How do higher education institutions in small cities support lifelong learning? Why is it worth doing at all?

scrabble g918b35b38 1920Lifelong learning is supported by various entities: educational institutions, training companies, cultural institutions, NGOs. This is also done, of course, by higher education institutions. The Educational Research Institute decided to find out what the role of the latter is. 

A lot of research is being done on the LLL activities of higher education institutions in major academic centres; their activities are also widely known. Residents of major cities have many opportunities to practise LLL, both at numerous higher education institutions and by taking advantage of the rich offerings of other entities. Life, however, does not take place only in the largest cities. 40% of Polish women and men live in small and medium-sized cities, i.e. those with a population of less than 200,000 inhabitants. Research and analyses that the IBE carried out about 10 years ago showed that universities can act as local LLL centres. We decided to investigate what it looks like in reality.

Small towns - big goals

The study was aimed at exploring - understanding and describing a phenomenon that had been little known so far. We didn't look for figures, we didn't try to estimate the scale of any practices or solutions. We wanted to learn how universities in small cities support lifelong learning and, by gaining this knowledge, support other universities in this regard. We decided that the study would cover 4 cities of up to 50,000 residents and located at least 50 km from major cities. Our intention was to learn about the reality of a community whose members can't easily travel to an evening lecture in Warsaw or a weekend workshop in Krakow. We wanted to learn about local Poland, forming a distinct community, but also facing barriers related to transportation accessibility, depopulation, and remoteness from large centres. The third criterion for selecting higher education institutions - in addition to city size and distance from large centres - was the diversity and comprehensiveness of their offerings to support lifelong learning.

Who did we survey and how?

For the study, we selected the universities with the most experience in conducting non-formal education, supporting informal and incidental learning. The goal was to get to know and describe the "top students" - those higher education institutions that, in terms of their offer to support LLL, can be a model for others, a source of inspiration and an example of creating good solutions. 

The study included:

  • University of Applied Sciences in Skierniewice (Lodz Voivodeship, 48 thousand inhabitants)
  • Ignacy Mościcki State University of Vocational Education in Ciechanów (Masovia Voivodeship, 44 thousand inhabitants)
  • Carpathian State University in Krosno (Subcarpathian Voivodeship, 47 thousand inhabitants)
  • State Higher Vocational School in Walcz (West Pomeranian Voivodship, 26 thousand inhabitants).

In each of the cities, interviews were conducted with representatives of university authorities, people responsible for supporting LLL and carrying out activities supporting LLL. The study was intended to show how universities play the role of local LLL centres, consequently the staff from other entities that cooperate with the universities in supporting LLL were also interviewed. These included cultural institutions, local governments, labour market institutions, NGOs, libraries, third age universities and small businesses.

In each city, 7 to 12 one-on-one interviews (conversations in which the researcher asks the questions requesting extended answers), one group interview with representatives of several entities, and 3 to 5 research walks were conducted. The latter research technique made it possible not only to deepen previous knowledge concerning LLL support practices, but also to place it in the space of the surveyed cities and learn about the infrastructure of the higher education institutions.

What did the study show?

The study, carried out in 4 cities in 4 parts of Poland, has revealed dozens of practices to support lifelong learning that can inspire other higher education institutions. The institutions included in the study organise events to popularise science (e.g. picnics and science festivals, science nights) or do so during other outdoor events, hold open lectures and debates on topics related to history, culture, health, art and nature, organise thematic walks (focused on e.g. architecture, herbal medicine), offer paid and free specialised courses and trainings, language courses and courses for students taking maturity examination, organise universities of the third age and children's universities. Support for lifelong learning is also provided in other than standard forms of formal education: "afternoon studies" for working people, degree courses requested by employers, confirmation of prior learning outcomes, and postgraduate courses tailored to local needs.

The study provided insight into the ways in which the surveyed higher education institutions cooperate with other entities within the cities. The cooperation is aided by the cities’ small size. Thus everyone knows one another, avoiding lengthy arrangements or the inability to reach the decision-making person. Despite this, the city maps include entities that conduct activities that support lifelong learning and do not cooperate with a higher education institution. Some of them collaborate among themselves, some with selected entities cooperating with a higher education institution. Above all, mutual goals and an internal need to act for the benefit of the local community on the part of the employees of the surveyed institutions were cited as reasons for good cooperation.

An interesting aspect of the study, too, was to learn more about the ways in which the term "lifelong learning" is understood. Based on the respondents' statements, it is not possible to offer a single definition or even the order to which it would belong. This was not surprising - the concept has no clear definition either in the literature or in other studies on the subject. Despite this, there is a strong belief among all the respondents that lifelong learning should be supported, that it is an important area of operations and development of a higher education institution, and that serving as a local centre for supporting LLL should be one of its important goals.



Helena Anna Jędrzejczak – PhD, Historian of ideas, sociologist of higher education in the field of lifelong learning, publicist. She has been working at the Educational Research Institute since 2016. She holds a master's and doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Warsaw, and was awarded a scholarship from the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. Author of scientific publications on the history of ideas and political theology, lifelong learning, higher education