As the debate on the National Curriculum Review kicks off, Dr Patricia Kaszynska examines the need for matching skills to demand
'Upon the education of the
people of this country, the fate of this country depends'. Disraeli's
conviction still rings true today, and indeed, resonates loudly in the public
ear. The quality of education, the level of graduate skills, the standard of
achievement in schools, etc., are all topics of everyday debate and
controversy. Indeed, comparing performance of the British sector against
international benchmarks is becoming a kind of national obsession commensurate
to the passion expressed by Disraeli.
Recently, the OECD world education ranking report,
also known as the PISA results, received a lot of media attention. According to
the findings, the UK slipped down the table in maths, reading and science compared
to the 2006 results. In the aftermath of the publication, the headlines decried
the shameful fact that the UK had managed to 'fall behind Estonia and Slovenia'
and even 'has been overtaken by Poland and Norway'. It is important to realize
that what makes these results worrisome is not the 'embarrassment' of falling
behind other nations (countries that perform well should be congratulated on
their success), but rather that there are real risks associated with failing to
innovate in education. Indeed, the Institute of Director recently expressed
a concern that the graduate skills gap employers are currently experiencing
could constitute a genuine obstacle to economic recovery.
The figures that should steal the headlines are
the results of the employment surveys conducted on 'local turf', such as the
CBI Education and Skills survey 2011. These findings confirmed that the standard
of literacy and numeracy among graduates has been registered as a problem with
42% and 35% of employers respectively. Yet, a closer look at the aforementioned
employment survey shows that, while basic standard of numeracy and literacy is
an issue, it is in fact a mismatch between the skills offered and skills
required that concerns employers most when it comes to the skills suitability
of their potential employees. 69% of businesses interviewed thought that school
leavers were lacking in employability skills such as business awareness, and
55% reported that self-management was an issue. A consensus is that, while
numeracy and literacy standards ought to improve, graduates also need more work-place
skills which can be acquired through being immersed in the world of business.
This sentiment is captured well in the CBI publication 'Building for Growth:
Business Priorities for education and growth' which argues that, while 52% of
businesses believe that the right way forward is to prioritise numeracy and
literacy, 65% would prioritise internships. (The point about the educational value of
internships is particularly cogent in the context of SMEs - SME businesses
present a largely 'untapped' market with only 14% providing internships,
compared to 83% of organisations with over 5000 employees).
The learning point is clear: the education sector
must become more responsive. It has to become responsive to the needs of
the business, as outlined above, but it also has to become more responsive to
the demand created by the labour market. In other words, what is needed is better
alignment between skills supply and labour demand. According to a very
safe estimate, over 15% of graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree.
Over-education is clearly a problem, yet the real extent of the predicament is
captured better when a less formal, and apparently more accurate, criterion of
over-skilling is taken into consideration. According to the research published
recently in the 'Economics of Education Review', 33% of UK graduates believed
that their higher education skills had not been utilised in their initial job
(compared to 17% in the rest of Europe); 36% felt overeducated in their initial
job (compared to 14% elsewhere in Europe).
These figures are truly worrisome as they point
out to hideous inefficiency - a truly shameful waste of taxpayers' money and individual
potential. The best way of resolving this problem is perhaps a topic for
another time. Yet, what is becoming apparent is that not 'dumbing down' (as
perhaps suggested by the OECD result) but 'mismatch' should become the key word
in the debate of what skills the UK needs in the 21st century. Better
integration between education providers and businesses and better alignment
between supply and demand should be the central topics of future debates.
It is likely that these debates will continue for
some time without any promise of easy resolution. And there are additional
complications mounting. Given current changes in the dynamic of the labour
market with its increasing polarisation into 'lovely and lousy' jobs, and a squeeze
on work demanding mid-range skills, adjusting education to match skills demand is a
conversation which has not even begun; the scope of the discussion must expand.
One thing is certain, learning the subtle skill of match-making in skill supply and demand will not only demand adjusting
retrospectively to past pressures, nor even responding to current ones, it will
require anticipation of the future trends in the labour market. Given the
enormity of the challenge, it is good to be reminded by Disraeli of what is at