Aspire & inspiring: a quest for lifelong learning alternatives

21st October 2022

Authors: Dr Heather Stewart and Associate Professor Deborah Delaney

Dr Heather Stewart is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation, at the Griffith Business School. Heather has over 20 years of management experience. Her research and practical focus are on social justice through continual learning and collaboration.

As an educator and researcher, Heather has contributed to the sustainable management discipline, with a focus on small business, social enterprises, female leadership, and sustainable management practices.


Associate Professor Deborah Delaney is an adjunct Associate Professor, educator and researcher with Griffith University in the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation, at the Griffith Business School.

Deborah has held senior leadership positions in academia and offers expertise in corporate governance and financial reporting, as well as working with women to develop their leadership capability.

The quest for lifelong learning

The United Nations SDG4 - Quality Education is underpinned by lifelong learning. Specifically, SDG4.1 targets 'all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes' and 4.7 'ensure all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed'

Although on the surface, these honourable goals sound doable and achievable, they are riddled with complexities and intricate problems, even for the richer nations that have well-developed education systems. The impacts of Covid19 have intensified the global learning crisis and escalated educational challenges, particularly for those who have learning challenges (Courtney & Cooper, 2021) and further established educational inequities.

Alternative approaches are needed, especially for those who are vulnerable and have chronic learning challenges, which often results in long-term unemployment and the inability to break the negative cycle. In Australia, the social enterprise (SE), Aspire, is initiating alternative learning approaches to positively change their regional unemployment problems. These efforts focus on long term unemployed who suffer from a spiral of dependency, poor health, financial reliance, and the inability to thrive in life. 

Lifelong learning defined

Core to quality education is lifelong learning which is characterised as purposeful learning by improving knowledge, skills, and competencies for individuals, community, and society with employability in mind (European Commission, 2000).

As advocates of lifelong learning and social justice, we look to quality education that goes beyond traditional modes of study and schooling to help those who have fallen through the cracks and are therefore prone to being socially and financially vulnerable. Here we take the lens of lifelong learning underpinned by the notion of quality education (SDG4) where learning is nurtured and developed for the individual and consequently improves the broader community. Ensuring all learners acquire quality education to ensure the knowledge and skills needed can be through formal education but also informal, practical, relevant, and social learning.

This is where we see Aspire as a proactive business pushing boundaries for alternative learning modes that make a difference by blending formal learning i.e., skill acquisition, with mentoring and informal skill development i.e., personal development to change habits and build self-awareness. 

How we can encourage lifelong learning 

Although relatively rare, the increasing presence of the SE model targets global problems including climate change and inequality (Van Abel, Haagsma & Panhuijsen, 2021).

People can have a qualification but can’t get a job because of personal issues so it’s the informal education running in parallel with the formal that becomes important. Whilst educational institutions offer traditional pathways, they do not always work.

Education is a lifeline and at the centre of human capital (Worldbank) so the obvious business case is to look at where the systems are failing with traditional modes especially for those facing social and economic barriers.

Relevant and quality education has the capacity to change lives. With learning inequities on the increase during COVID-19 there is a need to consider alternative approaches, and this is where Aspire has used different styles of learning that shift old habits to form healthier lifelong behaviours.

Engaging alternative approaches

For over two years Aspire has targeted a low socio-economic area of Queensland, Australia with the aim for 'every individual to grow and achieve their own personal aspirations.' The goal of creating 1 million hours of working engagement by 31st December 2030 feeds into SDG4.1 and 4.7.

James and Mark, the entrepreneurs behind Aspire, have been concerned with the cyclical social problems in their region including incomplete education, substance abuse, and low expectations of vulnerable people. As a grassroots SE, Aspire embodies the definition of 'creating social value by providing solutions to social problems' by generating revenue with educational programs that support 'meaningful work and purposeful activities' (Aspire, 2021). 

The programs include training, mentoring, and coaching to develop work and life skills e.g., mental health counselling and physical health with fitness training.

Aspire’s mantra of 'not leaving them behind' focuses on those who have fallen through the cracks of traditional education and missed opportunities due to social norms and pressures. The value of taking one person and changing their life has tangible and intangible impacts for the individual and the community.

To demonstrate this, we look at Chris’ journey. Chris was diagnosed with mental health issues at 17 years of age. The diagnosis resulted in 12 years of medication, self-medication with drugs and alcohol, and subsequently identified as unemployable.

From this spiral, Chris became obese and persistently felt hopeless and helpless. Serendipity stepped in with a friend introducing Chris to weightlifting which developed into his new and positive vice. Chris lost 40 kilos in 2 years, completed fitness certificates and has turned his life around. He now pays forward as a personal trainer and gym instructor for AspireFit.

In Chris’ new life, he has been able to help others (28 people to date) in similar circumstances. Due to Chris’ ability to connect with others with similar challenges, he has been able to teach these people fitness and mental health strategies.

Additionally, Chris is working with disengaged high school students so they can learn about exercise through weight resistance training and have a safe space to interact and build self-esteem.

AspireFit has improved psychological and physical wellbeing through alternative learning for 60* participants. These programs are directed at educating those facing the enormous challenge of transforming their unhealthy and risky lifestyles through positive well-being methods in this low-socioeconomic region.

With future programs on small business mentoring, counselling, and fitness, Aspire has the capacity to create learning opportunities that educate and gain future well-being for at risk groups: youth, unemployed and underemployed sectors.

The business case for alternate learning pathways

Taking this to the return-on-investment business case, there can be a myriad of financial and social benefits. Although we are fortunate to have a strong social welfare system in Australia, giving one person purpose and self-worth through lifelong learning of skills and coping strategies means that there is one less person on welfare ($24,356AUD per year Australian Government 2022); one more person adding to the labour capacity of the economy – for example, employment and taxes; additional human capital through contributions to their family and community.

Take this one step further and Chris’ impact alone with the 56* people he has helped then has a prospective welfare savings of $1,363,936AUD. This does not account for other costs such as medical (poor choices leading to medical treatment); rehabilitation (drug or alcohol abuse); potential of illegal activity or further risk seeking behaviours.

Whilst we are lucky to have these benefits in Australia, the welfare system has boundaries that do not encourage alternative ways to break the cycle of long-term unemployment to gain relevant knowledge or skills needed (

Another benefit of taking one person out of the system is their potential to pay forward, add value to society, break the dependency cycle and power to thrive.

The stigma of long-term unemployment can be soul destroying yet if turned around to improve self-worth, social contribution, and improved health through relevant approaches to lifelong learning, the benefits are unimaginable. Aspire is developing unique approaches to quality education that create unforeseen possibilities; it raises aspirations and lifts the idea of what is acceptable (Van Abel et al., 2021).

The goals of relevant and effective learning outcomes (SDG4.1) and ensuring all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed (SDG4.7) is embodied in Aspire as they seek out alternate pathways to develop lifelong learning that ensures social and economic benefits. 

*Data as of 18 October 2022


Aspire Social Enterprise (2022)

Australian Government (2022). How much can you get

Courtenay K, Cooper V. (2021). Covid 19: People with learning disabilities are highly vulnerable British Medical Journal ; 374 :n1701 doi:10.1136/bmj.n1701

Dacin, M. T., Dacin, P. A., & Tracey, P. (2011). Social entrepreneurship: A critique and future directions. Organization Science, 22(5), 1203-1213.

European Commission (2022). Council Recommendation on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning. European Education Area

Van Abel, B, Haagsma, W. & Panhuijsen, S. (2021) Social enterprises can change entire industries, This is how. World Economic Forum . Accessed 28th March 20222

The World Bank (2019). The Education Crisis: Being in School Is Not the Same as Learning

United Nations – Sustainable Development Goals. 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promoter lifelong learning opportunities for all

SDG Goal 4