Lifelong learning

Lifelong learning is, for the EU, “the guiding principle for the development of education and training policy”. While promoting social inclusion and personal fulfilment, lifelong learning develops people’s employability and adaptability, and is therefore a core element of the Jobs and Growth strategy.

Lifelong learning includes learning for personal, civic and social as well as for employment-related purposes. It takes place in and outside the formal education and training systems. Lifelong learning implies raising investment in people and knowledge; promoting the acquisition of basic skills, including digital literacy; and broadening opportunities for innovative, more flexible forms of learning. Reaching the Lisbon benchmarks in the field of education would imply that in 2010 4 million more adults would participate in lifelong learning.


Percentage of population aged 25-64 participating in education and training during the four weeks prior to the survey  (Figures: Eurostat Labour Force Survey, Graph: Commission)

European adult learning participation rates are lower than those of its major global competitors, whether in higher education, adult education or continuing vocational training, and participation in life-long learning activities varies considerably from one country to another. The measure generally applied is the percentage of working-age adults having participated in any kind of training measures within the last four weeks. According to the latest Commission figures, Sweden with more than a third of adults having done so, takes the EU lead, closely followed by the other Nordic countries and the UK. Most new member states, with the exception of Slovenia and Estonia, are doing poorly, and so are the Mediterranean countries. 

The establishment of a European area of lifelong learning will not imply a new process, nor will it involve the harmonisation of laws and regulations because this competence remains in the hands of the member states. It will be based on important elements of existing European level processes, strategies and plans concerned with youth, employment, social inclusion, and research policy.

The Commission 2001 Communication Making a European area of Lifelong Learning a reality  revises the definition of lifelong learning to emphasise the importance of its four broad objectives of active citizenship, personal fulfilment, social inclusion, and employability, and to encompass the full range of formal, non-formal and informal learning activity. 

The main issues and areas of work identified are:

  • Valuing learning: valuing formal diplomas and certificates and non-formal and informal learning in all sectors.
  • Investing time and money in learning: increased investment and targeted funding are called for, along with mechanisms for increasing private investment.
  • Encouraging and supporting learning at the work place, including in SMEs.
  • Guidance and counselling: ensure that everyone can easily access good quality information and advice about learning opportunities throughout Europe and throughout their lives.
  • Work should focus on providing opportunities to acquire and/or update basic skills, including the new basic skills, such as IT skills, foreign languages, technological culture, entrepreneurship and social skills.

In its June 2002 resolution on lifelong learning, the Education Council supported the Commission's initiative and its implementation. Since early 2004, the Council and the Commission adopt, yearly, joint interim reports on progress towards the Lisbon goals for education and training. 

Lifelong Learning Programme 2007-2013 

The Commission proposal (July 2004) to establish an integrated action programme in the field of lifelong learning  was adopted by the Parliament in October 2006. The new programme replaced the existing four sectoral programmes on school education (Comenius), higher education (Erasmus), vocational training (Leonardo da Vinci) and adult education  (
) when they expired at the end of 2006. The budget earmarked for this new integrated programme is €6.97 billion for the seven year period.

Key competences in lifelong learning

The Commission adopted, in December 2005 a proposal for recommendation identifying eight key competences in lifelong learning: communication in the mother tongue; communication in the foreign languages; mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology; digital competence; learning to learn; interpersonal, intercultural and social competences and civic competence; entrepreneurship; and cultural expression. 

The aim of defining the key competences for lifelong learning at EU level is to provide a reference tool for policymakers, education providers, employers and learners on the way towards active citizenship, social cohesion and employability. The Parliament adopted the recommendation in September 2006.

European Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning (EQF)

In September 2006, the Commission adopted a proposal for a recommendation on the establishment of the European Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning (EQF). It aims at facilitating the transfer and recognition of qualifications held by workers. (for background click here)

The proposed EQF is designed to function as a 'translation device' to make relationships between education and training qualifications of different national systems clearer. It is expected to make European general and adult education, vocational education and training systems more transparent and accessible and is, therefore, expected to enhance student and worker mobility. 


Since June 2002, the European Social Partners (ETUC, UNICE, UEAPME, CEEP) are following their own Framework of actions for the lifelong learning development of competencies and qualifications. They have set four priorities, which are pretty much in line with the main issues as identified by the Commission.

  • Identify and anticipate the competencies and qualifications needed.
  • Recognise and validate competencies and qualifications.
  • Informing, supporting and providing guidance.
  • Mobilising resources.

The Social Partners' agreement is being followed up with annual progress reports covering a wide spectrum of lifelong learning measures in the member states. 

Eurochambers believes that the European Qualifications Framework for lifelong learning (EQF) will "improve transparency between different qualification systems and therefore contribute to the continuation of the Copenhagen process [enhanced co-operation in European vocational education and training], strengthen lifelong learning and mobility and help reach the Lisbon goals". However, Eurochambers believes that the currently proposed EQF is "very complicated" and should be brought closer to companies and individuals. It also thinks that eight reference levels regarding the learning outcomes are too many. 

On 25 January 2006, the European Social Partners published the 2006 edition of their annual evaluation report on the Framework of actions for the lifelong learning development of competencies and qualifications. In the document, they assessed their "work on dissemination and awareness-raising" as "very successful".

In its 2006 report on 'Progress towards the Lisbon objectives in education and training', the Commission, in contrast, said that "Increase of participation of adults in lifelong learning still remains a challenge". The Commission cited the following  "main messages on participation of adults in lifelong learning:   

  • Participation of adults in lifelong learning is heading toward the European benchmark for 2010,  but breaks in data series in several countries overstate the progress made. 
  • However, many inequalities in access to lifelong learning still remain. Adults with a high educational attainment level are more than six times as likely to participate in lifelong learning than low skilled; in non-formal education it is even ten times more.  Furthermore, older age groups participate much less than the younger ones.     
  • Increasing participation of adults in lifelong learning is also a challenge with a regional dimension. Some regions in the EU are remaining behind even in countries with overall high levels of participation. 
  • Policies to increase participation in lifelong learning should therefore especially focus on low educated, participation of older age groups in education and training as well as on the regional dimension.    
  • Therefore it is crucial for Member States to implement their commitment to have comprehensive and coherent lifelong learning strategies in place by 2006."

For the business community, the emphasis has to be on developing both capacity and motivation to carry on learning through life and adapt constantly to new changes and challenges. Lifelong learning is the key to employability, competitiveness, adaptability and active citizenship, which interact with one another very closely. 

NGOs stress the wider benefits of learning, that is those not directly associated with the needs of the labour market, but which are concerned with citizenship and social cohesion.

The European University Association also states that the skills are for citizenship as much as for employability. European higher education institutions accept lifelong learning as their collective responsibility, but points that it is essential for governments to invest in training the teachers and the trainers for all stages of learning, in informal and non-formal as well as in formal education.

Members of the Parliament (MEPs), adopting their report on the Commission proposal for Key competences for lifelong learning in September 2006, urged the member states to implement various national strategies on the issue. Even though the idea of lifelong learning is now widespread and its potential benefits for a knowledge-based society acknowledged, far too few people are learning new skills once they have left school, MEPs argue. 

  • 1 Jan. 2007: The new programme replaced the Comenius, Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci and Grundtvig. The official launch of the programme took place in May 2007.
  • April 2008Recommendation on the establishment of the European Qualifications Framework for LLL adopted.

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