Book your way up the social ladder

  • Education
  • Sunday, 11 Dec 2011

Education is the key to determining one’s career options as well as social mobility, but are there enough policies to make sure it is accessible to everyone?

AS THE adage goes, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Unfortunately, today’s world is not quite so simple. Rapidly advancing skills and technologies mean people need to adapt to the demanding needs of a rapidly changing workforce to avoid getting left behind.

As the world grapples with a worsening economic crisis that seems to have no reprieve, an answer may lie in an idea often overlooked; or worse, dismissed as a brain exercise to keep the elderly from going senile.

Lifelong learning, once a novel concept, is now acknowledged as a way to spur and sustain economic growth.

“Many governments have acknowledged that our systems of learning and education must be viewed as a lifelong process.

“The crucial role of lifelong learning in economic growth, in securing a sustainable and socially cohesive future is not contested,” said Unesco Institute for Lifelong Learning director Prof Arne Carlsen.

“But sadly, because of the integrative sector-wide nature of lifelong learning, it has not received the attention it deserves,” added Prof Carlsen, who was a keynote speaker at the International Conference on Lifelong Learning (ICLLL) in Kuala Lumpur recently.

The conference — jointly organised by the Higher Education Ministry, Open University Malaysia (OUM) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in collaboration with the Asia-Europe Meeting’s (ASEM) lifelong learning hub — saw the formulation of the country’s lifelong learning blueprint.

The conference provided insights into lifelong learning — its importance, implementation and challenges. It also highlighted the lack of research and policy on the issue.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Centre for Education Research and Innovation (CERI) head Dirk Van Damme, learning is one of the most important human activities.

He explains that by learning, we engage the world around us – natural, social and cultural – and through it, we aquire mastery of that world in order to mould it.

“We also come to accept and respect it and contribute to its further development. Learning changes by age, but is not confined to any age.

“Learning is life itself, lifelong and ‘life-wide’,” he said.

Van Damme’s words echo that of many other experts on education in a series of articles based on their research written by ASEMagazine chief editor Clause Holm.

One such article is Educational Equality Creates Economic Competitiveness, based on University of London Prof Andy Green’s findings, which explored the fact that countries with policies in place to ensure educational equality weather the economic crisis better.

In Nordic countries, for example – where there are lifelong learning systems – there is greater mobility in the workforce as most of their citizens have the qualifications and have an easier time finding jobs suited to them.

Lifelong learning systems also produce more equal skills’ outcomes and benefit more from a high rate of adult learning participation.

“This leads to more equal and socially cohesive societies, while adult learning and active labour policies increase employment rate,” Prof Green wrote.

Economic growth

Closer to home, the government has recently mapped out a lifelong learning blueprint which sees higher education institutions and vocational institutions playing a more vital role in lifelong learning.

In his talk entitled “The Malaysian Economic Dilemma”, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad delved into the intricacies of the global socio-political upheavals of our time.

“The worldwide demonstrations we see today, from the Occupy Wall Street Movement to the Arab Spring Revolutions have their roots in inequity.

“The unequal distribution of wealth inflames the already flaring tensions between rich and poor causing it to spill onto the streets,” he said.

Dr Mahathir gave his speech at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) as part of the ‘Through the eyes of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’ series.

He highlighted the importance of having a balance between economic progress and fair distribution of wealth to ensure peace and stability for the nation.

“Unfortunately, one does not complement the other. In order to have fair distribution of wealth, progress slows down so the poor can catch up,” he said.

He added that one of the keys to attaining that equilibrium is through education and the development of a highly skilled workforce to fuel the creation of new jobs.

But is education’s role in the economy limited to diversifying the job market and opening up new job avenues?

Beyond earning a living

The utilitarian view of learning sees education as a way to provide skills to individuals so that they can secure jobs and earn a living.

“This puts education in a position to end the cycle of poverty,” shares Reverend Elisha Satvinder co-founder of the Dignity for Children Foundation (DCF), a non-governmental organisation which provides intervention in the form of quality education to refugee and disadvantaged children.

“Children of the urban poor often end up following the footsteps of their parents if early intervention is not there.

“With no education, they end up having low self esteem and are often bullied into dead-end jobs. And when they start a family the cycle continues,” said Reverend Satvinder.

When applied to lifelong learning pressed to the service of fixing the economy, it means the ability to retrain and reskill the workforce for the nation’s needs.

“There must be a means to re-train and re-skill the workforce, especially in times of recession,” said Open University Malaysia (OUM) president Prof Emeritus Tan Sri Dr Anuwar Ali at the ICLLL.

“The nation’s economic development depends on an adroit workforce,” said Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also Education Minister, in his opening speech at the ICLLL.

He also said that an innovative workforce is key to the nation’s progress, adding that the government sees the importance of lifelong learning as a means to build a workforce that the nation needs for its future.

Another direct and utilitarian approach is educating students and the masses in entrepreneurship.

Universiti Malaya (UM) deputy vice-chancellor (student affairs and alumni) Prof Datuk Dr Rohana Yusof said the Malaysian Graduate Entrepreneurship Development Centre (PUSMAL) was established for that reason.

“In the event that there are no jobs, we want students to be prepared for the possibility of being unemployed when they graduate.

“Instead of mulling around, they can start their own businesses and still make a living. Furthermore, they will also be creating jobs,” she said.

She added that members of the public can also benefit from the courses on entrepreneurship that PUSMAL offers.

But apart from utility, there are also humanistic reasons to take lifelong learning seriously.

Humanistic approach

“You can say that a person with a degree is more employable and commands higher pay. That is the utilitarian reason for getting an education.

“But there are cultural and intellectual reasons besides that which make education even more important,” said Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning Michael Russell.

“In Scotland, education is not just about the individual, it is about society. An educated society should be more tolerant and peaceful,” he added.

In an exclusive interview with StarEducate, Russell shared his two cents on the debt crisis in Europe and education’s role in reversing the crisis.

“It is inconceivable that the Euro should fail, but nevertheless it is necessary to implement reforms to reverse the recession,” said Russell.

Russell explained that education is a concern that starts from the womb and continues to be a concern right until the end of life.

“Education, especially for youth above the age of 16 is key to human capital development. It is a worldwide challenge with the big increase in their number.

“It’s a little different in Scotland though – we are an ageing society – but we we have policies in place to increase growth,” he said.

In an ASEMagazine article entitled Asia Needs Humanistic Learning based on research by Prof SoongHee Han from Seoul National University, lifelong learning is not just about aquiring new skills but is also about self perception.

In the recession of the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of workers in Asia were laid off, and this caused an existential crisis, wrote Prof Han.

Being fired after years of loyal service to a company, many lost their self respect and needed to find a new way of perceiving themselves.

This is where education helps in building a resilient workforce — even in the face of retrenchment.

Prof Rohana concurred, saying that education plays a big part in building mental and spiritual resilience, inculcating values and reviewing perspectives.

“We cannot lose touch of the human element no matter what skill or discipline we choose to develop or teach.

“Take the economy for instance — numbers and figures cannot alone cannot satisfy the needs,” she said.

Prof Han’s article concluded that a balance between humanistic and economistic or utilitarian learning is necessary for a strong economy.

Bridging the gap

Research by former OECD CERI head Tom Schuller says ageing societies need to view the importance of a “good retirement” as equivalent to a “good childhood”.

“There has to be a learning agenda for the elderly and there has to be access for those who wish to carry on learning in their golden years,” he said.

Russell also commented on fairer access to higher education for the poor.

“Sadly, in Scotland, the likelihood of getting a higher education is lower for those in lower social groups and higher for those in higher social groups.

“We are working on a new bill in parliament for fairer access. But it’s a matter of ambition too — students from lower social groups must want to go to college,” he said.

Education equality is not impossible to in Malaysia with the right policies, says Reverend Satvinder at the DCF annual graduation ceremony held at HGH convention hall.

“At the very core, we know that education can put an end to poverty and put the economy on the right track, but we need to have policies to make sure it is accessible to everyone,” he shared.

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