Learning Cities and Regions Lessons

Two years ago Prof. Michael Osborne asked me to contribute to a special issue of UNESCO's international review of education, dedicated to the topic of learning cities & regions. The publication should shed some light on quality in developing learning cities & regions, based on knowledge gained from EU sponsored projects and my evaluation work in the field. The following reflections build on the arguments already brought to the fore, and take those a step further by raising 8 fundamental questions towards building successful learning cities & regions.

In order to make lifelong learning reality, EU member states over the past two decades have promoted structural change in order to make their educational systems more flexible. More recently, national governments have started to decentralise the design and provision of adult education from the higher levels to local or regional governments, and to stimulate the building of local networks for lifelong learning. It is supposed that those networks are in a better position to react rapidly to changes and match learning needs with demands. Moreover, stakeholders on the micro-level are expected to bring learning closer to home but also closer to the situations in which it is applied (work, family, care, hobbies etc.).

Learning cities and Learning regions (LCs | LRs) are supposed to have a key role towards the building of local capacities for lifelong learning. They shall not only support the development of skills and competences needed to adapt to new circumstances, like a stronger competition, but also motivate their citizens to become lifelong learners, to cultivate shared values and support the development of social capital. The overall mission of LCs and LRs therefore is to promote lifelong learning in both respect, as a personal outcome, and collective good. Following this agenda, the number of European cities and regions which coin themselves “learning ones” over the past years has constantly grown.

However, analysis published by the EC, such as “Developing local learning centres and learning partnerships as part of Member States' targets for reaching the Lisbon goals in the field of education and training” (EC | 2005), the evaluation report on “ESF support to systems and structures” (EC, 2007) but also expertise delivered by stakeholders in adult education (EAEA 2006) point to pitfalls and constraints, which not only hinder LCs and LRs to unlock their full potential, but significantly narrow down their effects and wider impact on society. Moreover, “despite the numerous partnership and network initiatives of recent years, they remain occasional, interest-driven and short-lived” (EAEA, 2006). The major obstacles of LCs and LRs can be summarized as follows:



LCs and LRs are defined to promote a broad range of learning, from individual to organisational learning, learning for the job and for personal fulfillment, formal learning and informal learning etc. Moreover, they are expected to address a wide range of learners and enable “learning for all”. Nevertheless, so far LCs and LRs tend to emphasize one aspect on cost of the other, and their approach remains rather provision-centred but demand-orientated. The reasons are manifold, such as mismatch of objectives with organizational structures of the local partnership, difficulties to render the learning needs of different learner groups into organizational programmes, in particular the needs of those who are distant from learning,



LCs and LRs have made remarkable achievements towards the building of partnerships and collaboration across educational sectors. Nevertheless, there is little progress regarding a broader involvement of stakeholders and learner communities from outside the educational system, such as private companies, trade unions, employer organisations, civil society organisations and grassroot initiatives. However, partnerships which are composed from institutional players of the educational system solely not only limit the learning opportunities a LC | LR could create, but entail a certain risk to reproduce traditional forms of education rather than posing an attractive and inclusive area of lifelong learning for all,


Governance & Participation

LCs and LRs refer to democratic participation as a key pillar of local LLL strategies. However, in practice they show serious difficulties to organize bottom-up processes and enable for a broader participation of local learner communities in educational planning and decision making processes. Partners are acting upon complex legal frameworks and regulations, often with overlapping responsibilities and tasks. Thus, there are “natural” limits to create clarity over things, and decision making becomes a “long and winding road”. On the other hand local partnerships often miss clear principles to govern collaboration below regulatory levels, for example between professionals and volunteers,


Legislation & Financing

LCs and LRs cannot be build on pre-existing legislative frameworks, which would allow for a more binding character and statutory claims for lifelong learning. On the other hand, they are heavily dependent from public funding, which puts huge constraints to their overarching, long-term objectives. As a consequence many local partnerships undergo a mobilization and organization phase, however due to expired funding never reach the stage of maturity,


Policies & Ownership

LCs and LRs hardly suffer from frequent changes in the political system, changing agendas and policy priorities. Moreover, they are often driven by political pragmatism. However, a wrongly taken pragmatism tends to neglect the fact, that networks create an arena in which different communities of interest, with different access to power and resources, compete for influence. Thus, quite in contrast to the rhetorical proclamations of a “benefit for all”, decision making not seldomly is based upon dominance and compliance, rather than participation. On the contrary, public participation often increases the influence of the already influential and participation will become marginalised by the power of key partners,


Transparency & Quality

LCs and LRs show great difficulties to render transparent the surplus value they generate, which however is vital to attract investment to local learning initiatives. LCs and LRs so far have not managed to develop a culture of quality. Evaluation and quality assurance is still perceived a bureaucratic must and add-on, rather than an asset, a lesson one could learn from or investment in the future. However, it is also true that without evaluation and quality management local networks do not have the means to examine their strengths and weaknesses. But only if they understand the factors that contribute to their success and those that pose challenges, they can better undertake strategies to maximize their strengths and effectively address their weaknesses,


Strategy & Inclusion

Over the past few years there is a trend to concentrate investments in education and learning on urban areas with dense population, with a certain risk to disfavour rural areas and harden existing inequalities between metropolitan areas and those who live in rural areas. It is often the rural corners of countries we find many of the same features of accumulating disadvantage. Many people feel isolated from the rest of the world, they have not heard of lifelong learning and may still live in a different place and time today. The globalised world is only perceived as negative effects. They are in too disadvantaged a position to join in global development and profit from its benefits. Linking local community and local learning to national and global processes is one key to sustainable development, to which adult learning can contribute massively. In particular with regard to the situation in member states with large rural populations there is a growing need for debate on the consequences this might cause, and possible action to take.