Profound conceptual problems arise from the untested assumptions that pervade much of the thinking and research on the relationship between education, skills development and employment. Such assumptions pervade public policy, market-driven and even academic discussions about education, skills development and job creation, with the result that more fundamental and transformative approaches are deliberately underrepresented or omitted.
We believe that very important, perhaps fundamental, issues arise for examining the relationship between education and training and the economy.
To begin with, conceptualising the relationship of the economy to education and training systems should be preceded by some orientation to the nature of the economy that is being referred to.
There were substantial differences within the economic systems driven by state planning that characterised the former Soviet bloc, on the one hand, and the wide varieties of capitalism that have existed throughout the 20th century, on the other.
There are also differences between postcolonial states themselves, ranging from states largely based on rural subsistence and agribusiness to those based on extractive economies or a mixture of such economies and a manufacturing sector.
More recently there are economies based on a newly developed tertiary and service sector and some are characterised by a high level of militarisation of economic activity. These economies, in all their forms, exhibit a considerable variety of political systems ranging between statist and varieties of social democratic, religio-nationalist and military- oligarchic dictatorships and permutations of these.
It could be argued that, if there is any single thread of similarity between these systems, this would be that all these forms of political economy and statism are characterised by huge inequalities in social power expressed through the extraordinary power of statist bureaucracies and, in the case of the varieties of capitalist economies, pervasive (even if different) differentials of wealth, incomes, property ownership and socioeconomic status.
All these societies evince social cleavages and structural differences that express themselves in the social, class and gender disadvantages based on racial categorisation, religio-cultural prejudice, caste, geographic and other forms of social differentiation and discrimination, whether or not these are legislatively prescribed.
The defining attributes of such societies, even if they are more pronounced in some societies relative to others (Scandinavian countries relative to the United States, developed relative to underdeveloped or peripheral), have been amplified in every case by global environmental degradation, whose effects have been profoundly more damaging for the lives of the urban and rural poor.
Taking just one of these multiple forms of social and political systems: What are some of the implications that are assumed but untested about the core assertion that there is a strong relationship between education and jobs?
One implication is that, under the forms of production prevalent in this economic and social system, there is a readily available supply of jobs if the requisite skills are there, or that, conversely, once there are skills in the market the jobs will follow.
The further assumption that follows this is that such jobs are there, if not immediately then at least in the short term, regardless of the conditions for the reproduction of capital, its composition, the social conditions for its investment, global financial flows or even the resistance of labour to the form of its investment.
Increases or decreases?
Given especially the composition of capital in market-driven economies, it is unclear whether the increasing mechanisation and robotisation of work results in increases or decreases in the availability of jobs.
What is the presumed relationship between the new forms of technological innovation and employment? What is the record of this relationship over time, and what similarly is the role of capital mobility in the sustainability of jobs in any national employment system. What evidence is there about this relationship in the global arena where increases in rates of unemployment are egregious?
Another implication is the assumed relationship between jobs and skills demand that is largely silent about the qualitative attributes of work: that is, about all those attributes of the nature of work even in developed economic systems, such as its racialised and gendered nature, the hierarchies intrinsic to it, the lack of work security in market-based economic systems, the phenomenon of child labour, the problem of alienation and the lack of any serious conception of citizenship and a broader framework of rights in society.
These and many other attributes characterise the constitutive social relations affecting work in all societies, making the assumptions drawn from developed economic systems about job opportunities being applied to economic and social systems based largely on the primary economic sector or for subsistence economies untenable.
How does one understand the conundrum posed by the simultaneous complaint that there are no jobs even for graduates and there are no skills that are appropriate for the economy? Is it simply that those who do have unused skills are wrongly educated and trained — too many humanities and biblical studies degrees and too few science and technology?
Or is this conundrum really an expression of the contradictory and selective preferences of capitalist labour markets, which can refuse particular skills while simultaneously complaining about the absence of skills, at once kicking out some workers while employing others based on the narrower requirements of the industry and its plants.
Indeed, underlying every anecdote about failed attempts at securing employment opportunities is the fear that for every story about an employer who seeks “qualified employees” there is a compensatory story about employers with impossible hiring requirements.
And in any economic system, how does the extreme concentration of capital in a few large multinational corporations affect the possibilities for employment creation both in the private sector and in a highly dependent informal economy, and what is the impact of the extreme mobility of investment capital on the possibilities for job creation in any area of work other than formal sector employment?
Assuming, however, that the corporate capital sector is not the main area of concentration of job possibility, and assuming that in fact it is in the small business, public, informal and care economy, what then are the necessary conditions that would make these areas of economic activity actual and meaningful possibilities for work?
What in that case would be the types of useful economic and social activities that can be explored for the purpose of job creation and social investment — that is, outside of the formal private sector economy? What openings are there in such economic systems not only for the much-vaunted small, medium and micro enterprises but also for alternatives based on co-operatives, the care economy and the care of the environment as part of a wider planetary responsibility and justice, and the green economy? What realistically are the possibilities for supporting rural economic activity in the absence of the resolution of the “land question”.
And if these alternative forms of economic activity and work were to be encouraged, what specifically would be the similarly alternative forms of education and skills development, alternative institutional forms, curriculum and all the associated issues that speak to a systemic approach to reconfiguring the present system quite fundamentally. And how would these be funded?
All of these, we assert, are assumptions that remain untested but are critical to any real understanding of the relationship between societies and their systems of socialisation through the processes of learning through education and training.
We can conclude from these observations that poorly developed conceptions of education and training, and their relationship to “the economy”, remain a key barrier to constructing a meaningful discourse about policies and practices or the usefulness of education and the potential role that post-school education might play in society.
Crude formulations of the connectedness of economic activity and knowledge mar any serious view of how knowledge is produced, what its useful characteristics are and how it might be assured.
Complex questions reduced to “quick fix”, facile and reductionist approaches to knowledge development and particular explanations of the national skills strategy are hopelessly inadequate.
Enver Motala is a researcher at the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development at the University of Fort Hare and Salim Vally is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation. Both institutions are part of the Education Policy Consortium. This is an edited extract from the book, Work, Education and Society, edited by Motala and Vally, expected to be published this year