Chapter 1: Fundamental Change in Education

1.3 Should education be tied directly to the labour market?


Figure 1.4.1 Knowledge workers Image: Phil Whitehouse, 2009. Retrieved from

Figure 1.3.1 Knowledge workers
Image: Phil Whitehouse, 2009. Retrieved from


However, there is a real danger in tying university, college and schools programs too closely to immediate labour market needs. Labour market demand can shift very rapidly, and in particular, in a knowledge-based society, it is impossible to judge what kinds of work, business or trades will emerge in the future. For instance, who would have predicted 20 years ago that one of the largest companies in the world in terms of stock market valuation would emerge from finding ways to rank the hottest girls on campus (which is how Facebook started)?

The focus on the skills needed in a digital age raises questions about the purpose of universities in particular, but also schools and two year community colleges to some extent. Is their purpose to provide ready-skilled employees for the work-force? Certainly the rapid expansion in higher education is largely driven by government, employers and parents wanting a work-force that is employable, competitive and if possible affluent. Indeed, preparing professional workers has always been one role for universities, which have a long tradition of training for the church, law and much later, government administration.

Secondly, focusing on the skills required for a knowledge-based society (often referred to as 21st century skills) merely reinforces the kind of learning, especially the development of intellectual skills, for which universities have taken great pride in the past. Indeed in this kind of labour market, it is critical to serve the learning needs of the individual rather than specific companies or employment sectors. To survive in the current labour market, learners need to be flexible and adaptable, and should be able to work just as much for themselves as for corporations that increasingly have a very short operational life. The challenge then is not re-purposing education, but making sure it meets that purpose more effectively.