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Education, the knowledge society and employment

March 3rd, 2011 by Graham Attwell

An important article in the Guardian newspaper entitled “The awful truth: education won’t start the west getting poorer”. The article challenges a number of assertions which seem to have become accepted ‘facts’ over the last few years.

Anyone who has written proposals for the European Commission will know the mantra of the Lisbon Agreement. By the year 2010 Europe will be the most advanced knowledge economy of the year. Now quietly forgotten , this bombastic policy goal was based on a number of unproved assumptions. First was the nature of the economy itself. Yes, we may have a greater proportion of knowledge as capital in the production process than in previous times and the numbers involved in service industries have increased but the capitalist economies remain relaint on production as the primary source of wealth and indeed of employment.

And whilst the number of occupations and jobs requiring higher skills and knowledge levels has increased, there remain many low skilled jobs, especially in the growing services sector.

There were two main ways Europe was to achieve its preeminent status in world economies. The first was through implementing ever higher levels of technology. Once more the link between technology, productivity and economic growth are contestable and difficult to measure. technology can increase productivity and lead to growth. however, there have been a number fo studies showing that the implementation of new technologies has actually reduced productivity, at least in the short term. And if technology merely reduces the workforce, this can inhibit economic growth and stability.

There has also been a long running assumption that higher levevls of education and qualification will also lead to higher productivity and higher wage levels. Botha re unproven. And as the data quoted in the Guardian shows real wage levels in teh UK are actually falling.

In fact it is some of those occupations lauded as the jobs of the future that pay rates have fallen most dramatically in comparative terms. Computer programmers pay has been steadily falling for the last five years in the UK.

The Guardian also points out how so called knowledge jobs are being deskilled “They are being chopped up, codified and digitised. Every high street once had bank managers who used their discretion and local knowledge to decide which customers should receive loans. Now software does the job. Human judgment is reduced to a minimum, which explains why loan applicants are often denied because of some tiny, long-forgotten overdue payment.”

The Guardian quotes Brown, Lauder and Ashton who call this “digital Taylorism”, after Frederick Winslow Taylor who invented “scientific management” to improve industrial efficiency.”

And of course with Globalisation and new forms of communciation many of these jobs are simply being shifted or outsourced to workers in other countries, especially to lower wage economies. At the same time, countries such as India and China are rapidly expanding their education systems, with a dramatic growth in science and technology graduates.

In many ways this is a perfect storm, hence the title of the Guardian article. it certaibly adds focrce to teh growing debate about the Purpose of Education abd challenges the idea that educations hould merely focus on so called employability skills. Secondly it may lead us to rethink what sort of jobs we want in society? I am interested in the survival of the craft sector in gemrany, depsite the assumption in the UK that such jobs had no future. Indeed its eems that thsoe countries with strong apprenticeship systems, valuaing handicraft and applied skills and knowledge may be better placed for the future than thiose such as UK which went down the road of developing a mass higher education system for the knowledge society.

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