Lifelong Learning in India: A Policy Perspective

Lifelong learning has been an integral part of Indian culture, but the most populous South Asian country is yet to develop the following framework for lifelong learning.

Professor Dr. S. Y. Shah, International Institute of Adult and Lifelong Education, India

Most of the countries in South Asia do not have a well-defined policy on lifelong learning. Confronted with the massive problems of illiteracy and poverty, most of them tend to confine to literacy programs. Besides, they lack the resources and expertise required to frame lifelong learning policy, develop programs and institutional infrastructure. However, India one of the most populous South Asian countries, with the second largest system of education in the world, has taken certain initiatives in this direction during the last decade. It may be argued that the Indian interest in lifelong learning has been greatly influenced by the global discourse on lifelong learning and its advocacy by the transnational organizations like the UNESCO and the European Commission. These two organizations have not only played a key role in publicizing the concept of lifelong learning in India, but also orienting the government officials and academic community towards lifelong learning. If the academic support provided by these organizations has given tremendous boost to India’s lifelong learning program, the socioeconomic changes taking place within and outside the country due to globalization, liberalization of the economy and the tremendous expansion of ICT also necessitated a review of adult education policy and its reformulation as lifelong learning.

Formal recognition of lifelong learning
Lifelong learning has been an integral part of Indian culture. The ancient Indian religious tradition and culture have accorded prime importance to the acquisition of knowledge and upheld the virtues of learning. Notwithstanding the gradual modernization of society and the emergence of multiple channels of learning, the first formal recognition of lifelong learning came in 1966 when the Indian Education Commission (1964-66) made the following observation: 

Education does not end with schooling, but is a lifelong process. The adult needs an understanding of the rapidly changing world and the growing complexities of society. Even those who had the most sophisticated education must continue to learn; the alternative is obsolescence... Thus viewed the function of adult education in a democracy is to provide every adult citizen an opportunity for education of the type which he wishes and which he should have for his personal enrichment, professional advancement and effective participation in social and political life (Report of Indian Education Commission, 1966). 

The impetus for lifelong learning
The present system of education in India, which follows the National Policy on Education, (1986) considers lifelong education as the “cherished goal of the educational process which presupposes universal literacy, provision of opportunities for youth, housewives, agricultural and industrial workers and professionals to continue the education of their choice at a pace suited to them (Government of India, 1986). It observed that the critical development issue is the continuous up gradation of skills so as to produce manpower resources of the kind and the number required by the society. It suggested that the future thrust will be in the direction of open and distance learning. The policy was translated into practice when large scale literacy campaigns, projects and adult continuing education programs were implemented by governmental and non-governmental organizations and universities (Government of India, 1992). With the success of literacy programs and the increasing number of neo literates and their keenness to continue learning, the National Institute of Open Learning started an equivalent program which provided an important channel for continuation of learning of neo literates by recognizing, validating and certifying their learning. While different programs of lifelong learning were being developed in India, the influence of the UNESCO and European Commission gave further impetus to the development of lifelong learning policy in India. The global discourse of lifelong learning initiated by the UNESCO, especially after the publication of the Learning: the Treasures Within (1996) and the Memorandum of Lifelong Learning of the European Commission (2000) played a crucial role in shaping India’s lifelong learning policy. The organization of two UNESO sponsored international conferences on lifelong learning held in Mumbai (1998) and Hyderabad (2002) and the promulgation of The Mumbai and Hyderabad Statements on Lifelong Learning which highlighted it as a “guiding principle” and an “overarching vision” did succeed in educating Indian policy planners and generated considerable interest among educationists (Singh, 2002 & Narang and Mauch, 1998). The Hyderabad Statement on Lifelong Learning in fact clarified the role of lifelong learning in the creation of a learning society and learning community. It emphasized empowering people, expanding their capabilities and choices in life and enabling individuals and societies to cope with the new challenges of the 21st century (Singh, 2002). 

"Blurred focus"
While the UNESCO worked with government officials and tried to influence the national adult education policy, the European Commission made systematic attempts to promote lifelong learning through universities. During 2005-7, several European specialists visited Indian universities and made presentations on the Erasmus Mundus Program specially the European Masters in Lifelong Learning (MALLL) with a view to publicizing it and recruiting potential students. The enrolment of over twelve Indian students in the MALLL program during the first five years bears testimony to the effective advocacy and efforts made by the European specialists. They also met the senior officials of the University Grants Commission (UGC) - the highest statutory body of higher education in the country and the Association of Indian Universities and persuaded them to formulate lifelong learning policy and programs in Indian universities. It seems that the presentations made by the European specialists and their interactions with the senior officials of the policy making bodies did have some impact on shaping the higher education policy during the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-12) as is evident from the formulation of the UGC Guidelines on Lifelong Learning and Extension which stated that with the beginning of the Eleventh Five Year Plan, the UGC would accord maximum priority to lifelong learning with a view to meeting the demands of emerging knowledge society and facilitate the process of developing a learning society (University Grants Commission, 2010). It suggested that universities need to integrate formal and non-formal education by opening their doors to adult learners and making them adult learner friendly. The guidelines recommended that the name of the departments of adult education should be changed to departments of lifelong learning and stressed the need for enabling them to play a more dynamic and proactive role in the university system. It emphasized that the departments of lifelong learning should move from periphery to center stage and play a major role in the development of the human resources specially providing professional manpower in the area of lifelong learning. The importance of expanding the scope of adult education as lifelong learning and improving its quality and developing it as a discipline of study was also mentioned in the policy guidelines. It recommended that since the knowledge base of lifelong learning in India continues to be weak, systematic efforts should be made to generate new knowledge through rigorous researches and scholarly publications. Though the guidelines are considered to have a “blurred focus” (Mandal, 2014) and did not discuss the importance of recognition, validation and accreditation of prior learning and developing vertical and horizontal linkages among different sectors of education, most of the universities welcomed the new policy, being the first significant initiative on lifelong learning in India. However, only a few universities could implement the policy during the five years (2007-12) mainly due to the limited funding support from the UGC and lack of clarity and understanding about lifelong learning among academics and administrators. With a view to discussing its importance, working out operational strategies and designing academic programs, the UGC provided funds to Indian universities to organize conferences, seminars and workshops for lifelong learning. However, due to the lack of expertise and interest in lifelong learning and preoccupation with literacy programs, not much progress could be made during the five years (2007-12). With the discontinuation of UGC funds to lifelong learning in July 2013, the majority of Indian universities found it difficult to operationalise the policy guidelines. The formulation of policy guidelines without adequate resource support is like sowing the seeds without ensuring the supply of water and manure. Though some universities may initiate lifelong learning programs following the guidelines, they may find it difficult to sustain the program. 

Lifelong learning - a reality?
The process of developing the policy framework of lifelong learning has been rather slow in India and seems to be linked to external stimulus. Currently lifelong learning is often used as an umbrella term to cover basic literacy, post literacy, continuing education and extension programs of different organizations, refresher/continuing courses of professional bodies, private institutions and business houses; but not conceived as an overarching framework of learning. It is mainly due to absence of inter sectoral linkages among different sectors of education and recognition and validation of prior learning. Besides, the lack of coordination between the two national bodies dealing with adult education and skill development viz; National Literacy Mission and National Skill Development Mission and overlapping of their functions has also put hurdles in the path of development of a comprehensive national policy on lifelong learning. While the National Skill Development Mission has recognized the importance of skills and knowledge as the driving forces of economic growth and social development for any country and emphasized the need for promoting lifelong learning, maintaining quality and relevance according to changing requirement of emerging knowledge economy (National Policy on Skill development, 2009); the National Literacy Mission continued to focus on literacy mainly due to massive number of non-literates in the country. Imparting skill training and providing avenues for skill up gradation did not receive much importance of the National Literacy Mission. It was only after the UNESCO organized an International conference on prior learning in New Delhi in June 2013 and launched the UNESCO guidelines for recognition, validation and accreditation of prior learning, the Government of India initiated work in this area. Since the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) Sub Committee on Adult Education has emphasized the need for developing a comprehensive policy to guide the systematic promotion of adult and lifelong learning and the creation of structures and mechanisms for recognition, validation, accreditation and certification of prior learning (Government of India, 2011); it is expected that lifelong learning will soon become a reality and an important strand of India’s education policy. The launching of the first Masters Program in Lifelong Learning by the University of Delhi in 2014 may also play a key role in furthering lifelong learning program mainly by providing professional manpower. With the concerted efforts of the government and universities and the cooperation of UNESCO and European Commission, it is expected that India will soon have a comprehensive policy on lifelong learning.


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Singh, M. 2002. Ed. Institutionalizing Lifelong Learning. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Education.

University Grants Commission. 2010. Guidelines on Lifelong Learning and Extension. New Delhi.


Research Network Co-Coordinator: Professor Dr. S. Y. Shah, International Institute of Adult and Lifelong Education, India

The Author is the Hony. Director of International Institute of Lifelong Education, New Delhi -110002, India and a Professor of Adult Education at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
E mail: drsyshah@gmail.com. URL of the Institute: www.iiale.org.