EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Lifelong learning

The European Commission’s White Paper Teaching and learning: Towards the learning society [COM(1995) 590 final] defined lifelong learning as ‘the on-going access to the renewing of skills and the acquisition of knowledge’.

Lifelong learning is a broad concept concerning an individual's education that is viewed as flexible, diverse and available at different times and places throughout life. The scale of current economic and social change, the rapid transition to a knowledge-based society and demographic pressures resulting from an ageing population in Europe are all challenges that demand a new approach to education and training, within the framework of lifelong learning.

The first set of EU employment guidelines in 1998 included, under the heading of employability, the promotion of lifelong learning (adopted in a Council Resolution of 15 December 1997).

The Commission launched a Lifelong Learning Programme which ran from 2007 to 2013 and was designed to enable people, at any stage of their life, to take part in stimulating learning experiences, as well to develop education and training across Europe. The programme, with a budget of nearly €7 billion, funded a range of exchanges, study visits and networking activities. Its activities continue under the new Erasmus+ programme from 2014 to 2020.

The Agenda for New Skills and Jobs, part of the Europe 2020 strategy, devotes a section to lifelong learning, stating that access to this should be improved in order to help people to move to high value-added sectors. It also states that learning pathways should be made more flexible to make transitions between phases of work and learning easier. Specific focus should be placed on vulnerable groups, such as older and younger workers, returning parents, low-skilled workers, and blue-collar workers who are re-skilling, for example, to become green-collar workers employed in the environmental sector.

Social partners’ framework of actions

Under the Portuguese Presidency of the EU, the Feira European Council, which met in 2000 in Santa Maria da Feira, invited social partners to play a more prominent role in defining, implementing and evaluating the employment guidelines. In the 2001 employment guidelines, they were given sole responsibility for supporting adaptability in enterprises as part of lifelong learning (Guideline 15).

In a joint statement in June 2000, the social partners set up an intersectoral working group on lifelong learning. On 28 February 2002, after months of negotiations, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), along with representatives of the liaison committee for managerial and professional staff – which brings together the ETUC-affiliated Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff (EUROCADRES) and the independent European Confederation of Executives and Managerial Staff (CEC) – and UNICE  (now BusinessEurope), in cooperation with the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) and the European Centre of Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest (CEEP), concluded a joint text entitled Framework of actions for the lifelong development of competencies and qualifications. This was presented to the Barcelona European Council on 15–16 March 2002. The text identifies four areas for priority action:

  • identification and anticipation of competencies and qualifications needs;
  • recognition and validation of competencies and qualifications information;
  • support and guidance in the area of training;
  • mobilising resources, including targeted use of the European Social Fund.

The framework of actions was the first ever adopted by the social partners. It is not a binding text. The social partners decided to implement it as a ‘non-regulatory’ agreement, which merely sets out objectives and guidelines. The signatories’ member organisations stated that they would promote the text ‘at all appropriate levels’ in Member States, therefore opting for a process similar to the ‘open method of coordination’. The European social partners agreed to monitor jointly national actions carried out on the basis of the four priorities and to evaluate the framework’s impact in 2006. In the interim, follow-up reports in 2003, 2004 and 2005 highlighted the most significant actions taken and assessed progress in lifelong learning. The 2006 joint evaluation report of the European social partners reflects four years of experience in the context of the framework of actions.

A key aim of the initiatives is to tailor education and training better to labour market needs, in terms of improving both worker employability and company competitiveness. The initiatives have enhanced the perception of competence development as a shared interest for employers and employees, and have assisted in finding solutions for modernising education and training systems. Furthermore, in most countries, they have led to an increased understanding and better cooperation between the social partners, as well as a sense of shared responsibility. In the 2006 report, the social partners concluded that the four priorities identified in 2002 remained valid and were essential building blocks for improving the functioning of Europe’s labour markets. The social partners reaffirmed the need to continue their work on the lifelong development of competencies and qualifications.

In their work programme for 2015–2017 (PDF), the European social partners make a commitment to exchanging views on how to create a better educated, trained and skilled workforce in order to meet current and future labour market challenges. They underline that to correct the skills mismatch, it is important to ensure that appropriate resources for lifelong learning are available on a cost-sharing basis. Stating that the context for this work is the 2002 framework of actions, they anticipate a number of future bipartite exchanges between national social partners and affirm that further analytical work on lifelong learning would be considered as part of the next cycle of integrated projects.

See also: European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training; European Employment Strategy; vocational training; voluntary agreements; Lisbon Strategy.

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