A responsive, accessible education system is the engine of social and economic progress

Harald Kayser Senior Partner and Chairman, PwC Europe SE, PwC Germany 10 June, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted areas for improvement in worldwide education. Online learning and a platform-based delivery model could provide an answer.

Education is the foundation of both social and economic progress. A strong education system can deliver the skills that businesses and economies need to grow. On an individual level it provides the opportunity for advancement, and contributes to social cohesion by developing skills and knowledge that are essential for social participation. It’s also a major industry in its own right.

Education is central to the agenda of recoupling social and economic prosperity. It’s in everyone’s interest that education develops the skills we need and reaches as many people as possible – but the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed areas for improvement on both counts. 

Before the pandemic hit there were already concerns that the global education system was failing to keep track with the changing demand for skills in the workplace. As automation of the workplace continues, demand has increased for uniquely human skills that can’t be replicated by machines (such as collaborative problem-solving and adaptability) – skills that are not yet an educational priority and that need to coexist alongside digital acumen.

The World Economic Forum predicted that by 2022, at least 54% of all employees will need significant upskilling to meet the demands of the changing world of work. The WEF pointed to an ‘urgent need’ to address the impact of new technologies on labour markets through upgraded education policies, particularly around STEM and non-cognitive soft skills. 

The COVID-19 crisis has made this even more pressing. The pandemic has accelerated existing trends, notably digital transformation and structural shifts in labour markets. Worldwide, education systems need to keep pace with the transformation. 

From a business perspective, the most important question is how to supply economies with the human skills they need to survive and thrive in this new normal. Traditional skills are rapidly becoming obsolete. There’s a real danger that millions of people could be left behind unless all facets of society work together and adapt.

This includes expanding our horizon beyond the young. One of the emerging trends of the digital age is the need for lifelong learning. PwC’s upskilling and future employment research shows that 53% of workers surveyed believe automation will significantly change their job, or make it obsolete, within 10 years. As a result, 77% of adults surveyed say they would be willing to learn new skills or completely retrain to improve their future employability.  

We should recognise that the traditional educational model – school, higher education, work – for many, is no longer relevant in a world where lifelong learning is the norm and in-demand skills are a constantly moving target. It’s vital that educators, governments and business work together to create a learning framework that meets our collective future needs – encompassing a curriculum that’s coherent and relevant to different nations, and a forward-looking perspective that embraces the growing need for human skills that complement technology.

Online learning and platform-based models, acting as an effective and efficient distributor and accelerator of knowledge, could provide a key part of an answer.

There are, of course, challenges to a platform model, but none are unsurmountable. Access to digital learning should be a priority – and the pandemic has shown how much work needs to be done. Hundreds of millions of children have been locked out of school – UNESCO estimates that as of the beginning of April, almost 1.6 billion children, 91% of all enrolled learners, had been affected – and online learning has boomed. But not for everyone. 

When education moved suddenly and unexpectedly online, the inequality of access was starkly revealed. Many students, even in developed nations, do not have the resources available to access digital learning. We need investment in infrastructure and targeted policies that reach the most vulnerable, deprived and remote.

If we are to meet our agenda of delivering sustainable, inclusive societal prosperity on a local and global level, the world needs an education system that reaches into all corners, harnesses the potential of every child, and recognises that the skills required by businesses and economies are not static over time.

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This content is for general information purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors.

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