Lifelong learning has become a must for all employees
Continuing education isn’t new but it still matters
With the exponential rate of tech-driven change all societies are facing today, continuing education is essential to stay ahead of the curve
1 Apr 2022

Adult education, continuing education, lifelong learning, further education…it seems that we are made to feel thoroughly inadequate today if we do not constantly rejuvenate our brain cells and equip ourselves with the new knowledge needed to survive in the current competitive economy and society. So, should we all sign up for courses, classes, certificates and diplomas if we are not to be left behind by our better educated and better trained colleagues and competitors? And where should we begin to find the programs we would need?

A much cited factor in this push for new skills and updated training is the exponential rate of technological change all societies are facing. And technology impacts far more than the technical, transforming social and economic conditions, sounding the death-knell for some professions while giving birth to new ones. The online world — the “meta” world, in which Facebook would like us to live — is the most obvious manifestation of technological transformation.

These changes have exacerbated the generational divide as rarely before. Older workers in manufacturing industries across the industrialized world find their jobs annihilated, while younger graduates swarm into computer programming or other IT activities. Indeed, career advice for school leavers might suggest professional directions related to technology, such as software engineer, web developer, programmer, data scientist/analyst, information security expert — and conversely some professions relatively immune to substitution by technology such as nursing, therapist, teaching, communications, creative industries — all those requiring soft ‘human’ skills.

Where this leaves those displaced by technology is clearly with the need for retraining and the acquisition of new, replacement skills, presumably by training courses, online diplomas and professional capacity building. Much of this will not apply to the international civil service, where the professional skill sets are less likely to be totally at risk, but where continuing education is nonetheless helpful or even essential to keep up with new developments, often but not exclusively from technological change.

Career advancement in the UN world may often depend on a wide variety of factors beyond professional qualifications: on political considerations, given the need for a balanced staff in every category; on networking and personal connections, a factor which is of course not limited to the international civil service; on competency and performance in the current position. The service’s relative conservatism and sometimes heavy bureaucracy may also play a role, compared to the constant focus on financial results which drives change and competition in the private sector. Business may also be more willing to pay for ongoing education and training — and indeed some companies have formed their own “corporate universities.” Nonetheless, a focus on acquiring new competencies or refining existing ones cannot fail to add to professional opportunities at some level for most staff.

So, where can this continuing education or adult training best be found? There are so many providers willing to sign on new recruits that it can seem an impenetrable market with little indication of relative cost and benefit — the ROI of committing time, energy and money to an education or training that might have appeared complete on graduation from university, college or high school. Here the type of training or education desired is critical: it can be technical, relating to IT or other aspects of the online universe, in which case professional bodies or associations can sometimes offer the best alternative. It can be purely online, with a certificate or diploma as a result: here some of the lesser-known colleges or educational providers may be as effective (and less expensive) as the top universities; and it can be for a full degree — usually a Masters degree — at the Extension, Continuing or Adult Education Schools which are hosted at most major universities.

Surprising as it may seem in our technologically driven era, continuing or further education is in no way a new phenomenon. Nineteenth century society in the developed world placed a great emphasis on self-improvement, on educating yourself in later life — particularly for those who may not have had the benefit of a sophisticated education in earlier years. The venerable UK universities of Oxford and Cambridge both established their Departments or Institutes for Continuing Education in the 1870s, reflecting a Victorian-era respect for learning, educational reform and social progress. Since women were, at that time, not admitted to either university, these schools and courses were the only avenue available for women to gain access to these institutions’ academic and intellectual resources. And indeed, the finest professors also seem to have lectured there.

In the UK, most major universities offer continuing education through online courses and certificates; some offer full masters requiring an in-person presence. At Oxford, for example, (reflecting my alumni bias, perhaps) the Continuing Education Department offers a one-year Master of Studies in Diplomatic Studies: lecturing there I was impressed by the global origin of the participants, mostly from their respective national foreign services or multilateral institutions. The UK also hosts the Open University, one of the world’s oldest ‘distance learning’ providers. With its long tradition of personal self-improvement and adult learning, the US is home to an endless number of schools, universities, institutions and professional bodies offering continuing education of various types. Amongst the best known universities — both private and public — are Georgetown University, the University of Denver, MIT, the University of Minnesota: but not all the best providers are so well known — for example, when I taught in the US, the University of Southern New Hampshire was amongst the most dynamic providers of life-long learning and online education.

The US is also home to major commercial providers such as Coursera, EdX and others, partnering with major universities: EdX provides some courses free of charge, the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Is continuous education worth the time and expense? The best advice may be to carefully consider what you need: technical training, a new skill, an added professional credential, or a course offering an innovative approach to life and work…there will be providers for all these. Given the finite opportunities we have, the ultimate test should be what can best enrich our professional and personal lives and make them more rewarding.

* Michael Stopford is a former member of the UN Secretariat and Chief of Cabinet at UNOG. He is currently Managing Partner of the data-based communications company Ancored -
Read more articles about FOCUS ON