrast with the inevitabilities projected by the English speaking West. Sweden, Japan and China have all followed different paths, with different histories, motivations and assumptions leading to different priorities.

The importance of learning throughout the lifespan is seen as an uncontroversial part of contemporary life. An overwhelming majority of people think learning is essential at all ages (Field 2006). From the richest corporation to the poorest Chinese peasant (Boshier & Huang 2007), people agree learning is an integral part of life and if learning is good, then more learning is better. However, there is a distinction between “lifelong learning as a common sense principle – of learning from the cradle to the grave – and lifelong learning as an educational principle that has to be realized in policies, programs and projects”. (Medel-Añonuevo 2002, pxx)

As shall be seen, the educational principal of Lifelong Learning is culturally situated and, while not monolithic, it is anything but value-free.

The way one looks at a concept affects what is seen. In Part 1, Edwards’ three discourses of Lifelong Learning were discussed (Boshier 1998, p12; Rogers 2006, p126). However many other theorists have attempted to draw similar lines, representing three strands of education as orthodoxy, heterodoxy and heterogeneity (Paulston in Rogers 2006), or three progressive sentiments: individual, democratic and adaptive (Bagnall in Rogers 2006). The repetition of thirds is not coincidental. Each set identifies a breakpoint between a) the current orthodoxy, a neoliberal, individualist status quo and b) the democratic work that is done to include everyone in public life, particularly the heterodox minorities who aren’t currently served by the system. The third in each set distinguishes that c) facilitating greater access to public life still only co-opts people into the status quo. For true emancipation, people must also learn the tools to adapt and transform their own worlds.

As this Part discusses policies and projects rather than broad frameworks, it will use the terminology of Rogers’ three strands: Learning for Work; Learning for Citizenship; and Learning for Social Transformation (Rogers 2006). The term Lifelong Education usually conflates programs for either Citizenship or Social Transformation, drawn from, or reminiscent of, the Faure report (1972) and counterposed to the dominant Western trend of English-speaking countries such as Britain, North America and Australia which are strongly couched in the neoliberal Learning for Work (Boshier 1998). While this Part focuses on national and international organisational levels which generally prefer work for Citizenship over the more ‘dangerous’ promotion of Social Transformation, and at best conflate the two, Learning for Social Transformation abounds in academic discourse (Field 2006) and in smaller community projects, thus the distinctions are still important to understand.

The Faure report, as discussed in Part 1, was released in 1972, a time of great change in the world. Economically, times had been good for two decades in the West, with the development of welfare and a lack of world wars. However, several crises produced a scramble to maintain economic growth even if society suffered. Several countries, the EU and the OECD promptly released their own reports on learning, which took the solutions Faure had found for ameliorating the unevenness of world development and its effects, and applied them to bolstering the economy and focussing on jobs (Field 2006).

Through the 1980s there was little emphasis on Lifelong Learning, but in the 1990s it was back again, bigger than before. UNESCO produced the Delors report in 1996, which attempted to resurrect some of Faure’s ethos while rectifying some processes of the original. However the political climate was changing rapidly and it was swamped by even more economically-focused reports than the original had been (Field 2006).

With the breakdown of Communism, the challenges facing Capitalism were no longer about winning hearts and minds but maintaining the economic stature and advantage of the corporate class (Hyslop-Margison & Sears 2008). Thatcher, Fraser then Reagan convinced their countries that capitalism was inevitable, an almost religious sole solution to contemporary fears. This was the beginning of neoliberalism as the predominant force in the industrialised world, and lifelong learning was right there. It provided the skilled labour required for continual growth, facilitated competitiveness and justified the neoliberal thesis that “the old ways of working were not enough” (Field 2006, p35): if everyone accepts that making corporations happy is the most important goal of education policy, it follows naturally that continuing government control of education will never meet that goal as well as will handing over all control directly to the corporations.

From the 1990s to now, despite many and varied changes in the world, the influence of neoliberalism and its version of Lifelong Learning has only intensified. Indeed, educational offerings are now largely dictated by industry’s demand for graduates and workplace learning dominates adult education in the English speaking West (Field 2006). Nevertheless, while this history is important and has much to say about the development of Lifelong Learning in Australia, Britain and North America, it is not the whole story.

It is telling that Sweden, Japan and China are places where Lifelong Education has been taken up by the state. Sweden is a Socialist Democracy (Larsson 2001); Japan, a Developmental State (Shibata 2008) and traditionally structured society; and China is Market Socialist with Chinese Characteristics (Boshier & Huang 2007). All three have implemented some aspects of neoliberalism, and been affected by other countries’ uptake, yet none have neglected the core of their own systems for the theory.

All three have their own adult education traditions which predate Lifelong Learning: In the seventies, Sweden was the only country which implemented Faure’s recommendations in a significant way, such as implementing Education Leave (Field 2006), however the folkbildning tradition and its Study Circles had already been thriving since they started to be set up by social movements outside of the state, in 1912. Eventually Study Circles were taken up by the state, to the extent that they received funding, though the state does not intervene into matters of curriculum. In the 1990s they suffered a decrease in funding, yet participation increased and they continue to this day. (Larsson 2001)


Japan’s pre-existing educational tradition was ‘Social Education’, run out of Kominkans or local learning centres. Unfortunately Social Education did not solve the problems in society caused by their rigid, credentialised formal education system. When UNESCO started producing reports on Lifelong Education and Lifelong Learning in the early 1970s, Japan recognised the dual problems of rigidity and the breakdown of traditional social structures. The reports were taken seriously with debates in parliament resulting in a major report in 1981. By 1990 there was a law Concerning the Development of Mechanisms and Measures for Promoting Lifelong Learning, a lifelong learning bureau within the education department and an advisory body publishing recommendations to support organisations from educational institutions to local authorities, “leading to a substantial amount of activity, particularly at local and regional level.” (Field 2006, p38)

Qualitatively, the new Lifelong Education was a rebranded Social Education, complete with the conservative overtones about Japanese culture, tradition, morality and family. There was also an acknowledgement of economic consequences of Lifelong Learning. The Bureau was dominated by non-educational agencies and ministries, the law was passed [in partnership with departments of Industry and International Trade], and there was a hope that ‘self- learning’ would allow a cut in public spending (Field 2006). What was remarkable in global terms, however, was that in 1991, when the bubble economy collapsed, they increased funding instead of cutting it like in the west. Further, the increase didn’t focus on expanding vocational education but on individual and community based lifelong learning (Field 2006).


China’s recent history of learning has been more controversial. The Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966, could be argued to have been built around an explicit policy of learning, enacted by force. Schools and universities were closed and replaced by compulsory ‘re-education’ through informal learning from peasants in the countryside. Interestingly, this informal learning was to run to a specific curriculum of ‘purity’ of thought and strict adherence to the messages of Mao’s writings in the Little Red Book and the sycophantic Diary of Lei Feng (Boshier & Huang 2007, p57).

This is certainly not learning for learning’s sake. In fact it is learning for neither work, citizenship nor transformation. Academic models of learning are not prepared to encompass a concept so far outside of the aims of most educators. However it does highlight just how education can be, and has been, utilised.

The Cultural Revolution only completely ended with the death of Mao Tse Tung in 1976. By 1979 translations of the Faure report had appeared in Shanghai, followed by a Symposium of adult education in 1984, the flourishing of work on learning organisations and, by 2004, a full-scale national campaign of learning cities and villages (Boshier & Huang 2007). Thus the process of revaluing education to the service of harmony rather than purity, ran alongside the reconstruction of society.


The table below sets out some of the differences and similarities of each country or region.

  West Sweden Japan China
Economic / political Conditions Relatively rich* neoliberal capitalist democracies Rich and stable since the 1930s; Social Democracy, with neoliberal influences since 2006 Developmental State with neoliberal influences.    1991 crash then economic stagnation End of dictatorship then rebuilding, Market Socialism with Chinese Characteristics
Goals of National Policy Leaders Economic competitiveness of corporations. Maintaining high educational standards and standards of living Increasing flexibility of society and salvaging cohesion Harmony and stability. Critically engaging the best ideas of the rest of the world.
Actions on Lifelong Learning Cuts and Privatisation. Prioritising only the most neoliberal Maintenance of LE, uptake in the 1970s, funding cuts in the 1990s Boost of spending on LE in the 1990s Implementation of LE from as soon as the country was stable, to the present

* North America is in great debt, especially to China, and is printing money every month as ‘Quantitative Easing’, but is still the most powerful economy in the world. In terms of capacity to implement educational policies if will permits, North America, Britain and Australia are all well-resourced.

Comparing the similarities and differences of Sweden, Japan, China and the English speaking West, it becomes clear that the different approaches to Lifelong Learning are not couched directly in economic imperatives, but in assumptions, motivations and priorities; in short, ideology. The English speaking West posits many arguments predicated on the supposed inevitability of neoliberal capitalism (Field 2006), however they are clearly invalid. The primacy of a free market system as the best way to enhance wealth and life; the guidance of society by the economy; the necessity of a low tax, user-pays economy; and the limit of government intervention in society: they are all couched in specific ideology, and the assertion that viable alternatives are impossible is refuted by the experiences of Sweden, Japan and China. So too with the supposed impossibility of non-corporate lifelong education, as illustrated by the table above. While links can be seen between Conditions and Goals, and between Goals and Actions, there is little logic to the connections between a country’s conditions and their actions on Lifelong Learning if ideology is not taken into account.

This article has charted the very specific courses of three national governments against what is accepted as the status quo. However the variety should be taken to indicate the presence of possibilities, rather than any attempt to navigate their breadth. More models will no doubt be found in places such as the histories of popular and radical education movements, or small communities of location or commonality, as much as from national and international policy. One thing, however, is clear: The neoliberal ideology’s sense of its own inevitability is inaccurate and is not accepted where other ideologies are dominant. This indicates that, even within heavily neoliberal states, other models are possible. Whether one looks to the grand learning projects of the country which might become the next world superpower, or to a tiny intersectional community group, the only thing preventing Lifelong Learning from flourishing into Lifelong Education is ideology.



Boshier, R. (1998). Edgar faure after 25 years: Down but not out. In J. Holford, P. Jarvis & C. Griffin (Eds.), International perspectives on lifelong learning (pp. 3-20). London: Kogan Page.

Boshier, R., & Huang, Y. (2007). Shuang yu: Vertical and horizontal dimensions of china’s extraordinary learning village. Studies in Continuing Education, 29(1), 51-70.

Faure, E., Herrera, F., Kaddoura, A., Lopes, H., Petrovsky, A. V Rahnema, M. & Champion Ward, F. (1972). Learning to be: The world of education today and tomorrow. Paris: UNESCO.

Field, J. (2006). Lifelong learning: A design for the future? Lifelong learning and the new educational order (pp. 9-43). Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham.

Hyslop-Margison, E. J., & Sears, A. M. (2008). Challenging the dominant neo-liberal discourse: From human capital learning to education for civic engagement. In M. A. Peters, A. Britton & H. Blee (Eds.), Global citizenship education: Philosophy, theory and pedagogy (pp. 219-315). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Larsson, S. (2001). Seven aspects of democracy as related to study circles. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 20(3), 199-217.

Medel-Añonuevo, C. (2002). Integrating lifelong learning perspectives. The Phillipines: UNESCO Institute for Education.

Rogers, A. (2006). Escaping the slums or changing the slums? lifelong learning and social transformations. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 52(2), 125-137.

Shibata, K. (2008). Neoliberalism, risk, and spatial governance in the developmental state: Japanese planning in the global economy. Critical Planning, 15, 92-118.


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