This was after he noted that various disruptions occurring in today’s workplace – digitalisation, globalisation (and its inverse, localisation), aging workforces in developed economies and a shift from lifelong employment with one organisation to having multiple careers, among others – have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drawing on his experience as deputy chief executive of SkillsFuture in Singapore, where he oversaw the development of a comprehensive lifelong learning and training system, and his present position at the Institute for the Future of Education, Fung made four main arguments.
First, that our “front loaded” model of education is ill-suited to the reality that most workers will need to return for retraining and re-accreditation as they upgrade or change careers. It is too slow and, at the higher education level, too hide-bound to respond to employers’ quickly changing needs, as he illustrated with an example from marketing.
“If employers are looking for employees who have knowledge about digital marketing, for example, search engine optimisation and branding your products using social media, they would want employees to have those technical skills to actually know how to launch online marketing campaigns.
“So those skills are very important because if you have the general marketing degree, and you go to employers today and they say, ‘Can you do this for me?’, if you say, ‘No, I don’t have the skill’, there are two choices. One is the employer says, ‘Sorry, I’m not going to take you for the job’. Or two, ‘I’ll take you in and I’ll train you’,” Fung said.
“But given the faster and faster business cycles, employers are becoming more and more impatient. They really want students with work-ready skills. So that’s the technical skills, you need that skill for that particular job otherwise you’re not able to do it.”
Fung’s second argument is that the traditional education model of having to be in a classroom at “fixed times” and the “fixed curriculum” are serious barriers to equity. “The future of education needs to be inclusive,” he argued, before listing off groups such as working professionals, young parents, and mothers who are working from home (and minding children).
His solution to this problem is to focus the curriculum on competencies that can be taught in relatively discrete units across a number of platforms.
Thirdly, to those in his audience who, he knew, would object that he was reimagining education as being little more than technê, Fung underscored support for “soft skills” and more intellectual training, though given the time constraints of a 20-minute presentation he did not elaborate.
Fung’s final point came in response to a question, the preamble of which mentioned that Spain was enduring one of the worst heat waves in decades (the temperature in Córdoba was expected to hit 38°C on Wednesday 18 May) and that people were dying in India and Pakistan.
The elephant in the room, the questioner said, was climate change, which, he averred, “had not been mentioned once”.
Fung answered that in order to address climate change, the concepts of sustainability must be embedded in education and skills development systems.
The awareness of how business is conducted, of industrial processes and their impacts on climate, must be known across the workforce. “It’s not just the CEO. It’s not just a few activists. It is actually everybody who needs to have that knowledge.”