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Lifelong learning

Adults are important element of lifelong learning

When we think of education, we usually associate it with the formal education of children, adolescents, and young people. Although they are the primary beneficiaries of education under international human rights law, adults are also recognised rights-holders. The right to education is, like all other human rights, universal and applies to everyone, irrespective of age.

Adults may (re)enter education for a number of reasons, including to:

  • replace missed or neglected primary and/or secondary education
  • develop basic education skills, such as literacy and numeracy
  • develop new vocational skills and expertise to adapt to changing labour market conditions or to change career, or for continued professional development
  • continue learning for personal development and leisure
  • participate fully in social life and in democratic processes

As well as the benefits accrued from the above, adult education benefits the individual, by:

  • being instrumental in the enjoyment of other human rights, for instance, the rights to work, health, and to take part in cultural life and in the conduct of public affairs
  • empowering economically and socially marginalised adults  to understand, question and transform, through critical awareness, the sources of their marginalisation, including lifting themselves out of poverty
  • building the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in society
  • facilitating active citizenship

Further, adult education and learning has wider economic, social, political, and cultural benefits, most notably recognised in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2015) which has numerous targets on adult education, and to which all states have committed.

Adult education forms an important element of lifelong learning. While ‘lifelong learning’ is not strictly part of the right to education, it is a concept that represents the continuity of the learning and educational process, and this is reflected in the right to education by the fact that it begins at birth and continues throughout life.

The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) provides the following definition:

‘In essence, lifelong learning is founded in the integration of learning and living, covering learning activities for people of all ages (children, young people, adults and elderly, whether girls or boys, women or men), in all life-wide contexts (family, school, community, workplace and so on) and through a variety of modalities (formal, non-formal and informal) that together meet a wide range of learning needs and demands’ (UIL [2014] Literacy & Basic Skills as a Foundation for Lifelong Learning).

For more information, see the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education’s 2016 report on lifelong learning and Report of the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century (Delors Commission) to UNESCO (1996) Learning: The Treasure Within.

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