Author: Samira Harjula, PhD researcher, Doctoral Programme of School, Education, Society and Culture, University of Helsinki.
Predicting Challenges – Lifelong and Continuous Learning as Future Risk Management
The European knowledge economy aims to keeping up with competition, decentralization and economic growth (Dale, Kazepov, Rinne & Robertson 2016). In order to turn Europe into a competitive knowledge economy, political strategies involving employability and active citizenship are shaping human capital. The human capital discourse involves personalized competences: a person inscribes values, attitudes and motivation instead of learned qualifications. For example, in this context career management skills mean the ability to handle changes and learn how to learn. (Bengtsson 2011.) Finnish knowledge society accentuates the ability to constantly learn from different sources and the ability to reform based on new information. Staying in competition depends on these abilities. (Halme, Viljamaa & Merisalo 2014.) Knowledge societies in general also underline key competences, like lifelong learning, which should be continuously updated (Dale, Kazepov, Rinne & Robertson 2016).
As life has become more uncertain, careers have also become precarious in almost every labor market position and in every type of work (Åkerblad 2015). The very fabric of labor market is weak. Temporary employment or interruptions of work for self-employed individuals make life unstable. Uncertainty of job preservation is dissolving careers and the future has to be re-thinked constantly. (Pärnänen & Sutela 2014; Åkerblad 2015.)
Lifelong learning has become the answer for multitude of new challenges in the EU countries in the last decades. Although lifelong learning started to gain footing in EU politics during the 1970s (see Kinnari 2020), the demand for individuals’ capability to constantly learn and update their skills and knowledge has become more important in today’s European knowledge economy. Even though lifelong learning policy history stretches quite far in the EU and its focal points vary, it focuses now on labor market security, economic competitiveness and employability (Rambla, Kovacheva & Parreira do Amaral 2019). The key skills of lifelong learning have been actively incorporated into the Finnish national education system as well (Kinnari 2020).
Societal change has typically explained the need for lifelong learning. It has been expected to tighten the relationship between individuals and society, improve labor market functions and economic growth and strengthen identity, but now as continuous learning it focuses mainly on employment rates, the carrying capacity of society and economic growth. (Kinnari 2020.) Heikki Kinnari (2020) also states in his dissertation that lifelong learning has been rebranded as continuous learning and it has become the most important concept of educational politics. He sees that lifelong learning has been reinvented as it has been before. Lifelong learning has also been associated with negative views (“life sentence” learning) and the new name aims to soften its image. (Kinnari 2020.)
It seems that these two concepts are still being used simultaneously: the European Commision pages for European Education Area (EEA) use lifelong learning and the Ministry of Education and Culture now uses mostly continuous learning in their web pages (2021). In the 2018 Ministry of Education and Culture (OKM) publication analyzed later in this essay, continuous learning is mentioned a couple of times as an equivalent to lifelong learning. At least nothing in the text itself states that these two terms are separate constructs. OKM also uses the concept of lifelong and life-wide learning in one sentence without deciphering the exact meaning of these concepts.
The need for upskilling and continuous learning has become an important topic in Finnish education politics. The Ministry of Education and Culture states that continuous learning will be reformed to respond to new educational needs. The term continuous learning is supposed to highlight the importance of upskilling and reskilling, because the concept of lifelong learning happens occasionally in one’s lifetime (OKM 2021.)
In this essay I’m interested in two aspects: future projections and the concepts of lifelong versus continuous learning . Firstly I’ll focus on what are the future challenges for education and work constructed at the national level? As data for this essay I chose two national level documents by the Finnish Government (VN) about continuous learning and the Ministry of Education and Culture (OKM) dealing with lifelong learning. They represent the key national actors in Finnish policy making and using their publications as material produces a descrpition of what the national policy (future of education and work) being constructed is like.
I will also study the relationship between the concepts of lifelong learning (LL) and continuous learning (CL) in these documents. What solutions do these concepts offer to future challenges presented? I seek to unravel if there are differences between lifelong and continuous learning (which, as Kinnari stated, is mostly the same thing in a new, appealing disguise).
In this essay I am using a thematic content analysis to compare the two documents. By creating summarisations from the documents (future challenges represented) I seek to organize the document contents in a way in which the information can be grouped and compared with each other. These summarisations are presented in table 1. In qualitative research the most interesting parts of the data are usually presented instead of describing the whole data which is why I have chosen to include just the parts where future challenges and LL or CL solutions are described (Eskola 2001.)
Although two documents are not enough to represent and describe the entirety of national education or labor politics in Finland, it can provide an image of the direction where the national policies for education and work are headed towards. My goal is to find out what are the future challenges being constructed in these two different national level documents and if they have similar concerns for the future. Comparing future challenges represented in the documents sets up a basis for studying what lifelong and continuous learning are (are they different or same) in the context for future management.
Governing with future
As Fejes and Dahlstedt (2012) studied the Swedish discourse on lifelong learning, the future emerged as one of the key concepts in governance. In the policy documents studied, the future was constructed as ever changing and something that is already here. Certain types of risks like keeping up with the competition between nations are articulated as as problems to come. The future can be used to legitimize certain aims and since the future can be made to look more complex than before, it is also the citizens who need to adapt into flexible subjects who can handle the challenges and changes (Fejes & Dahlstedt 2012.)
Predicting the future comes with a vision which means that to manage the future it must be known and controlled. For example, naming the challenges for education in the future modifies governance of future education. Education in the context of globalization, labor market and digital age, should understand everyone’s potential in changing the world. (Mertanen, Vainio & Brunila, forthcoming.)
The future can be made to look complex. Transitions between education and working life are precarious. Keeping up with the global competition and sustaining economic growth requires competent workers and educated individuals. Lifelong learning is an important concept for sustaining and promoting employability, professional mobility and active citizenship. In this essay I see lifelong or continuous learning as future risk management. Lifelong learning or continuous learning is a way to get individuals involved in future risk management by getting them to focus on improving themselves. People need to advance their skills and knowledge constantly in order to manage their jobs, studying and becoming an active citizen in society. Working life, education and different guidance services must be modified to support this system of learning. Competitiveness justifies reforming education and work and makes it easier to promote lifelong learning for everyone. Who would want to argue against the nation’s competitiveness and the possible success deriving from it? Competitiveness has a strong basis: it has been used to defend and justify certain political interests in Finland since the 1990s (see Kantola 2010).
In the following chapter I will introduce the future projections constructed in these two publications. Competence secures the future. Parliamentary policy approaches for reforming continuous learning (VN 2020) focuses on continuous learning and its role in transformation of work, developing technology and global change. The name of the paper itself describes a future in need of governing. Securing the future means to reduce the possible risks that the uncertain future might bring and in this case, continuous learning and competences are the key when battling insecurity.
Transformation of work and lifelong learning. A report by a working group investigating the developmental needs of lifelong learning (OKM 2018) concentrates on the issues of the rise of educational levels coming to a halt in Finland. The skills and knowledge levels of comprehensive school graduates are seen as alarming. Insufficient skills and education are undermining lifelong learning and require remedial actions when students reach working ages. (OKM 2018.)
Future projections in national papers
The analysis of the two documents shows that future challenges are perceived very similarly. The future looks precarious in terms of labor market and economy. The main challenges can be seen in the following table. Firstly the two documents have been read and challenges presented in the first two columns. Then they have been combined in to a subclass representing bigger concepts. The last column forms a future challenge theme from the subclasses.
Table 1. Future challenges according to the analysed documents.
I was originally interested if the two documents focusing on two different concepts of learning would have slightly varying views on future issues. The documents were published two years apart and maybe predictions had changed or gotten bleaker because of sudden global issues like COVID-19. Both national actors are also different in their field of work and emphasis. Yet, the main future challenges from the analyzed documents can be boiled down to two categories: transformation of work and new competence requirements. Both national actors were concerned about the fast changes happening constantly. New skills and knowledge were seen as a way of fighting back this inevitable, precarious future, but the population did not seem to possess these new required competences. For example, comprehensive school graduates did not have satisfactory basic skills and adults with only a basic education background were unskilled and at risk of unemployment. This seems contradictory, since both of the documents referred to a PIAAC study of adult basic skills where the Finnish results were one of the highest internationally compared and praised as a good thing. Still the shared threat to the future security seemed to be rooted in education and deficient skills.
In the next chapters I will present the key findings in the rationalities and definitions of LL and CL in the documents. The solutions to beforementioned future challenges will also be presented.
Defining lifelong and continuous learning
According to the Finnish Government publication, reforming continuous learning is about answering to the need to continuously develop and renew one’s competences. The paper defines continuous learning as continuous development of know-how throughout one’s lifespan. There are two parts to continuous learning: some of the learning aims to increase organized knowledge and skills. Some learning is development which happens during one’s daily life. The educational system is an organized way of competence advancement. (VN 2020.)
OKM states that lifelong learning refers to the whole lifespan of an individual: learning which spans to multiple different areas of life. It covers both learning in formal education and informal learning occurring independently outside of the educational system. OKM also finds the term lifelong learning tricky because it can cover basically anything. However in this paper, the work group states that the term should include the educational system and learning outside of the educational system. (OKM 2018.)
In the following table the rationalities for the necessity of lifelong and continuous learning are presented. These rationalities refer to different arguments given to support an issue. It is the reasoning behind suggestions made by the national actors.
Table 2. Rationalities for LL and CL
The reasoning behind using LL or CL seem quite similar when looking at the table. Yet the reasons behind lifelong learning lean towards individuals being able to survive the fast changes of working life and competences. Continuous learning is emphasized as a way to maintain competitiveness (through competences). This also shows what is at stake: the nation’s future as a knowledge society is threatened.
The most visible (and perhaps only) difference between LL and CL can be seen in the way these concepts are used to deal with well-being in society. In CL competences and work correlate to well-being, productivity and innovation. Social integration and competence levels are seen here as having a connection. The levels have to be raised in order to gain social and economic integration of people. Lifelong learning however is seen to contribute to personal growth and a way to prevent social discrimination and active cizitsenship which were seen democratic values important for our society.
Rationalities can be regarded as natural ways of thinking, in which strategies to govern are shaped and made to seem more attractive. Individuals can also be forced to act in certain ways by these ways of thinking. Lifelong or continuous learning is presented as a necessity because of the arguments above. Because of these necessities and no alternatives being offered, lifelong learning is connected to governance. (Kinnari & Silvennoinen 2015; Rose 1999.) Especially in this case, it is connected to governing the future.
Lifelong learning and continuous learning solving future challenges
In the next table are the solutions to battle the problems of transformation of work and new competence requirements. These results are constructed from practical, hands-on CL and LL related actions which the documents are suggesting Finland should initialize. The columns CL and LL next to each other represent actions which are similar to each other. They are combined into a larger category and summarized in the end as a larger lifelong learning and continuous learning actions which should be taken according to the documents.
Table 3. LL and CL related actions to be taken when solving future challenges
Again the results between the two documents are similar. The suggested measures can be combined into one bigger (lifelong or continuous) learning program. Firstly, educational actors and working life should co-operate in creating different services for different people: some have only basic skills, some need only short-term training. The common denominator is that these services are all targeted towards the working age group or adults. This program or system of endless learning must be promoted in a way where everyone sees the benefits of constant improvement of their competences. Guidance is seen to support this goal. Citizens must receive career guidance services which support individuals in career and risk management. This type of support also obligates individuals to control their own careers and to want to pursue their career management skills. (Bengtsson 2011.)
Lifelong learning actions and continuous learning actions suggested do not differ in way where they could be clearly separated into distinct concepts with different emphasis. They form a unified front for a wide-spread program of constant development of competences. Although the difference between LL and CL reasoning was in personal growth and upholding democratic values, measures or actions seem to still represent more competence growth and competition.
Behind future projections
The most surprising (or perhaps not surprising at all) result of studying these future challenges was that in both documents, OECD’s influence as a reference was impossible to ignore. In the chapter Challenges and reformation needs of the current state, VN refers to OECD’s evaluation Continuous Learning in Working Life in Finland (2020) during the whole chapter. It contains recommendations on how to handle the changing working life and how OECD sees the state and challenges for continuous learning in Finland. PIAAC and PISA results are also brought up several times in the paper. Test results from both are being praised as good, but OECD has clarified that work and competences transform constantly and fast. Raising the competence level of the people is crucial in order to “support the economic and social integration of citizens and corporations and to maintain the nation’s competitiveness.” According to the VN paper this renewal of continuous learning aims to respond to OECD’s suggestions and needs. (VN 2020.)
The OKM paper, even though it refers to other sources (EU, VATT) as well, uses OECD’s analysis in future projections about the competence levels and PIAAC data. The paper refers to UCLA professor Richard Desjardins as “someone who has worked at OECD before”, as if to verify his position when referencing to his thoughts. The paper refers to OECD statistics and international comparisons between OECD countries when presenting worrying competence related issues.
OECD recommendations have found their way into other educational or labor related policy papers about Finland before. For example, low level competences of young people and their precarious school to work transitions have been named a concern for Finland by OECD (OKM 2019). Referring to OECD studies has become almost a requirement in European policy analysis. It provides policy knowledge based on numbers and comparisons which are at the top of the evidence hierarchy: some evidence (statistics, ranks, international comparisons) is seen as more essential than other types of evidence. (Steiner-Khamsi 2021.)
OECD provides lucrative problem-settings and solutions which are, according to Espeland (2015), erasing persons, institutions and systems with a technology of simplification. While it produces information about current issues, using those studies and recommendations in national contexts is not unproblematic. OECD reference space has typically been invested in supporting excellence and accountability while the Nordic reference space strongly commits to equity (Steiner-Khamsi 2021).
OECD provides a good source for the arguments for securing and predicting future. Using certain references is connected to future management which require “objective” and “evidence-based” knowledge in policy making. This type of policy making seeks to secure complex societal institutions like education in the future. (Mertanen, Vainio & Brunila, forthcoming.)
Transformation of work and new competence requirements were constructed as the main future challenges for Finland by the Finnish Government and the Ministry of Education and Culture publications. They were threats to Finland’s status as a knowledge economy. Competence levels were seen as insufficient even though internationally compared (even admitted by OECD) Finns were doing quite well. New and developing competences were still required in order to survive the future. However, these competences are never fully explained. What exactly are the new skills and know-how which everyone should acquire? Competence is used as a very vague term the papers.
Everyone is involved in future risk management. Governing with future guides society in a certain direction and it is about creating fixed points for the whole nation to concentrate on. Future survival is everyone’s problem, and everyone can (and they must) be a part of the solution. LL and CL are harnessed as helpful systems or programs to get everyone involved in constant development of skills, innovations, and knowledge. Labor market changes, precarious working life and new, unclear competences create a world where an individual must learn how to learn and shape themselves to become that learner. Kinnari (2020) states that lifelong learning, based on active citizenship and employability, strives to modify individual’s attitudes.
As Kinnari (2020) stated in the beginning, the name continuous learning might be just re-branding an old concept which as a negative image. Kinnari also argues that continuous learning might lean towards raising employment rates and economic growth. I would also argue that changing the name might have also brought new – perhaps small – nuances to the concept of lifelong learning, making it less about life itself and more about competences for competition. By exercising them in solving working life and competence related issues, they become tools for future risk management.
It must also be remembered that the context of lifelong learning depends on its user: the discourse of lifelong learning is produced by interest groups, organizations and governments. (Kinnari & Silvennoinen 2015.) This is also what makes the concept of lifelong or continuous learning appealing for many actors. It can be defined in various ways depending on who is using it. Why not guide the discourse in a direction way which suits the aims best?
In this essay critically observing these constructed future challenges does not necessarily mean they are not real or that they do not exist. It is not about false or untrue predicaments but presenting these challenges the way they are can however limit other possibilities and images of the future. These future predictions focusing on certain challenges exclude other issues with other solutions.
I recognize that the two national level actors are different in their field of work and they focus on slightly different areas. However, the comparison of both concepts created thoughts which were quite effortlessly combined together, making LL and CL to seem like a commonly agreed, single concept program in Finnish national policy making.
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