The attention of education policy-makers and the international education community is moving away from raising literacy levels and increasing access to secondary and higher education, towards skills required by the workforce to promote economic growth.

This became increasingly evident during the past year in the richest countries. Recognition of the issue is also growing in emerging economies and middle-income countries, and is likely to be a major debate in developing nations as discussion on what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) takes centre stage in the next two years. 

Higher education experts say that universities are coming under increasing pressure to ensure that their graduates are ‘employable’, although preparation for ‘employability’ is still only rarely incorporated in university courses, and the skills that could make a difference in finding employment and ways to deliver those skills are still not evident.

“There is growing awareness of the need to link education to employment,” said Nicholas Burnett, managing director of theResults for Development Institute in Washington, DC, and a former assistant director general for education at UNESCO where he was head of the Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report. 

“The global recession or slowdown is provoking a reaction that there may be a problem on the supply side – that you’ve got all this unemployment because people don’t have the right skills,” said Burnett. 

Deborah Roseveare, head of the Skills Beyond Schools Division of the OECD’s Education Directorate in Paris, said there was a shift towards looking at skills and their effective utilisation.

In richer countries, demographics change as more workers retire, and economic restructuring as workers become displaced by technology and globalisation, mean that “it is difficult to get back to [the stage] where the skillset can be used”, said Roseveare. 

“Moving forward, we are working with individual countries on how they can improve skills,” she told University World News, “it is not just about a better match of skills and jobs but what kind of economic environment is needed to achieve a more high-skilled equilibrium.” 

Major reports

A raft of major reports from international and regional organisations published in the second half of 2012 have referred to the skills agenda, with November’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report from UNESCO focused on youth and skills, and the World Bank’s just-published World Development Report 2013focused on jobs. 

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) released its report Improving Transitions from School to University to Workplace in November. And in the Arab World a large number of reports on education and unemployment followed the Arab Spring of 2011. 

Jouko Sarvi, ADB’s education practice leader, said at the ADB report’s launch: “In addition to improving quality of higher education, an increase in attention is needed to improve relevance of higher education.” 

“Higher education systems and institutions are under pressure to reform to provide adequate skills and knowledge for the evolving labour markets. This is increasingly important in countries which are moving towards middle-income country status and aspiring to become knowledge economies, increasing the demand for higher skills.”

Gerard Postiglione, a professor of education at Hong Kong University and a contributor to the ADB report, notes that higher education expanded rapidly in Asia; and when this happens misalignment with workplace needs grows. “The consequence of poor alignment is rising unemployment,” he told University World News

Supply-side focus

But Postiglione also suggests there may be too much focus in Asia and internationally on the supply-side problem, or students and graduates. And there is no one-size-fits-all solution to aligning it with demand. “Each country has to look at each part of the labour market that is taking off,” he said. 

Few of the experts in the many reports released recently are suggesting a reduction in the number of graduates being produced.

Instead, higher education must diversify, according to Postiglione, to provide the right mix of more vocational skills that serve the labour market, and higher-end research and science graduates that can fuel innovation for economic growth.

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company dissects the reasons behind what it calls the “twin crises of a shortage of jobs and a shortage of skills” in its report, Education to Employment: Designing a system that works, released late last year.

The McKinsey report suggests companies should become more involved in devising university courses to make graduates more employable. 

But it also suggests that the shortage of employment opportunities is compounded by a lack of workplace training in the nine countries studied in the McKinsey report, including India, Turkey and Brazil. 

The OECD also talks about teaching transferable skills and says education is “more effective” if learning and the world of working are “better integrated”. 

Examples of such integration are still few and far between. When asked what “skills” they are looking for, companies tend to point to more generic, soft skills, such as communication and teamwork.

“The question is how do we know if society and its workforce as a whole have the level or mix of soft skills to function properly?” said Postiglione. 

Developing countries

Major global initiatives to increase education participation in developing countries, such as the MDGs and EFA, have also seen a shift in thinking. 

“In the past the focus was still on enrolment; now it is more on skills in both secondary and higher education,” said Burnett. The future agenda of the MDGs and EFA, post-2015, “will surely have things to do with economic growth and employment”.

UNESCO’s release in May of the UN system task team report on Education and Skills for Inclusive and Sustainable Development beyond 2015 notes that, “the most recent developments in the knowledge society and the subsequent changes in the world of work at the global level are raising skill/qualifications requirements for job entry and subsequently demand for a more knowledgeable and skilled workforce”.

This suggests a continued need for higher-qualified workers in developing countries. 

But “in the past the focus was on delivering education; now it is on learning outcomes", according to Andreas Schleicher, advisor on education to the OECD secretary general, pointing out that now “accumulating knowledge matters a lot less”.

Much of that knowledge, Schleicher noted in a speech at theWorld Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), in Doha, Qatar in early November, can be googled.

But “without the right skills, people languish on the margins of society, technological progress doesn’t translate into economic growth, and countries can’t compete in today’s economies”, said Schleicher.

More education is not enough

However, at a time when university enrolments have been rising around the world, Schleicher also noted that “more education doesn’t automatically translate into better skills and better lives”. 

OECD Secretary General Ángel Gurría pointed out that in Egypt last year 1.5 million young people were unemployed, at the same time as 600,000 vacancies couldn’t be filled. 

And the McKinsey report found that 53% of Indian employers were unable to fill entry-level vacancies mainly because new graduates lacked the right skills. 

The European Commission in Brussels noted that while the European Union youth unemployment rate is close to 23%, some two million job vacancies cannot be filled. 

“Europe needs a radical rethink on how education and training systems can deliver the skills needed by the labour market,” according to the Commission in its Rethinking Education strategy in November, intended “to encourage member states to take immediate action to ensure that young people develop the skills and competences needed by the labour market”. 

“To unlock the full potential of education as a driver for growth and jobs, member states must pursue reforms to boost both the performance and efficiency of their education systems,” according to the European Commission. 

But while the problem has been widely identified in all of these reports, concrete solutions are harder to come by. “As difficult as it is to figure out what skills matter, it is harder to figure out what this means for the design of education systems,” Schleicher admitted at WISE. 

“We need to understand those skills that actually make a difference. We need to deliver those skills in much more effective and equitable ways,” said Schleicher.

But with a constantly shifting work environment, the skills that can “make a difference” are hard to pin down. “Perhaps the most important skill in the 21st century is to be adaptable,” suggested Postiglione.


A focus on skills increasingly links higher education with employment
Yojana Sharma06 January 2013 Issue No:253
An article from University World News