Since when did a university degree matter so little? SingTeach offers a brief glimpse of why the knowledge-based economy (or KBE) has changed the way we teach.
The more we learn, the more we earn. So goes the mantra of every student faced with the question of why we go to school. In a way, the bottom line is simple: people want to graduate, get a job and lead a good life. However, we live in a world where a diploma is often not enough, and it’s all part and parcel of being in a knowledge-based economy.
The promise of the KBE
The link between education and economic success is nothing new. In fact, early theorists such as Durkheim (1956, cited in Brown, 2002) believed that one key role of education was to select people for jobs based on individual achievement.
What makes our current situation different is how this link has become increasingly important – not only for individual students but economists, businessmen and government leaders alike. This is especially the case in advanced countries where there is a demand for skilled professionals with more education.
According to Phillip Brown, a professor at Cardiff University, multinational companies screening potential employees now pay more attention to education credentials than ever before.
As a result, people have come to believe in the promise that better credentials will lead to good jobs, and that good jobs will lead to higher rewards (Brown, 2002). Today, it has come to a point where whole nations, such as Singapore, invest heavily in education as part of their economic strategy.
Hence the birth of what is called the knowledge-based economy (KBE) where it is no longer just about having oil, land or natural resources, but about how educated your citizens are and whether they are able to create new knowledge and technologies.
In a way, the KBE paints the perfect picture for teachers. We can tell our students that education is the key to success with the promise that good jobs will fall into their laps after graduation. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further away from reality.
While the KBE has definitely increased the value we place on education, it has failed to stay true to its promise that a college degree will translate to better opportunities. In other words, while a proper degree can help you get a good job, it does not guarantee that you will. According to Brown (2002), this is because there are simply not enough jobs for the growing number of educated workers today.
As proof of how the KBE promise is simply a myth, Brown conducted a study that compared the incomes of American bachelor degree holders in the 1970s and the 1990s. According to his data, there was barely a 1% increase in the wages of college graduates from the 1970s to the 1990s. This shows that while more people now value higher education, this is not reflected in the actual income earned by college graduates.
As a result, people find themselves trapped, scrambling to gain credentials needed to survive, yet stuck in a situation where only a few succeed. While there is now a greater number of people with higher education degrees, it is only the top 10% of these graduates who really benefit in terms of salaries and opportunities. As Brown put it, at the recent Redesigning Pedagogy conference, “If you are regarded as part of the war for talent, then you’re made. You get all the training, the additional salary and the benefits that go with that. But if you’re not, then you’re struggling.”
What does this have to do with teachers?
Although the realities of the KBE may not sound encouraging for teachers, it has actually played a part in changing our perceptions of what it means to “educate” young people.
While the KBE has generated a lot of graduates with the credentials needed to get a job, there are still not enough who really know how to do a job well. This is why applying for top corporate positions is often a complicated process of first, second and third interviews coupled with psychometric tests and group exercises. Aside from academic achievement, one now has to prove that he is more employable than other graduates as well.
Based on a research study of multinational companies in seven countries, Brown stated that many CEOs are still finding themselves in a “war for talent” because few people have “employability”- a quality reflected by one’s self-reliance, personal drive and interpersonal skills (Brown & Scase, 1994, cited in Brown, 2002).
This leads to something that teachers in Singapore know very well: the constant negotiation between preparing students for high-stakes examinations and teaching employable skills such as creativity, critical thinking, and social and emotional learning.
In a way, this is part of the reason why initiatives such as Teach Less, Learn More have become a major part of educational policy. The KBE has made the role of teachers ironically essential – where they not only have to impart knowledge but teach skills needed in a world where a bachelor’s degree is simply not enough.
How’s that for a good answer to the next student who questions the need to be in school?
Note: Parts of this article were based on the keynote presentation, “Education, Globalisation and the Future of the Knowledge Economy”, by Professor Phillip Brown on 29 May 2007 at the Redesigning Pedagogy: Culture, Knowledge & Understanding conference, organised by the National Institute of Education.
Brown, P. (2003). The opportunity trap: Education and employment in a global economy. European Educational Research Journal, 2(1), 141-179.