Education and training, under the dictatorship of the labour market


Ever since the Lisbon Summit of 2000, the dominant conception of European education has been scaled down to the point where it is seen mainly as an instrument of economic policy. From time to time, other voices qualify this main idea: education systems should ensure ‘the personal, social and professional fulfilment of all citizens’ while ‘promoting democratic values, social cohesion, active citizenship and intercultural dialogue.’ (European Council 2012b: 393/5). But for the most part the ‘primary role’ of education and training as the ‘main engine of growth and competitiveness’ is not in question; nor is the ‘essential role that investments in human capital play in terms of an economy recovery based on job creation’ (European Council 2013:1).

One would have thought that the bursting of the bubble in 2000/1, which saw the NASDAQ lose 60% of its value in one twelve-month period, then the great recession of 2008, followed by the present crisis in public finance in Europe would have to some extent tempered the optimism of those who believed that investment in human capital would guarantee growth and prosperity. Unfortunately, the champions of neo-liberalism do not let go of their principles so easily. For the Director of CEDEFOP (the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training), ‘Supporting people to acquire the skills that lay the foundations for innovation and match future employment needs is one of the preconditions for surmounting the crisis’ (CEDEFOP 2011: 1).

The theoretical position from which such statements are made is clear: if employers are given ‘a better opportunity to recruit skilled workers’, then this will encourage businesses ‘to offer more opportunities to their staff and to increase their involvement in the development of the workforce’ (European Council 2012b: 2-5). This claim rests on an acceptance of the theory according to which economies that possess greater quantities of human capital ‘keep seeing more productivity gains’ (OECD 2010: 10). The economists Eric Hanushek (Hoover Institute, Stanford) and Ludger Woessman (Munich University) are among the main promoters of this rhetoric; their work is much cited by European authorities, and by the OECD. What their research demonstrates, however, is nothing more than a correlation between skill levels in a particular country (as indicated by international studies such as TIMMS or PISA) and the rate of growth of its GDP. Hanushek and Woessman admit that ‘it is difficult to establish conclusively that this is a causal relationship’ (2008: 667), but this does not prevent them constructing economic models in which rates of growth are linked, through a first degree equation, to average levels of skill and average length of schooling, on the basis of data from the period 1960-2010.

It is this construction that provides the OECD with the crystal ball in which to calculate that ‘having all OECD countries boost their average PISA scores by 25 points over the next 20 years implies an aggregate gain of OECD GDP of USD 115 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010’ (OECD 2010 : 6).

Doing ‘better’ with fewer resources

Hanushek and Woessman are also proponents of the thesis according to which the level of funding of education does not influence its quality. Most notably, they claim that the level of academic support for pupils (the teacher/pupil ratio) is not linked to pupils’ average performance. It should not surprise us that this claim has been well received by ministries of education that are chronically short of financial resources, and by international organisations whose role is to enforce policies of austerity. Notwithstanding its acceptance in these quarters, the research of Hanushek and his colleagues, which is based either on comparative studies between countries or on long-term chronological data, suffers from a serious weakness: its conclusions are in complete contradiction with the outcome of policies that have aimed to reduce class size. Several different kinds of research have converged on the same conclusion: in the USA, in the framework of the STAR project (Kruger and Whitmore 2000), in England (Blatchford et al 2011), in France (Pikkety and Valdenaire 2006), in Sweden (Wiborg 2010). All these studies demonstrate that in comparable geographical and social situations (same country, same period, same kinds of pupils and teachers) smaller class sizes improve overall performance and reduce the gap between pupils from different social groups, in particular differences linked to social origin.

All the same, Hanushek and Woessman continue to insist that it is possible to do more with less: ‘the binding constraint seems to be institutional reforms, not resource expansions within the current institutional systems’ (2008: 659). It follows from this that we should put quality before quantity of teaching – but this is ‘quality’ understood in a particular way: high-quality teaching is that which responds closely and lastingly to the needs of the economy. In order for this to happen, education systems need to ‘improve the identification of training needs’, and then ‘increase the labour market relevance of education and training’ so that they provide people with the ‘right mix of skills and competences’, (European Council 2011: 2). It follows that ‘all the people involved in the education process (will have to) face the right incentives’ (Hanushek and Woessman 2008: 659). Let us now move on to exploring what labour markets want from workers and from education and training systems.

The crisis is over!

The discourse on the crisis, designed for public consumption, can be summarized as follows: with the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, there was a serious economic crisis, and unemployment increased among all categories of workers. But everything will be better tomorrow. Growth will resume its course, employment will increase, and once again there will be a need for workers who are ever more highly skilled and able to play a part in a ‘knowledge society’. This idyllic vision is on display in the publications of CEDEFOP, the EU agency responsible for analyzing the future development of the European labour market. In the years of crisis and recession after 2008, CEDEFOP’s record has been one of consistent and misplaced optimism. It has repeatedly over-estimated the rate of growth in employment, predicting a smooth unbroken upward movement, resistant to the effects of crisis: for the years 2011 and 2012 it envisaged growth of the order of 0.85%; according to the latest Eurostat figures, there was actually a fall in employment of 0.1%.


It seems that economists, at least those who have the ear of the European Commission and the European Council of Ministers, have learned nothing since the 1970s. For 40 years, they have persisted in seeing ‘crises’ as conjunctural events, accidents along the path of progress of an economy that is fundamentally in good health. It has not occurred to them that these lurches and sudden upheavals are symptoms of a system that is profoundly ‘sick’, symptoms that are the visible products of the deep and turbulent contradictions of the capitalist economy.

A knowledge society?

If the promises of employment growth can be called into question, what about the structural distribution of these jobs, in terms of the level of training they require? Is it the case that the economic and technological context demands, and will continue to demand, ever greater numbers of highly skilled workers? CEDEFOP (2012) certainly thinks so. It has developed a detailed analysis of the occupational structure of the European economies since 1990 – based on workers’ level of qualification – and projected towards 2020 the trends that emerge from this analysis. At first sight, the description presented by such analysis looks uncontestable. The category of highly skilled workers has grown, rising from 22.3% to 29.8% between 2000 and 2010; it will rise further, to 37% by 2020. On the other hand, the number of jobs available to workers with lower levels of qualification is constantly falling – 30.6% in 2000, 23.4% in 2010 and a projected 16.4% in 2020. ’Young people with low or no qualifications will find it increasingly difficult to get a good job,’ concludes CEDEFOP, logically enough (CEDEFOP, 2012b: 12).


Given this analysis, it is therefore very surprising to read, a few pages further on in the same report that, ‘The demand forecast’s findings show that most job growth will be in higher- and lower-skill occupations with slower growth in occupations requiring medium-level qualifications. (CEDEFOP, 2012b: 29).

Experts thus assure us that there is an ever-decreasing number of jobs for the less skilled; on the other, they say that such jobs are growing in number. What explains this apparent contradiction? Explanation lies in the fact that CEDEFOP’s analysis is not based on the level of education that the jobs demand, in terms of their technical nature, their complexity, their specialisation, but only on the actual level of qualification of the workforce employed to do the jobs. When fewer low-skilled workers are employed, this does not necessarily mean that the level of qualification intrinsically required by the work process has risen; it might also suggest that highly skilled workers are being made use of in jobs that do not intrinsically demand their level of qualification, either because there is an excess of skilled workers on the labour market, or because there is an under-supply of less skilled personnel.

Job polarisation

Since the end of the 1970s, some researchers have noted a process of labour market segmentation: on the one hand, a limited number of technical-professional posts, with a high level of expertise and a salary to match; on the other, an ever-increasing supply of jobs that are less well paid, and that require only a low level of qualification. These tend to be in expanding service industries, such as fast-food outlets, supermarkets and large-scale distributors (Coomb 1989:10). This ‘polarisation’ thesis has been confirmed in more recent decades, and is now largely accepted, and well described. ‘Over the last decades’, note two CEDEFOP researchers, ‘some consensus has been achieved in the literature that, besides a general trend of expansion of highly-skilled employment, continuing polarisation is affecting labour markets in most developed economies (Ranieri and Serafini, 2012: 49).

David Autor, an American specialist in this area, published in 2010 a study called ‘The Polarization of Job Opportunities in US Labor Markets’. His findings suggested a significant shift in occupational structure since the 1980s. The pattern of development that Autor identifies in the 1980s is in line with present-day rhetoric about the characteristics of a ‘knowledge society’: a growth in skilled labour, a fall in less skilled job categories. The following decade is different. It is one of labour market polarisation; the graph dips in the middle, as intermediate categories of employment are removed from the labour market, while the number of high-skilled jobs continues to expand, and low-skilled occupations experience a modest growth. Finally, in the 2000s, the graph shows a sharp rise in the number of low-skilled jobs, while the level of high-skilled employment has reached a plateau (Autor 2010:3).


In Europe, a similar kind of development seems to have happened, though it has tended to lag behind that of the USA: ‘while the share of knowledge- and skill- intensive occupations increased almost constantly between 1970 and 2000, occupational polarisation has clearly emerged across Europe only since the end of the 1990s’ (Ranieri and Serafini 2012: 53). Between 2000 and 2008, the number of workers in low-skilled employment rose by 3.9 million, representing one of the highest rates of growth, almost at the same level as the rate of increase in highly-skilled jobs, and far above the rate of growth in ‘intermediate’ jobs.


CEDEFOP recognizes that this development is likely to continue into the future: ‘most job growth will be in higher- and lower-skill occupations with slower growth in occupations requiring medium-level qualifications’ (2012b:29).

How information technology contributes to polarisation

To understand these processes of polarisation, we need to look at the role of ICT. Contrary to widespread belief, ICT does not inexorably substitute for work at a lower level of skill, but rather takes over routine tasks – tasks that can easily be defined, described and disaggregated, so that they can be encoded into a programme to be carried out by a computer, or by humans acting under the direction of a computer. As Autor writes:

‘Routine tasks are characteristic of many middle-skilled cognitive and production activities, such as bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive production tasks. The core job tasks of these occupations in many cases follow precise, well understood procedures. Consequently, as computer and communication technologies improve in quality and decline in price, these routine tasks are increasingly codified in computer software and performed by machines or, alternatively, sent electronically to foreign worksites to be performed by comparatively low-wage workers.’ (Autor 2010 : 4)

Such routine tasks are often those carried out by averagely skilled workers, while non-routine tasks tend to be found at the two extremes of the occupational spectrum. So far as the skilled end of the spectrum is concerned, they consist of abstract tasks that call for problem-solving abilities, for intuition and persuasiveness. But there are also many more ‘basic’ jobs, especially in the service sector, which are not easily computerised. Before cleaning a classroom, for instance, the chairs have to be put on top of the desks and for this to happen the desks have to be cleared of everything that has cluttered them up – packing material, empty ink cartridges and so on – but at the same time nothing that is educationally useful, a book or a calculator that a pupil has left behind, must be thrown away. Decisions about what to keep or what to throw in the bin can be taken by anyone, skilled or not, who possesses a minimum of common sense. But they are very difficult, if not impossible, to programme into a machine. As Autor puts it:

‘For the task to be machine-executable, it must be sufficiently well defined, or “canned,” so that a non-sentient machine can execute it successfully, without the aid of “common sense”, by rapidly and accurately following the steps set down by the programmer. Consequently, computers are highly productive and reliable at performing the things that people can program them to do—and inept at everything else.’ (2010: 11)

Moreover, the work of a taxi-driver, a security guard, an air hostess on a low-cost airline in Europe, a McDonalds worker in Madrid or Paris cannot be outsourced to New Delhi. In the OECD’s summary, ‘highly skilled workers are needed for technology-related jobs; low-skilled workers are hired for services that cannot be automated, digitised or outsourced, such as personal care; and mid-level skills are being replaced by smart robotics’ (OECD 2012a: 21).

A little over-qualification, that’s OK

For most of the twentieth century, the labour market developed in response to the rising levels of qualification required by technical relations of production. States, in turn, responded to this development by extending the period of schooling, and by encouraging populations to increase their level of qualification. Now, however, the labour market has fragmented and polarised: the kind of employment which demands only a low level of skill is on the rise, while the rate of unemployment is also increasing. In this situation, workers are compelled to accept jobs that require a level of education below what they actually possess.

In terms of official categorisation, the rate of over-qualified employment in Europe is between 10% and 30% (Qintini 2011, OECD 2011b). In present labour market conditions CEDEFOP envisages ‘a rapid increase in people with high-level qualifications employed in jobs traditionally requiring lower skill level, certainly in the short term, and a sharp fall in jobs for people with low or no qualifications’ (CEDEFOP, 2012a, 14). From the point of view of the worker, this amounts to a sharp fall of around 20% in the salary that s/he might expect (OECD 2011b: 211). From the point of view of the employer, the balance sheet is more qualified. Some research insists on the benefits of over-qualification, in terms of productivity and innovation. ‘Over-qualification,’ states CEDEFOP, ‘is not necessarily a problem. Better qualified people (…) may be more innovative and (able to) change the nature of the job they are doing. Highly skilled people may also find it easier to transfer skills gained in one sector to a job in another’ (2012:13). On the other hand, over-qualification has salary costs. An over-qualified worker is around 15% more expensive to employ than a worker whose qualifications exactly match those required by the job (OECD 2011b: 211). As long as the rate of over-qualification seems reasonable, the balance of advantage is tipped in favour of the over-qualified, at least from the point of view of the individual employer. On the other hand, from the macro-economic point of view, too high a level of over-qualification results in an unacceptable upward pressure on the wage levels of the low-skilled sector. In the US context, Autor has shown that the steep rise in low-skilled jobs in the 1990s led to the recruitment of over-qualified workers, with the result that wages in these sectors have risen more quickly, or fallen more slowly, than they would otherwise have done.

From the perspective of those who only think of education in economic terms, too high a level of qualification amounts to an enormous wastage of state resources: is it really necessary to invest so much in education, if the skills thus created are not put to use? It is no longer possible to foster the illusion, held since the 1970s, that a general, humanist education was going to become a universal norm. More than a decade ago, the OECD set the record straight on this, making clear that, ‘not all will pursue professional careers in the dynamic sectors of the “new economy” – indeed most will not – so that curricula cannot be designed as if all are on an identical high-flying track. The knowledge that many will use in work, society or leisure may be far from advanced’ (OECD 2001: 29). In that case, on what basis should education programmes be designed?

Low skilled but multi-competent

The surplus of skilled workers is not the only reason for the recruitment of overqualified labour. It is something that also stems from the very nature of new types of employment which are unskilled or thought to be so. They are very different from the industrial or agricultural jobs which were once taken on by the great mass of workers who possessed only elementary education. Today an ‘unskilled’ office worker is unlikely to possess a diploma in typing or shorthand, or in telex operating, or secretarial work, or translation and interpreting. Nonetheless they are expected to use a computer keyboard, to word-process documents, to produce spreadsheets and data bases and to manage a mail box. They are expected to answer the phone, courteously, and possibly to do this in several languages. It is difficult to describe all this in terms of a fixed and formal category of ‘skill’, at least in the usual sense of the term: the work requires just a few basic skills. But it is exactly at this point that the problem lies. Employers, as reported by international organizations, complain of the difficulty they have in finding such workers, who are at one and the same time unskilled, and therefore cheap, and multi-skilled in terms of the range of tasks that they are asked to carry out.

To know how to read, write and calculate, to have a driving licence – it is a long time since qualities like these were explicitly recognized as qualifications. The new types of ‘unskilled’ service sector work require that we add to our list of what should be universally agreed as basic skills. The European framework of key competences sets out eight basic skills, that ‘all young people should acquire as part of their education and their initial training, and that adults should be able to develop and update, thanks to lifelong education and training’ (Commission Européene 2009: 19). The skills are well known. Communication in mother tongue, communication in foreign languages, mathematical competence; basic skills in science and technology; digital skills; the capacity to learn how to learn; social and civic competences, a sense of initiative and enterprise; cultural awareness and expression. For the OECD, ‘this set of skills and competences becomes the very core of what teachers and schools should care about’ (Ananiadou and Claro 2009: 6).

Here, thus, is the solution to the problem: to remove from educational programmes all those qualities that have become useless, now that the secondary school is no longer reserved for elites. No need for Latin and Greek, for philosophy or literature, as long as students have learned how to ‘communicate’. No need to study theory, and the laws of physics or biology, once students have acquired ‘basic skills’ in science and technology. No need for history and geography, a little ‘cultural awareness’ can take their place. No need for economics – for most students at least – once they have developed a sense of ‘enterprise’. No need even to learn computer programming, as long as students have picked up ‘digital skills’, understood as the basic techniques involved in operating a computer in a workplace context, as well as the rudiments of software programmes. Add to this, a few sentences in one or two foreign languages , a bit of ‘cultural awareness’ and the capacity to learn – company regulations, work procedures, a set of instructions – and you have an excellent and completely flexible worker.

Adaptable and flexible

The choice of the eight key skills listed above is justified in the first place by their capacity, real or imagined, to support qualities of flexibility and adaptability in the workforce. The jobs of tomorrow, whatever end of the skill spectrum they occupy, will have in common the fact that they will consist of tasks that cannot easily be reduced to a set of programmable procedures. For precisely this reason, they contain an important element of unpredictability, and therefore call for initiative and adaptability on the part of workers.

This demand for flexibility is underlined both by economic instability and by the unpredictability of the technological environment. It is impossible to predict the development of the technical relations of production and thus of the knowledge and know-how that will be required of workers in ten or fifteen years. In its Bruges Communiqué of 2010 the European Council of Ministers noted that the students of 2020 will ‘have occupations that do not exist today …We need to improve the capacity of vocational and educational training to respond to the changing requirements of the labour market’ (European Council 2010:2).

In these conditions, the role of the school is no longer to support the acquisition of discipline-based knowledge but rather to transmit generic capacities (‘transversal skills’) as well as to develop individuals’ capacities to update knowledge and know-how in relation to the changing needs of their job and the changing expectations of their employers. The role of the state is no longer to enable everyone to acquire the kinds of knowledge that embodied the possibility of emancipation; it is not even to ensure that each young person has a qualification that allows them access to the labour market: that task, now, is left to the individual’s own resources. The state’s only responsibility, from now on, is to create the conditions in which individuals pursue a lifelong quest for ‘employability’: a ‘lifelong approach to learning, and education and training systems that are more responsive to change and more open to the wider world’ (European Council 2009: 119/3). In this perspective, education’s sole task is to prepare European citizens ‘to be motivated and self-sustained learners’ (European Council 2012b: 393-6) – though the responsibility for organising their learning falls to individuals, who must take control of their own training, ‘in order to update their skills and safeguard their value on the labour market’ (CEDEFOP 2012a: 22).

Competencies versus knowledge

In the context of this search for flexibility, the term ‘competence’ takes on a new importance and a new meaning. In the traditional use of the term, ‘competence’ designates an ensemble of skills of different kinds, of attitudes, of experience – it is this ensemble of qualities which goes to make a good doctor or plumber, a good builder or a good airline pilot. However, under the double pressure of the pursuit of maximum flexibility on the part of the learner, and optimal, measurable output on the part of the education system, a reconfigured concept of ‘skill’ has come into being, where the only thing that matters is the final product: what a pupil has remembered, understood, mastered, formalised counts for little, as long as they demonstrate that they can successfully complete the task in hand. Teaching is thus transformed into a kind of unending process of assessment, in situations which pupils have possibly not encountered before, but which can be from the teacher’s point of view perfectly standardised. This focus on skills throws overboard the fundamental question asked by research into teaching and learning – how properly to transmit a particularly body of knowledge? – in favour of a different question, in which the sole criterion of value concerns the student’s capacity to make use of knowledge – ‘did he successfully complete this task?’. The shift is seen by the OECD in terms of an ‘innovative concept related to the capacity of students to apply knowledge and skills’ (Ananiadou and Claro 2009:7).

Until the last few years, a skills-based approach was presented as a form of constructivist pedagogy. This was especially the case in francophone countries, where it claimed to be a pedagogy centred on the learner that gave ‘meaning’ to his learning – a claim which was deliberately misleading, and strongly contested (Hirtt 2009). Today the mask is slipping. Policies seem to have returned to a distant past, deriding the kinds of pedagogic reform that only yesterday they were promoting. But we would be wrong to read this recent shift in the dominant pedagogic discourse as a ‘right turn’ or a ‘return to academic rigour’- the choice of one or the other of these value-laden terms depending on the position initially adopted towards the skills agenda. In reality, only the outer garment has changed – that is to say the discourse that accompanied skill-based reforms, giving them a kind of pseudo-progressive guarantee. At a deeper level, the level at which the notion of general or transversal skills has had an impact on the way that knowledge is constructed in education, ‘skill’, in the form of a demand for ‘basic skills’, is more of a force than it has ever been. The motivation for this change is not a secret: for CEDEFOP, it is a reorientation that ‘increases the flexibility’ of workers and of the labour market, ‘in a context of continual employment transitions and rapid changes in the workplace … it is probably more important to gain transversal, generic skills that ones which are bound to a particular employee function and a particular work process’ (CEDEFOP 2012b: 23).

In this perspective, the school is only ‘there’ so that it can lay the basis for future learning, which, in turn, will be determined only by the demands of working life. In the OECD’s words, ‘compulsory education is where people should master foundation skills and where they should develop the general desire and capacity to engage in learning over an entire lifetime’ (OECD: 2012c: 26).

General skills and vocational skills

There are tensions within the dominant discourse of vocational education. We have just seen CEDEFOP arguing for the primacy of generic skills above the demands of any particular job. However, other texts, even ones produced by the same official bodies, set out a contrary argument: that policy should track the development of particular occupational demands, so as to align vocational education more closely with them. The European Council, in its Bruges Communiqué of 2010, believes that ‘we must regularly review occupational and education/training standards which define what is to be expected from the holder of a certificate or diploma’ (European Council 2010: 2). The Council thus recommends ‘closer collaboration with stakeholders’ – state, educational institutions, businesses – to anticipate new skills requirements; it also hopes that initiatives will develop at national, regional and local level, that will ‘improve teachers’ knowledge of work practices’ (ibid: 8). Programmes of education and training, says the Council, should be focused on the ‘outcomes of learning’, and made ‘more responsive to labour market needs’ (ibid: 9).

The tension between this discourse and that of generic skills reflects a real contradiction, one which sets employers in growth industries (services, technology-intensive businesses) against declining sectors, such as metal-working, construction and ship-building). For employers who recruit managers and designers in hi-tech businesses – and likewise for those who hire bar-staff to work on TGVs – the problem is not one of finding people who have exactly the right set of pre-determined qualities. Such a strategy would be futile in the former case, where what is required in any event is a serious level of training within the business itself, and irrelevant in the latter case, where no particular qualification is required. It is, in addition, a matter of regret for employers that workers sometimes lack a sense of initiative, that they respond too mechanically to unexpected situations, that they are slow in acquiring new kinds of knowledge and know-how suited to the nature of their job, that their ways of communicating and expressing themselves are not always well suited to the nature of the job. In this context, employers demand of the education system that it develops the generic skills of the future workforce.

Conversely, in more ‘traditional’ businesses, which recruit lathe operators, welders, bricklayers, engravers, joiners, plumbers, vocational know-how is a primary need, and carries more weight than vague considerations of adaptability and other competences of a social sort. However, the constant discourse of employers in these sectors, when they claim to be calamitously short of skilled labour, must be treated with a certain scepticism. It often implies less the existence of a real shortage of labour, than a rise in demand on the part of employers, resulting from the difficulties of the sectors that are hardest hit by economic crisis and from the competitiveness gap that separates them from sectors that can recruit from a vast reservoir of low-skilled labour.

The ambivalent discourses of organisations like CEDEFOP and the European Council are evidence of the strains in a position that seeks both to give priority to key skills and to address the lack of moderately skilled labour. It is a position that faces two ways, situating itself between two opposing fractions of European capital. But these tensions do not so much lead to policy contradictions, as to a ‘doubleness’ of policy. The emphasis on basic skills speaks to the initial phase of education – from primary to lower secondary – whose outcomes are tested by PISA; the second emphasis, which focuses on vocational preparation, relates to the 14+ age group.

Does employability create jobs?

No-one would dream of challenging the claim that the best trained workers have a better chance of finding work than others have: from 2008, the start of the recession, to 2010, the rate of unemployment among those possessing only a lower secondary school certificate rose from 8.8% to 12.5%, while that of workers with an upper secondary school certificate increased to a lower point, from 4.9% to 7.6%. Unemployment among those with degree-level qualifications increased from 3.3% to 4.7%. There exists, therefore, a clear correlation between the level and quality of education and the chances of escaping unemployment. But on the basis of this observation, which at the level of the individual is perfectly reasonable, some people over-hastily conclude that there exists a similar positive correlation between the overall level of certification in a society, and its overall employment rate.

The OECD and the European Commission like to play on this belief, claiming that high rates of unemployment can be explained in large part by the difficulties that employers encounter in finding an adequately skilled workforce. But this is a claim that collapses when confronted with the full statistical picture. As even the Commission’s own figures show (European Commission 2009) unemployment rates are negatively, not positively, correlated with the number of unfilled jobs. In other words, countries where there are a large number of jobs are not those where there is a high level of unemployment, but, on the contrary, ones where there is relatively little unemployment.


According to Eurostat unfilled posts at present amount to 1.5% of total EU employment: 98.5% of jobs are already filled. The number of unfilled vacancy is falling, while the rate of unemployment increases (DARES 2010: 17) In these conditions, it is difficult to see how a better match of worker training to market demands could reduce a current cross-European level of unemployment of 10%. In the figures compiled by the French employers’ organisation, MEDEF (2013), the four occupational groups where there is a high level of job vacancy are hotel and catering workers (11611), salespersons (5277), kitchen staff (5157) and drivers (4969), all jobs that with some exceptions – head chef, for instance – do not necessarily require a formal qualification. Next on the list are 4628 business managers, 4432 engineers and technical staff – two job categories that are highly-skilled. The list goes on to include home helps (4081 vacancies), security workers (3338), domestic workers (3302) and miscellaneous unskilled jobs (2928). In summary, of around 47000 jobs deemed difficult to fill in the fourth quarter of 2012, only 9070, 19%, needed a high level of qualification. How can it be thought possible that this number can be reduced through some miracle of training? The reality is that the shortage of jobs affects to some small extent every occupational category, but the most qualified workers are able more easily to escape the threat of unemployment, by accepting jobs for which they are over-qualified. At lower levels of qualification this is harder to achieve. The OECD notes that ‘an upper secondary education is no longer solid insurance against unemployment and low wages’ (2012a:1). CEDEFOP confirms that ‘Weak employment demand due to the current economic downturn means that, although people are becoming better qualified, some may not find jobs in line with their expectations and qualifications’ (2012a:1).

When employers in some sectors complain that they cannot recruit sufficiently qualified workers, that usually means that as at other times of crisis, they are raising the level of demands that they are making on their staff, while also taking advantage of inter-worker competition to force down wages. They would certainly like to find skilled workers, ones with five years experience, with their own transport to the workplace, their own equipment and clothing and with all this a willingness to be taken on at the salary level of an unskilled worker. When the bar is raised so high (or so low, according to viewpoint) the most skilled young workers – skilled in terms of the competences defined above – would rather accept other kinds of job, which are in salary terms, at least, comparable, such as team leader in a McDonalds or as a TV salesman for Sony.

Competition between workers and between schools

In a strong sense, the whole idea of the flexibilisation of the labour market comes back to the issue of sharpening the competition between workers. This is the context in which we should understand the project of achieving a trans-European mobility of labour. Such mobility permits employers across Europe to recruit their workforce from a much more extensive reservoir, putting a much greater number of would-be workers into competition with each other for the same posts, and thus obtaining at lowest cost, workers who closely match the company’s expectations. This mobility of employment must be developed on the basis of an education system that promotes learner mobility. For the European Council, this constitutes ‘an essential element of lifelong learning’ (European Council 2009: 119).

Competition between workers must also take place ‘in the head’, at an ideological level. This is why it becomes necessary, from the nursery school onwards to encourage ‘more workplace and entrepreneurial learning experiences’ (European Council 2011: 70/1), which will be part of the ‘lifelong approach to learning’ that the European Council desires, and which will entail that education and training systems become ‘more responsive to change’, developing an openness to the ‘wider world’ beyond the school (European Council 2009: 119).

These are claims that need to be explored in all their educational dimensions. First, to take into account the ‘whole lifecourse’ means that the school should no longer aim only to transfer knowledge, but also and above all to ‘teach how to learn’. It has to ‘prepare European citizens to be motivated and self-sustained learners’ (European Council 2012b: 393-6). From an education system in which the state transfers or instils the values, disciplinary knowledge and qualifications that it considers supportive of the common good, we are moving towards a system in which worker-citizens are issued with an individual invitation to seek out whatever they consider useful for their individual careers. From now on, ‘they have to take responsibility for their learning to keep their skills up-to-date and maintain their value in the labour market’ (CEDEFOP 2012:24). Fundamentally, there isn’t a great difference between these two kinds of regime, since the pursuit of the ‘common good’ on the part of the state, and the ‘personal careers’ of individual citizens have generally been conflated, under the sign of Capital. In the former instance, though, there still exists a regulative state – heavy, pervasive, bureaucratic but also providing forms of social protection, the conquests of social struggle. In the latter case, there are only individuals in competition with one another, each prepared to trample on their own rights as long as they can gain some advantage over the other. At the same time, the state progressively offloads any responsibility for education to the private sector, since ‘the responsibility for continued learning falls to individuals’ (CEDEFOP 2012: 22).

Secondly, in order to improve the ‘responsiveness to change’ of education systems, the EC, the European Council and the OECD all argue that systems based on centralised state management should be abandoned, in favour of networks of autonomous institutions, locked into intense mutual competition. Business leaders complain about ‘the slowness of training systems in responding to their needs and adapting to changing skill requirements’. In particular, they think that education and training systems are ‘overly bureaucratic’ and that ‘there is not enough flexibility at local level to design training programmes’ (Froy 2013: 63). They hope that the interplay of autonomy and competition will improve the ‘responsiveness of education and training systems to new demands and trends’ (European Council 2011: 70-2).

Thirdly, Council recommends an ‘opening up to the world’ on the part of educational systems. The ‘world’ should be understood here in a restrictive sense: the term refers to the totality of interests with a stake in the capitalist economy: the ‘world’ equals ‘private enterprise’. These stake-holding groups should form partnerships that can ‘ensure a better focus on the skills and competences required in the labour market and on fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in all forms of learning’ (European Council 2009: 119/4). The OECD recommends work-based training, on the job or in ‘sandwich’ form, for ‘vocational education and training but also for more academically oriented university programmes’ (OECD 2012a; 27). It adds: ‘when employers are involved in designing curricula and delivering education programmes at the post-secondary level, students seem to have a smoother transition from education into the labour markets’: in other words, workers certificated on this basis are better able to adapt to the demands of their employers, and their skills can be more effectively and profitably made use of.

However, organising vocational education along the lines of the German ‘dual system’ comes up against strong resistance on the part of employers themselves. A CEDEFOP survey of European businesses in 2005 revealed a reluctance to involve themselves in training programmes, for ‘fear that the employees would be taken on by their competitors’ (CEDEFOP 2012a: 30).


Ever since the school was first given the role of educating the children of the working class, it has adapted its form and content to changes driven by politics, or by industrial-technological development. While its role in an earlier period was primarily ideological, its mission has over the decades become more explicitly economic and social. The 50s, 60s and the first years of the 70s saw the massification of secondary education, in the context of an ongoing shortage of skilled labour.

Today, in the time of crises, networks, and an explosion of certification, the school and its students are submitted to a double set of pressures: the polarisation of the labour market; the pervasive demand for adaptability and flexibility. In the name of these requirements, education has broken with the structural regulation that developed in the era of massified schooling; knowledge has been displaced as the reference point of schooling, in favour of a vague set of general competences; the democratisation of schooling, in the sense of its egalitarian mission, has been reduced to a promise of universal employability. Supported by the OECD and the EU, these changes are presented as ‘innovative’ and ‘democratic’, against opposition which has too easily allowed itself to be locked into a defence of the school of the past. The first victim of the changes is the school itself. Individualisation of the training offer, the spread of entrepreneurial ideology, the growth of quasi-market principles of organisation, cuts in state funding and the emergence of public-private partnerships – all open the door of education ever more widely to intrusion on the part of the private sector. But the main victims are the young, who are graduating from the new kind of school. They will have been made into adaptable workers. But this adaptability is not a matter of developing an understanding of change; instead the school sets out to break their capacity to resist change. And rather than being a form of cultural emancipation, it is a stripping away of culture, a deprivation.


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Nico Hirtt est physicien de formation et a fait carrière comme professeur de mathématique et de physique. En 1995, il fut l'un des fondateurs de l'Aped, il a aussi été rédacteur en chef de la revue trimestrielle L'école démocratique. Il est actuellement chargé d'étude pour l'Aped. Il est l'auteur de nombreux articles et ouvrages sur l'école.