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Highlight Round table: Theory, policy and practice in lifelong learning

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Subject The challenge of the knowledge based society
Context The discussion summarised below is related to the statements made by the panel group (see proceedings).
Discussion Participants: Ian Bennett UK [IB], Monica Lee UK [ML], Jim McGoldrick UK [JM], Claire Valentin UK [CV], Anders Vind DK [AV]

[CV] I'm thinking of the title of the conference, which is Lifelong Learning and the Knowledge Based Society. I agree with earlier speakers that lifelong learning is very much policy driven; but there are questions about it, it tends to promote an individual deficit model of learning, that individuals are unable to contribute to the knowledge-based society because of these deficiences, which must be addressed by education or training.  But this ignores structural reasons affecting people's participation in the labour market : discrimination, marginalisation, the impact on companies of trends in the global economy.  We need to strive to examine and critique the underlying assumptions operating in HRD policy and practice.  We are trying to get individuals and organisations to contribute to the knowledge based society, to make Europe more globally competitive, but what are the assumptions operating here?  Examining alternate conceptions may help us to find new ways of viewing the complex problems that we face.  We need to consider what questions we should be asking,  rather than simply looking for answers.

[JM] Can I come in with a micro-level example of what I understand a knowledge based society to be. I saw a study recently which was conducted by a firm of consultants from San Francisco, an examination of the Baltimore economy. The combination of the John Hopkins Institute and the John Hopkins university was what drove the local economy, the regional economy. There was a significant multiplied effect: when you look into the spending of pensions, not just the salaries and obvious things, but the impact on the construction industry and all of those. That's what I understand that knowledge becomes something determined to economic activity and success. 
    I have a very strong personal interest in coming from a region in Scotland which was formally manufacturing based. It has been in decline for a considerable period of time and is loosing population. What would save that, I think, would be very attractive high technology based jobs around biotechnology and biomedical sciences linked into two or three local universities. Because then you can pay premium salaries, you are boosting the property market and all of those things. 
    What's coming to us in terms of questions is how do we understand this knowledge economy, because if it's good about knowledge then it has to be good about learning and the acquisition and transmission of that knowledge. So we have more complex questions to formulate as opposed to looking for easy solutions. 

[IB] We had an example in a session this morning where a global organisation realised, at the end of the day, there was the knowledge within the organisation and the application of it. They set up a technological race, a solution for sharing that knowledge. You may debate on the definition whatever, but certainly commercial organisations recognise that knowledge is the key.

[JM] There's a good example where I live: the main manufacturing firm is NCR; ten years ago this was the centre for the manufacture of machines; they are not interested in that any more; what they want is R&D facility for NCR.

[ML] I understand this very differently; from those who equate lifelong learning with improving performance. For me it seems that lifelong learning is about developing the educated person in the classical sense someone who is interested in life and continues to explore the mental world until they die. It goes beyond the world of work to those without permanent employment and into retirement. It has its roots in the development of society, and so it is a long-term enterprise. 
    We must remember that ultimately society seeks to improve the life of its members. This includes the quality of mental life and culture as well as fulfilling the basic survival security and comfort needs. At present we use the rhetoric of competition to say this is the way to improve quality of life, but it is only a means to an end. If we forget the societal drive and focus on performance improvement, then the mechanism for that is competition and short term gain. The mechanism for societal development, however, is for individuals to continue to develop throughout their lives, and so continue to contribute to an active and enquiring society whilst also improving the mental aspects of quality of life... There is, of course, a lot of sub-text in this for example, it assumes that people want the opportunity to continue learning throughout life. I suppose what I am saying is that life-long learning is a political activity and makes some assumptions about what society should be like ...

[AV] Just three small observations. First, this relates to the national competition or regional competition. We have got statistics that more than 50 per cent, this is the majority of the employees in the private sector in Denmark, is employed by international corporations; these are linked to what's going on at a global level; so that much for a national strategy or maybe a European strategy.
    Second, about the contradictory concepts we are discussing. We have to be very critical every time there is action based on a general reference in accordance with the idea of lifelong learning, the knowledge based society or whatever, because that's no argument on such a fuzzy concept; one has to discuss any individual approach at action level.
    Finally, this tension between the individual and social dimension of citizenship and the organisational or employability side of lifelong learning. One of the most dangerous conclusions in that paradox or ambivalence would be to leave the learning for the organisation to the organisation as such; it's very crucial for the individual or for social aspects that we are very much engaged in training and development within the companies and in an organisation; it's not a contradiction to individual development to have to learn in the workplace or in relation to a job; it's very crucial for individual fulfilment and individual development to participate in a public activity and to contribute to the wealth of society.

Source Recording of the discussion at the final session (plenary round table) of the HRD conference in Toulouse, May 2003 (see proceedings).
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Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO