Education is primarily about helping young people get jobs – yes or no?

27 Feb 2017 |

Welcome to the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017 Debate Chamber. This debate will see both sides argue whether education is about more than employment. But what case might each side make at Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai?

Debates about the purpose of education are as old as education itself.

For Aristotle, education was the key to human flourishing and happiness, and this noble goal has persisted in academia through to the modern day.

At the heart of today’s government education programmes and curricula is a constant tension between the philosophical goals of education and the reality that most people see it primarily as a way of boosting their chances of getting a good job.

This was shown clearly in 2015 when the Governor of the US state of Wisconsin tried to change the mission of Wisconsin University by removing words in the state code that command the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Walker subsequently claimed that he only wanted to add the workforce line and the removal of the nobler goals was a drafting error – but not before attracting furious criticism from academics and members of the public alike.

There are strong arguments to be made on both sides of the debate over education’s purpose at the Global Education & Skills Forum 2017, but which point of view will prevail?

Education is about getting a job

  1. Education’s primary value is economic

Businesses are looking for suitably qualified and skilled people to help their companies grow.

Governments meanwhile are looking to ensure their country’s international competitiveness, preserve and grow strategic industries, recruit staff for public service, increase GDP and boost tax receipts: all of which is fundamentally helped or hindered by a suitably educated workforce.

When speaking about the purpose of education, UK schools minister Nick Gibb described education primarily as “the engine of our economy”, closely followed by “the foundation of our culture” and  “an essential preparation for adult life”.

  1. Most people see education as an investment in their employability

For many individuals too, the reason they choose to study a certain subject – especially when it is vocational – is to secure a job at the end of their study.

And much of today’s research on education is focussed on the suitability of traditional teaching methods for the modern workplace.

For example, the US National Education Association (NEA) says workforce skills and demands have changed dramatically in the last 20 years, and that in addition to the traditional “three Rs” of reading, writing and arithmetic, schools should be equipping students with the four Cs of  critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Education is about more than jobs

  1. Education is about human flourishing

Those opposed to the idea of education being primarily about employability say that such an approach reduces education’s scope. Education is about more than simply getting a job, and it is about more than academic achievement.

Education that leads to the human flourishing described by Aristotle must be rounded, seeking to develop a range of social and emotional skills in addition to academic disciplines to help produce good citizens, rather than merely good workers.

  1. Global improvement comes from minds motivated by more than money

Varkey Foundation founder Sunny Varkey has described great teachers as people who “grow great minds to create a more peaceful, a more secure and a more just world”.

A generation of people who can successfully respond to global challenges such climate change, terrorism and huge population growth will require globally minded citizens, people educated to think critically and think beyond their own immediate need of getting a job.

This view was echoed by a 2013 survey (PDF document) of American teachers found that 93% wanted a greater focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools.

So the answer is…

When attempting to answer questions over the purpose of education, it may be that it isn’t a case of either/or.

Making young people good, rounded citizens and making them more employable needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Research has shown that students enrolled in education programmes with some element of SEL achieve academic scores on average 11% better (PDF document) than those who did not.

And a 2015 survey by the US-based National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that rather looking for knowledge-based prowess, the top three skills employers were looking for were social and analytical. They were:

  • Ability to work in a team structure
  • Ability to make decisions and solve problems
  • Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization

Dr Newman Burdett from the UK’s National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) says that the primary purpose of education must be that in early childhood all children receive basic numeracy and literacy skills “because without these skills then nothing further can be achieved”.

However, he also acknowledges that once this platform of basic skills is in place, softer “non-subject” life skills are needed to succeed.

Which side will prevail? Find out by attending the Debate Chamber at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2017, taking place in Dubai on 18th and 19th March. Find out more here.