When the autumn makes its appearance, we focus more on serious issues than we do during the lighter summer days. Vacation and social activities are important, but they should rather be added to other activities for a shorter period of time. Luckily, some activities are both work and pleasure; some jobs are more like hobbies than a ‘painful duties’; some studies are undertaken out of curiosity and a desire to learn and know, not just to pass exams; and so on.

Today, I would like to draw attention to the importance of ‘lifelong learning’. Yes, we are all learners and students as long as we live, in the ‘school of life’. Indeed we learn in jobs where either we are in employment, self-employment or work at home with children and family.

The ‘lifelong learning’ concept has existed at least for over a generation, supported by the United Nations, education experts and employment organizations. But ‘lifelong learning’ hasn’t really grown roots in a systematic way, not even in the wealthiest countries, such as my home country Norway, and certainly not in the poorer countries, such as Pakistan. In Norway, though, we have for long had a number of learning opportunities for adults. I believe we should have more of such in Pakistan, too. Let me mention some, notably correspondence schools and other distance learning organizations; education wings of political parties, labour unions, education sections in private sector and government work places which focus on organized and systematic courses and training, mostly part-time.

I began working full-time when I was 23, after my first degree. But it took less than half a year for me to realize that I needed and wanted more formal education. I enrolled at a distance educational course offered by a Swedish university. They accepted Norwegian students on the same terms as Swedish, and all the Nordic countries saw it as an advantage to have student exchange. Since the languages are similar, the language barrier was minimal.

The half-year course in Sweden in educational planning had correspondence material and instructions for how to read the sections in the textbooks (in all about 3000 pages). There were week-end gatherings every month, with a combination of lectures, group work and written tests. New for the course in question was that the students could call their teachers any time they wanted and request to be called back. Thus, the students were left less alone than what would often be the case, risking higher drop-out. Furthermore, most students had joined in small groups, with 2-4 students in the same town so they could meet and discuss course content, have fun chats, and encourage each other in their studies. In Oslo, we were three students, all in full-time jobs. The last course assignment was to write a paper of 40-50 pages, which we did as a group project, and we were given extra time to complete it since we were all in jobs.

Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) in Islamabad was the second distance educational university in the world to be established in 1975, after the British Open University. It offers a myriad of degree courses, and every year, hundreds of thousands of students, many women, add qualifications to their earlier secondary or first/second degree qualifications. Today, there are also virtual universities and other e-learning institutions and organizations, which Pakistani students can use. Ordinary universities may offer similar courses, sometimes in a combination of distance and on-campus activities.

I believe these are great opportunities, especially for students who already have a basic ‘simple’ Bachelor’s, teacher training, nursing, engineering, or similar backgrounds. But I would always say that students must meet and discuss with other students and teachers before they get their diplomas. Components and certain courses can be done in isolation, and with e-mail contact with others, but there must be some person-to-person contact, in theoretical and certainly in more applied fields. The latter is obvious, but it is also essential in other fields. As we say, education and degrees are always more than reading books and passing exams; often, what we learn from fellow students is essential to becoming a reflected and mature candidate. Without it, we may make up too many ideas slightly off target since we have never compared notes with and been challenged by peers.

Degree, diploma and certificate courses are important. Accountants know that because many in that profession learn it all through taking a dozen of course modules over several years as they are in full-time jobs. It is probably a quite ideal way of learning, but also taxing. Medical doctors do the same; after they have completed their basic degree they do specializations and take courses throughout their career.

In my home country Norway, when the autumn comes, the ideal is that every adult should enroll for at least one course; such as an evening class every week – in a foreign language, in politics and current affairs, in literature, and so on. And most such courses have a combination of study groups, distance educational components, and short lectures/gatherings. At the end, there may be a formal test or exam. If that is the case, a number of such courses could end up with a formal paper qualification, too.

I wish we in Pakistan could have more NGOs offering education and training, yes, in literacy, numeracy, IT, and so on, and in basic life skills. Yet, there are numerous other fields, too. Courses should be serious and have some kind of certification, not just be offered so that evening schools and other providers can make money, or propagandists or charlatans can spread their messages.

There are many examples of great men and women have been learners in adult life; they can be our role models. One that I would like to mention is Gulakhta Palvasha, an Afghan refugee, who became the chairwoman of the Parents-Teachers Association (PTA) in a refugee village school outside Peshawar. She knew a lot about education, but she didn’t have any paper showing it. She managed to get her four daughters and two sons through primary and secondary school, but remained illiterate herself. She should perhaps have been a bit more selfish, but we must still salute her as an educationist.

A few days ago, I attended a farewell gathering for the chief of protocol in Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moin ul Haque. He was going to take a year off and be a student in international relations at a prestigious Islamabad university, he said. Two weeks earlier, a British diplomat leaving Pakistan announced that he was going for a degree course at a university in Boston, USA.

The refugee and diplomats are role models for all of us. We should never think we know enough. As a matter of fact, if we don’t refresh and refill what we learnt in systematic training ‘long ago’, then we are already outdated. Yes, we can learn on the job, but it is also important to have the independence and time of being at, or affiliated to, an educational institution. Again, one of the most important things would be to discuss with others. It would be essential to write papers and longer texts, not just short office communication. We would avoid ‘burning out’ and we would be able to enjoy our work more. To learn should be a hobby, more than a hobby. We need more systematic courses, programs, organizations and institutions to help us do this in Pakistan.