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Adapting to a changing world: Where lifelong learning is ‘no longer just a nice-to-do’

Courses increasingly involve modular approaches that allow credits to be acquired over time

You’ve finished your degree, you’ve done your masters and now you’re keen to get into the workforce and start earning.

Many people enjoy learning new things, but many graduates may hope they never have to study again. But hope in vain: today’s graduate will almost certainly have to engage in continuous professional development throughout their working life. Very few will have — or even want — the same job until retirement, and changing careers is common. Meanwhile, the growth of artificial intelligence and other technologies, the introduction of new laws and regulations and the changing nature of the workforce mean that lifelong learning is now a reality for everyone.

“Lifelong learning is no longer just a nice-to-do; it is an imperative,” says Claire McGee, head of education and innovation policy at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec).

“I do understand that it can feel hard for people who have gone through the Leaving Cert and project after project in college. But today’s graduates have grown up in a world where digitalisation changed everything, where the iPhone led to new companies and where AI is developing rapidly, so they know that disruption is quick, fast and constant. They understand that their future opportunities lie in how they adapt and build resilience. They are more comfortable with uncertainty.”


McGee says that we need to create a culture of lifelong learning, and that involves knocking down some of the existing barriers, including time and money. To this end, alongside more familiar full-time postgraduate courses, more and more courses involve modular approaches that allow course credits to be acquired over time, microcredentials and shorter bursts of learning.

“Any job that exists today is done differently than it was five years ago, and in two or three years we will be working slightly differently to how we work today,” says McGee. “To keep pace with digital developments, as well as environmental, sustainability and governance, companies need to continue to invest in workforce development and ongoing career guidance. Anyone who invests in their learning does benefit from it, but we need to target those harder-to-reach learners in smaller companies and provide incentives that mean nobody is left behind.”

Many courses are free or subsidised, and not everything requires formal exams: sometimes workers just need the knowledge to do their jobs.

“We tend to think of learning as accreditation, sitting at a desk, but there are many informal ways of learning, including going to a conference or watching YouTube or online videos,” says McGee.

This is where the formal requirement for learning meets the wider benefits of learning; we know, for instance, that active, engaged minds are happier, healthier and less likely to experience cognitive decline as they age.

UCD Access and Lifelong Learning has always taken a broader approach to education, reaching out to all sectors of the population not only to develop skills but, more importantly, to foster a love of learning throughout life.

“UCD is an age-friendly university, and we include all sorts of learners when we reach out to a broader group,” says Dr Bairbre Fleming, deputy director of UCD Access and Lifelong Learning. “On our lifelong learning courses (which are not subject to assessment but are taken by people who simply want to learn), about 1,200 students every year take part because they are curious about a particular subject, and many of them come back time and again.”

As well as these courses, UCD Access and Lifelong Learning runs part-time accredited programmes and alternative access routes to the university, as well as provides specialist support to students, including those with disabilities.

One of the most novel innovations at UCD has been the introduction of open learning courses, where a number of spaces on particular modules are reserved for anyone who wishes to take them, without the usual strict eligibility requirements.

“Open learning is open to anyone, and they are registered students with full access to the university,” says Fleming. “We get hundreds of students through this route every year, and they can take assessments or simply audit (learn without exams) the course. Many are actively retired, some are Leaving Cert students who didn’t get the points they hoped for, but they can potentially progress into a course through this route. Some have a particular skill that they want to learn, or they may need a module or two for accreditation reasons.”

UCD, which has led the way here, is currently supporting other higher education institutions that wish to offer open learning.

“Adult learning can be formal, and we do that here in UCD, but our courses appeal to people’s curiosity and interest, recognising that engaging with lifelong learning is good for our overall wellbeing,” says Fleming. “There is significant research showing remarkable benefits to health and resilience through engaging in learning.”

CPD profiles: Lifelong learners

Pauline Tarpey, midwife

I’ve been a midwife for 23 years. I began my career as a staff midwife and moved to a management role in 2017.

For the past five years, I’ve been the clinical midwifery manager on labour and gynaecology and early pregnancy wards. There’s a lot of people management and management of patient care. I currently work as a clinical skills facilitator.

The landscape in healthcare is always changing, and I wanted to improve my skills and academic knowledge. Crucially, I wanted to consider innovative leadership styles that bring people with you.

So, last year, I completed RCSI’s masters in leadership and innovation in healthcare. It was a big investment for me, both personally and professionally.

I wanted to develop my own leadership attributes, become a better problem-solver, and develop as a strategic thinker.

And I did: the course has better equipped me to deal with the challenges I face on a daily basis, particularly when it comes to addressing issues like recruitment, retention and teamwork. It has enabled me to build an evidence base for my decisions. It has hugely developed my creativity, allowing me to solve problems, rather than get stuck under them. My self-awareness, and knowledge of what I bring to a team, both as a leader and as a team member, has improved.

Thanks to the course at RCSI, I feel much more confident about my career and what I can do for patients.

  • Pauline Tarpey is a graduate of RCSI’s Msc in leadership and innovation in healthcare

Deirdre Clarke, HR manager

I studied a BA in French and Italian at UCC. When I finished, I knew that I wanted to bridge a gap and needed more business experience.

So I knew then that my education was not at an end. I did a diploma in food marketing, co-operative organisation and rural development at UCC.

In the 20 years between then and now, I’ve upskilled regularly: a diploma in human resource management, a diploma in business administration, a project management professional certification (an internationally industry-recognised qualification for project managers) and more recently, I have taken courses with the Ibec Academy. All of these courses have been driven by the jobs I was getting and the roles I had to do.

As HR manager at Portwest, a fast-growing workwear company with more than 5,000 employees globally, I also run our learning development programme and our graduate programme.

We have engaged with Ibec for our learning development programme and, as I need to engage in continuous professional development myself, I have done the strategic HR diploma, which is run by Ibec and TU Dublin. I found it actively beneficial for me and my work, so when an opportunity came up to study employment law with the Ibec Academy, I took that on.

With this course, I have found the ideal approach is to do a little work and study after each session. Everything we learn is very practical, and I am able to implement it at work the very next day.

It has really formalised my knowledge and given me the confidence to know that I am doing things right, which is really important in a company growing as fast as Portwest. When I joined the Irish division, six years ago, there were 85 staff, and now there are 150 and growing. This kind of growth requires change management, and that has to be carefully considered and implemented.

There are eight courses of interest to us with the Ibec Academy, including one in mediation.

I love learning, but of course there are always reservations. I am married, I have two children, and we do a lot of sports, we are involved in various committees and, of course, there is the busy day job. But the courses are supported by the company and the study is in the evenings, and I have found that you get out what you put in.

But not everything has to be a big time commitment. There are 15-minute learning sessions you can take on short webinars such as a 15-minute session I did on probation laws in Ireland which was enough for me to do the job. Or you can do a half-day or full-day diploma. There are government-funded programmes and subsidised learning opportunities through Springboard. There are courses through Skillnet and the ETBs, as well as through the Ibec Academy. Continuous professional development is necessary, but it’s more flexible than ever.

  • Deirdre Clarke is a graduate of the Ibec Academy

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