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Centre for Commercial Law Studies

‘Alumni’ as Lifelong Learners in the University of the Future

This article is written by Dr Nigel Spencer, Professor of Education Innovation and Professional Practice, School of Law, Queen Mary University of London


photo of Nigel SpencerHistorically generations of people have talked about going to university, and then of graduating – becoming ‘alumni’ / ‘alumnae’ of an institution of which they often have fond memories, and then venturing out from the world of ‘education’ to the world of ‘work’, a different environment.  As they go on to build their careers, they attend university ‘alumni’ events, but the educational inputs throughout their working lives are often provided by their employers as ‘continuing professional development’ or as learning programmes before or after a promotion (or another transition point) as they become more senior.

Recently, however, commentators (such as Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, L. Gratton & A. Scott, The New Long Life: A Framework for Flourishing in a Changing World (Bloomsbury 2020)) have spoken with increasing regularity about how careers and the workplace are changing fast, and at a fundamental level – leading to the conclusion that it is time to re-frame many previous models, including perhaps those clear divisions between the spheres of ‘education’ and ‘work’.  

Workplace changes have been particularly noticeable – and rapid – in the legal sector, and I have witnessed these close-up, as I helped people to build skills and develop their careers in law firms over the last 15 years.  One clear trend – especially in the last 10 years – is how legal service providers have changed, with a shift in client demands (and also deregulation) meaning that new service providers have entered the arena, offering clients legal support in many different ways. For lawyers, this has created a need to rapidly build new skill-sets to service these clients, including making better use of technology to drive efficiency and adopt new ways of working.  And for legal employers themselves, there has been a need to create different types of jobs, teams, and even whole new departments to service their customers’ needs.

At an individual level, this disruption is leading to career paths resembling less a linear progression, but rather a ‘lattice’ of different roles and opportunities at each step, with new choices of career direction, different skills to build, or job identities to explore.  In other words, rather than one’s career progression being defined as steps from ‘associate’ to ‘senior associate’ to ‘partner’ (or In-House Lawyer to General Counsel), it might now be ‘associate’ to ‘Legal Solutions Architect’ to ‘Lead Data Analytics’ or ‘Knowledge Consultant’.

A consequence of these changes in the nature of employment and jobs is that the ‘half-life’ of the skill-sets we develop early on, including at university, will increasingly reduce.  We will need to ‘re-tool’ more regularly throughout our working lives as we take on an increasingly varied number of roles and, in doing so, we will need to become true ‘Lifelong learners’.  In research I carried out over the last two years, these changes were one reason why a core skill – and mind-set – which people increasingly referenced as being key for the future was adaptability: being open to embracing ambiguity and change (often!), seeing opportunities, and also experimenting along these new pathways, ‘learning by doing’.

If this change in careers and the move to deeper levels of ‘Lifelong learning’ is becoming the norm, perhaps this means that we need to re-frame also the ‘Student’ and ‘Alumnus’ distinction and reconsider the relationship we have with our universities – viewing it instead as a much more long-term learning connection.  In the dictionary, interestingly, the original meaning of the word ‘alumnus’ is said to be ‘pupil’, someone who is being ‘nourished’.  So perhaps that is a nice re-framing for the role universities can play in this new world of employment; stepping in throughout a career and offering ‘alumni’ opportunities to be ‘nourished’ with ongoing learning as everyone’s working lives evolve.

A shift to universities maintaining connection with their alumni in a much more active and ongoing learning sense would fit well with the development needs I mentioned above, where people now have pathways and skill-sets changing more often, and some universities have already started to see opportunities here. They have stepped into the role of being a trusted source of learning resources accessed ‘just in time’ throughout a career, providing a suite of cost-effective, bite-sized learning modules which build up into qualifications and help to build a specific skill-set or knowledge base critical for a next career step. 

There are other benefits too of extending the relationship. Multi-generational cohorts attending university programmes available throughout a career, convening as diverse learning communities coming together periodically, can bring a wonderfully diverse set of experiences into classroom discussions – people who have been senior executives mixing with those yet to hold such roles, and opening great opportunities for shared learning and two-way mentoring across the experience spectrum.  An entire group seeing themselves as never an ‘alumnus’, always a ‘pupil’.

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