There is little doubt that knowledge is not only the key instrument of change but also the objective of any advanced society in terms of achieving educated and socially responsible citizenry. This is essential for a democratic, knowledge-based society and competitive economy.

The problem seems to be that those in power often do not recognize the importance of policies needed to encourage people to acquire solid education and continue learning (lifelong learning – LLL), also after having finished formal education. In fact, the share of adults engaged in LLL in a country is a very good indicator of the level of commitment its people and government devote to knowledge (in 2020 it was 28% in Sweden, EU average was 9%, but even below 2% in some of the new member states). This illustrates the huge difference between countries and the scale of challenges faced by those less developed ones.

The most common indicator of the human capital of a country is the percentage share of 25-34-year-olds, with completed university education. The data for 2020 show OECD average of 47% for 25-34 years, and 29% for 25-64 years old. Korea and Canada achieve 70% and 64% for the young - and they are among the top ten most educated countries globally (together with Japan, UK, US, Australia, Finland, Norway and Luxemburg).

These indicators show the knowledge potential, but what really matters is the actual performance. And here – according to the 2021 European Innovation Report – the leading countries in Europe are Sweden, Denmark, Luxemburg and the Netherlands.

The issues of education

It is surprising to observe the slow pace by which education institutions – particularly universities – adjust to intensive changes in society, based on new technologies, automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

Among the changes which require adjustments in university curricula are not only the changes requiring from graduates more than academic excellence and theoretical knowledge but also a new set of competencies, skills and even values of the 21st century. Also, unlike in the past, when youngsters were prepared through education for one profession in which they spent their whole working life, now they tend to change rather frequently not only jobs but during their careers even several professions. That makes the “horizontal competencies and skills” now much more important than in the past.

A lot has been written over the last 10-15 years on the implications of these changes for post-secondary education. Most of the research, supported also by empirical studies, discuss the contents of the competencies and skills to be included into university studies, and present advanced didactic techniques and methods to be applied. The issue of how to do it in various subjects is understandably left to individual professors, who should take into consideration the specific nature of their subject when introducing them into the curricula.

Let us select and summarise the main issues under the label of the 21st century competencies and skills:

  • analytical and critical reasoning;
  • information and media literacy;
  • social skills;
  • initiative;
  • ability and motivation for teamwork;
  • communication;
  • creativity and innovation;
  • entrepreneurship;
  • management;
  • leadership;
  • sustainable and active citizenship;
  • interest representation, networking and lobbying;
  • negotiations.

Besides these skills and competencies, we wish to emphasize also the importance of new values, which people of our time should necessarily be aware of, preferably accept, as well as act accordingly. These are the values allowing people to live and work in a sustainable fashion, with respect for public interest, and full recognition of other people’s needs and rights – not only our own. This should be the basis of modern citizen’s education and preparation of the individual to integrate smoothly into the societal fabric. Unless accordingly educated, individuals will tend to experience and create problems, making themselves unhappy citizens, and creating unnecessary problems in their social environment.

Unfortunately, the still predominant neoliberal economic model, is assuming that the market mechanism will suffice to achieve the balance, but it has brought us to the point where the Earth is reminding us of lack of responsibility towards our environment. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to alert the young generations about the need to act much more responsibly vis-à-vis our physical, as well as social environment. But the threat - definitely not to be ignored - definitely goes beyond environmental degradation. It is reflected in excessive social differentiation, which is taking place in most countries around the globe. Are there any exceptions? Not many, but unsurprisingly, these are primarily the most educated countries, and they are the ones who understand the importance of sustainable development, and its societal dimension.

Education, part of the innovation ecosystem

Never in history has knowledge been developing so quickly as in the 21st century. Therefore, it is inseparably connected to the domain of innovation, which is also not taking place in the classical setting – linked almost exclusively to the academic community. In the modern innovation processes, anyone can and actually do participate: from young kids and students, all the way to corporate laboratories and R&D centres, to governments, SMEs, and even NGOs.

This is an additional reason why governments have to create a comprehensive and effective innovation ecosystem, with well-functioning support mechanisms, and provide public funding of innovation activities of about 3% of GDP. Again, who is doing this? With GERD over 5%, Israel and Korea are leading, followed by: Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Finland, and USA.

Some success stories

There are some inspiring cases, showing how much can be achieved relatively quickly, of course, if there is a good concept and the determination to implement it successfully.

As shown in the experiences from successful innovation regions, such as Silicon Valley, to fulfill the mission of entrepreneurial universities and drive regional innovation, the quality of the universities is a key factor, notably the quality of their education and research. Talent and technology are two generally accepted indices to assess regional innovation level. The Talent Index measures educational, demographic, and occupational characteristics, such as young adults, education levels, and migration. Another important index, the Technology Index, measures new technology introduction, patent activity, new products, and the high technology share of the economic base. Both the Talent Index and Technology Index have a strong relationship with the education quality of universities. If universities can provide high-quality education, they will attract more young adults, educated people, and immigrants, provide a high quality of research, and produce more innovation. Furthermore, the co-location of university and industrial R&D labs could also help to develop complex and innovative products, especially under rapid industrial and technological change.

In recent years, many local authorities in China have set up government-led university science parks to promote university-industry connections and innovation, under the call of the central government. These regional university science parks tend to emulate and compete with each other concurrently. Many of these locations are also called “university towns” in the popular language, such as the Songjiang University Town in a suburb of Shanghai, Zhuoda University Town in a suburb of Beijing, and Shenzhen University Town in Shenzhen Nanshan district. Unlike the university towns that have formed naturally elsewhere, such as in Oxford and Boston, these government-led university science parks in China are established through government planning from the outset. To be consistent, and also to reflect their mission in promoting university-industry connections and innovation, we use the generic term of university science parks to represent all of these science education districts or university towns.

The Science Learning Hub – Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao links New Zealand scientists with students, teachers and other community audiences. It is a successful national project funded by the Government to make achievements of New Zealand science, technology and engineering more accessible and visible. They use a range of media to tell the stories of New Zealand research and development. Wrap-around teacher resources demonstrate how these stories can be used as contexts for creating relevant, engaging classroom programmes. The content is developed by teachers, teacher educators and multimedia experts working closely with New Zealand’s scientists, technologists and engineers.

The fragmentation of digital education policy, research and implementation practices at the European level was also raised as an important issue undermining progress. Moreover, during the preparation of the Digital Education Action Plan (2021-2027), extensive stakeholder consultations highlighted the need for reinforced cooperation and dialogue between stakeholders in the area of digital education - according to European Commission. Distance education measures made them aware of several structural issues related to digital education, uncovering weak spots in education and training systems that extend beyond contextual and sector-related issues. To address these issues, a Digital Education Hub will be created as part of the European Education Area portal, to be launched by the end of 2021. The Hub will provide visibility to the outputs of its community of practice, a dedicated space for its information-sharing needs, and ensure synergies with the European Education Area initiative. Its development will be guided by the stakeholder community that it represents.

Closing thoughts

It is becoming increasingly clear that quality education represents the key pillar of innovation ecosystem, which is essential for building knowledge society and economy.

However, modernising the education system has proven to be a bigger challenge than expected. This is particularly demanding for the post-secondary level, which faces globally three major hurdles:

  • many academics find it hard to accept that curricula and the accompanying didactics have to undergo important changes rather urgently;
  • governments are reluctant to provide post-secondary education with the funding needed (not below 0.40% of GDP);
  • business community finds it difficult to interact more closely with universities in order to do joint research or commission it to them, while in parallel influencing curricula development - with competencies and skills for the 21st century.

The entire education system, but particularly the post-secondary level, should integrate much more consistently the values required to build a better, more sustainable future for all members of society. Unfortunately, information on the urgency of new values - to be followed by more responsible behaviour - is still not sufficiently present in the public worldwide. Therefore, relevant political forces, governments, as well as NGOs, have to become much more assertive in presenting that no more time is to be wasted. It has become apparent that we are intensely destroying the environment (scientists claim it has already gone beyond repair), and allowing social-economic differentiation to grow beyond acceptable levels – while real democracy in most countries is still functioning rather poorly.

Knowledge society offers the only proper answers to all of these challenges. It generates advanced and transparent governance, and a proactive and critical public – demanding towards government policies, and equally towards its members’ daily performance as producers and consumers. Being more knowledgeable is an essential precondition for citizens’ constructive behaviour and proactive involvement in public affairs. The other precondition is a democratic environment, inviting and effectively supporting people to actively participate in major decision-making processes.

With the right values and attitudes, the coalition of the educated and knowledgeable members of society is readily taking the responsibility to accelerate and proactively support changes in favour of fairness and rationality of knowledge society. Knowledge is a privilege and at the same time a responsibility. One could paraphrase the old French saying “Noblesse oblige!” into “Knowledge implies responsibility!”.