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Erasmus Salon: Are Universities a Hub for Lifelong Learning?

16 October 2018

Photo: European University Foundation

On 11 October the European University Foundation (EUF) organised one of their Erasmus Salons at the Maison des Ailes, a Brussels institution founded by the Belgian pilots who flew for the RAF in the UK under the Second World War. The Coimbra Group was invited to provide a speaker together with a representative from the Lifelong Learning Platform, an umbrella organisation for 43 European organisations active in the field of education, training and youth. The EUF organise evening talks like this at various cafés and pubs to raise awareness of developments in European higher education.

The theme for the 11 October evening was “Are Universities a Hub for Lifelong Learning?” and after the introductions there was a lively debate. Of course, universities are hubs for lifelong learning, it is what they have always been although they would call it something different – research, perhaps? But that is probably not what the concept of “lifelong learning” stands for. The provision of opportunities for everybody to benefit from learning opportunities throughout their lives is not the remit of universities, but national education providers. The only European programme offering support to activities in lifelong learning is the Erasmus Programme, even at some point in its 30-year-old life called the “LLL – Lifelong Learning Programme”. As the bulk of the funding over the decades has gone to universities, it is no wonder that some think they should offer more in terms of lifelong learning for everybody, but this is the wrong way at looking at the reality behind the funding schemes of the European Commission.  When the Erasmus Programme started, the European Commission went to the universities – they are autonomous, not state regulated as the rest of the education systems. The Treaty of the European Union does not encompass education so all non-university, non-autonomous activities at EU level needs to be adopted within the limits of subsidiarity. For as long as individual Member States do not provide learning opportunities for all throughout their lives, there is nothing a European Union programme can do. The hope is, of course, that the good example of the universities that secured the Erasmus Programme had lift-off and success, would rub off on other sectors of the education systems.

Could this happen? It seems the European Commission has made this even more difficult for themselves than before by de-centralising the administration and evaluation of the Programme to the national agencies and national offices, something that can only exacerbate the already existing situation with individual national education systems unwilling to change, amend, collaborate – all with reference to subsidiarity.