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The Importance of Learning to Learn

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At last week’s European Students Convention (ESC27) in Brussels (which I was lucky enough to attend), the overriding theme of the conference was employability, and the role higher education can play in developing employability for both individuals and entire societies. There was some debate on the issue of what “employability” – now such a commonly used term – actually means, and what kind of policies and approaches could help to ensure the next generation of graduates possesses as much of this illusive quality as possible.

But there was one general point of agreement which was repeatedly voiced across the three days of talks: the importance of learning to learn.

Lifelong learning and the ability to adapt

The significance placed on “learning to learn” (or indeed, lifelong learning) emerges from an understanding of the current and future employment market as one in which workers increasingly need to be able to adapt to new roles. MEP Isabelle Thomas was the first speaker of many to make this point, telling students that “The job you have at 50 will be very different from the one you have at 25.”

Ivana Juraga of the European University Association likewise argued that it’s no longer the case that graduates can expect a single or fixed career path; change is more likely to be the norm. “The old rules don’t apply anymore.”

Meanwhile Adam Tyson, Head of Higher Education and Erasmus at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Education and Culture, pointed out that this means universities face the challenge of preparing students for “opportunities that we have no conception of at the moment.”

Calls for greater recognition of soft skills

While conference attendees and panellists were generally in agreement that higher education should prepare students for lifelong learning, there was also a widespread feeling that soft skills are not currently valued highly enough by employers, and in some cases also by education providers. In a survey of student union representatives across Europe conducted as part of ESU’s SAGE research project, respondents largely said they felt that employers didn’t value general and "soft" skills as highly as "hard" and role-specific skills.

This perception is corroborated by a survey of employers conducted by the Directorate General for Education and Culture, in which most surveyed employers said role-specific skills were top of their priority list when recruiting, and that they would select the applicant whose skills were the best and closest match for the current role. At the same time, Adam Tyson said, they also expected all graduates to have developed more general soft skills such as critical thinking, research skills, time management and communication skills.

With some notable exceptions, Tyson said the majority of employers still think in terms of the skills they need today (or even yesterday), rather than considering what kind of employees will best be able to help their company evolve and adapt to new challenges and opportunities.

Citing Microsoft as an example of a more forward-looking recruiter placing value on adaptability and lifelong learning, Tyson argued that employers should consider future needs more in the recruitment process, and that universities should also take a longer term perspective when attempting to match higher education provision with labor market demands.

What does “learning to learn” look like?

Of course it’s easy to say that universities should prepare students for lifelong learning, but what does “learning to learn” really look like in practice? Well, for ESU and most of the conference participants, this is connected to the wider concept of student-centred learning, which was summed up by Education International’s Guntars Catlaks as a shift away from the “delivery of knowledge” and towards the “development of knowledge and skills”.

Throughout the conference, there was some debate about the extent to which this shift from “delivery of knowledge” to “learning to learn” has already been achieved, with significant disparity between institutions and national systems identified. Frank Petrikowksi of the Directorate General for Education and Culture highlighted Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian nations as examples of European countries which have led the way in implementing more student-centred approaches. But like his colleague Adam Tyson, he noted that the “delivery” approach is still very much in practice at many European institutions.

ESU’s Student Centred Learning Toolkit explores the many different elements that constitute a student-centred learning approach, with key aspects including active learning; deep learning and understanding; increased responsibility and accountability placed on the student; an increased sense of autonomy in the student; a reflexive approach to learning; and mutual respect and interdependence between the teacher and learner.

We asked prospective graduate students worldwide about their career hopes and expectations. See what their view of the future looks like in our free report on Trends in International Student Mobility.

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Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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