University presidents agree: Learn as if you are living forever

“You’ve got to live as if you’re going to die tomorrow. But you’ve got to learn as if you are going to live forever.”

This quote surfaced during the Universitas 21 (U21) Annual Network Meeting and Annual General Meeting (AGM) and just about summarised the discussions between university presidents on the importance of lifelong learning to combat the vagaries of an ever-changing world.

“We all agree that graduates will need to constantly upskill and reskill to remain relevant,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye, the incoming Chair of U21. At the AGM running from 5 to 7 May, Prof Tan is taking over the reins from University of Birmingham Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir David Eastwood.

“We shouldn’t think of university as a four-year engagement. We should think of university as a lifelong engagement,” Prof Tan said, adding that learning should take place over the span of 45 to 50 years of working life.

Structured programmes for lifelong learning

Prof Tan shared about the NUS Lifelong Learners Programme which allows alumni to automatically qualify for continuing education and training courses upon graduation.

“The intention of this programme is really to make lifelong learning seamless through integration between pre-employment education and continuing education,” he said.

The opening keynote featured a discussion between Prof Tan, Prof Sir Eastwood, and University of Nottingham Vice-Chancellor Professor Shearer West.

“The generation of students that’s come through the pandemic will be a generation of students which, for a variety of reasons, appreciate the ability of their university to continue to offer pseudo-short courses and the elements of continuous professional development, potentially some short immersive experiences,” said Prof Sir Eastwood.

“So the kind of thinking that you and your colleagues are doing at NUS will ripple around the network as universities start seriously to rethink the relationship between them and their students, which will be a relationship that endures.”

The long-term nature of the student-university relationship will also help to mitigate some of the problems caused by the pandemic, including the reduction of face-to-face experiences and the cancellation of international exchanges.

“If you have a lifelong engagement, then you have a longer runway where you can build international exposure,” said Prof Tan.

“So you may not, because of the pandemic, get the opportunity for overseas exposure but you may (get these chances) after you graduate, while you’re working. Perhaps you may be involved in a short-term programme and you can still do that.”

The change in the way of working should be no issue for universities which have been able to adapt well amid the pandemic.

“We’ve all been able to find new ways of making decisions, doing our work, and engaging in teaching and research – which have given us examples of what we can do,” said Prof West.

And yet the change to lifelong education will face structural challenges worldwide. Governments across the world tend to focus their funding towards pre-employment education. Hence, they will need to channel more money for adult education.

Currently it is a space mostly filled by employers and private companies like Udemy, Coursera and Google are actively expanding into the field. Universities will need to step up as they have something unique to offer.

“We think that universities are in a very special position, especially research-intensive universities. Through the research that we do, we are creating the future knowledge that will be needed by society. And we are the best people to be able to transfer this knowledge and skills,” observed Prof Tan.

Also speaking at the start of the AGM was Lord Karan Bilimoria, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and President of the Confederation of British Industry. Several years back he was driving his son to school and the teenager, then 17 years old, offered a nugget of wisdom.

Lord Bilimoria recalled, “He said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to live as if you’re going to die tomorrow. You’ve got to learn as if you’re going to live forever.’”

“The concept of lifelong learning is so real, I’ve found it enormously beneficial. And with the fast-changing world that we have now, we are going to have to do it. It’s not a question of a nice thing to do, it’s going to be a necessity.”

Front-runners of change

U21 is a grouping of research-intensive universities that focuses on cross-border collaborations and knowledge exchange.

Prof Tan stated that the group, consisting of some of the very top universities worldwide, can be the front-runners of the changes that are needed in higher education.

“We can make these changes, refine them and publicise them, so that other universities can learn from the changes that we have implemented. This helps to propagate good practices. We know that in U21 we have top universities across the various continents. We can be role models that can shape the future of education. “