Economic theme

Why this theme is important from an educational perspective

It’s said that "money makes the world go around" and that is certainly true of education. The relationship between education and the economy is important from two perspectives:

  1. The benefit to society of having well educated young people who are prepared to take up employment that will contribute to the growth of our economy.
  2. The cost to society of investing in education, such as the building of learning centres and schools, teachers’ salaries, and curriculum resources.

Since the time when schooling became a formal structure in society, a primary focus has been to distribute ideological values and knowledge to prepare young people for employment, and to contribute to the economy and society. The emphasis has been on providing a national curriculum that reflects the perceived requirements for participating and succeeding in the world of work, and in turn, contributing to the economy.

This relationship between education, the workforce and the influence this has on economic performance has worked well for some time. However, more recently it has highlighted a number of complex and challenging issues, including:

  • Periods of high unemployment, where possessing a valid qualification doesn’t guarantee you a job in the workplace.
  • The changing nature of work - where the skills learned at school are dated once a learner enters the workforce, and where more learning for work is taking place outside of school.
  • The changing nature of society - emphasising the importance of developing a wider range of personal characteristics and dispositions than those required to complete work-related tasks.
  • Globalisation and the impact of competitive markets on economies around the world, and related changes to the nature of work and remuneration of workers across a range of occupations and countries.
  • The impact of rapidly advancing automated processes that are changing the very nature and types of work that will no longer be available to be carried out by humans.

However we consider it, an important role of schools in society is to prepare young people for the world of work - the economic imperative. The recent report from the NZ Productivity Commission confirms this view by describing...

a good education system is one that can respond to changes in the mix of skills demanded and rewarded in the labour markets over time.

page 8

Education has always been regarded as one of the big three in terms of government investment (alongside health and social welfare). This is an indication of the strategic importance assigned to it. But, the cost of running and maintaining schools in their current form is posing big challenges too. The age of many learning centres and school buildings poses two significant issues; the cost of maintaining them is one, along with their current design no longer being fit for purpose, as the activity within them changes. The shift to Innovative/Flexible Learning Environments, together with demands for higher teacher salaries, better work conditions and more resources for places of learning, all contribute to the importance economic theme within the Ten Trends overview.

Summary of the patterns and trends over the past 15 years

Early in our tracking of the Ten Trends, the team at CORE identified the changing characteristics of the future workforce and the future of work as key trends. Both continue to be areas of interest, and both underpin the subsequent trends identified. This includes the emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship as key themes in the curriculum, and the introduction of specific strategies such as the maker culture, design thinking, computational thinking and STEM into curriculum. The key driver behind all of these initiatives is economic - focusing on preparing learners with the skills and knowledge required to take their place in the future workforce. Of course, many of these initiatives have recognised the value in engaging in such things - beyond simply the skills that are initially the focus. For example, while computational thinking contributes to developing young people who may choose to venture into careers as programmers, game designers or technical writers, the processes and rigour associated with this also contributes to developing sound patterns of thinking, problem solving and critical thinking. It also requires collaborative skills for working as a part of a team, and meeting deadlines, etc. All of these skills may be transferred into a range of other contexts and future employment. 

In this theme we have also identified the impact of technology as we move into the fourth industrial revolution, and how specifically automation (including robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence) affects how we live and work. This has led most recently to our focus on human capital as a way of highlighting the importance of thinking about who we are as a society and the role of individuals within that, rather than simply focusing on the development of the skills and knowledge of the individual gained for personal benefit.

Examples of impact and consequences

The connection between our economy and education is complex. It’s easy enough to identify the challenges that the system generally, and schools specifically, face in designing curriculum and learning activities that prepare young people for their futures. It’s also obvious that our young people are challenged with choosing careers when we live in times of exponential change. The unprecedented, rapid advancements in technology are impacting many potential career pathways, with robotics and automation being used across a wide range of employment areas. One view of the future may be that we don’t have the right skills for new workforce areas and those that are not yet created. Another view is that of a world where there simply aren’t enough jobs left for young people - or anyone for that matter - to be employed in. 


Examples of the economy as a key driver of change in our education system can be found in a number of areas. The addition of the Digital Technologies/Hangarau Matihiko in the Technology Learning Area of the New Zealand Curriculum is arguably one of these. The concerns of the business sector, about the lack of young people emerging from our schools and kura with an interest in, and suitable qualifications for, entry into many of our tech industries, was a key driver behind this learning area being introduced. This view is reinforced by the Productivity Commission report, that considers digital skills to be core outcomes and a key to success across the curriculum. 

But, the news isn’t all good. The Productivity Commission report also provides evidence of what it calls systemic implementation failure (of digital technologies), highlighting again an issue of the high variability within and between New Zealand schools when it comes to fully embracing and implementing such changes.  

Further to these examples of the influence of thinking about the economy on curriculum and the outcomes we’d like to see for our learners, other examples pointing to the importance of the economic theme in education can be found almost daily in the media. The costs associated with providing a high quality education system are regularly debated there. This includes everything from the provision of the core infrastructure investment from the government to future proof school property (buildings, resources, services), to issues related to the salaries paid to teachers and various support staff and agencies. It also includes the cost and provision of professional learning of teachers to ensure they remain current and effective, through to concerns about the provision of a free education and debates around the privileging of some through the payment of school fees, and the costs of stationery and school activities that are passed on to parents and whānau. 

We will continue to see such debates, particularly as the emphasis on a return on investment drives political decision making about investment of public monies. The inherent conflicting values in these debates and strain on many areas of our system reflect the tensions that exist between the philosophical commitment to provide a free and compulsory education system, and the pressure of having such enormous investment committed to buildings and infrastructure that is used for only a part of the year (and day), together with the increased costs associated with meeting expectations of providing digital learning experiences for all learners (e.g. devices, connectivity, and services).

Perhaps the most important thing for educators to consider is the issue of equity in education and in society. This is a hot topic politically, not just in this country, but globally. Our current economic paradigm continues to privilege some at the expense of others, and there seems to be common agreement that the gap is widening between the haves and the have nots. In Aotearoa New Zealand, for instance, Māori have nearly double the incidence of people lacking school qualifications as Pākehā/Europeans, and around four times those of Asians in the population.

What might we see moving forward into the future?

The trends within the economic theme of our framework are undoubtedly going to dominate much of what informs and shapes our education system over the next decade. Our current model is simply too expensive to sustain in its current form, and the fundamental purposes of education are also being challenged. The system is being questioned about whether the skills, knowledge and competencies of the young people emerging from today’s system are what are required for them to thrive into the future. This is in terms of  both future work, and in terms of wellbeing and social organisation. 

For example, a recent OECD report Dream jobs? Teenagers' career aspirations and the future of work compared the career goals of students in 41 countries in 2018. It revealed that nearly half of Kiwi 15-year-olds expect to work in one of just 10 occupations at age 30. The concern with this is that the list of 10 doesn’t contain any of what might be considered to be the high demand or future focused jobs that organisations such as the World Economic Forum are monitoring and reporting on. Their research shows that tech skills will continue to dominate the jobs of the future, and that human skills and being part of a network are also important.

In recent years we have seen some progress to address systemic issues of inequity for Māori in the education sector, which also have a significant impact on the growth of our economy both now and into the future. The research report Change Agenda: Income Equity for Māori confirms that, while we are seeing some positive shifts, there is still much to be done to unlock Māori economic potential and to contribute to Aotearoa New Zealand as a thriving nation. The impact of COVID-19 presents an opportunity for us all to take stock and make changes.  For Māori and iwi it is a chance to redefine their vision for the future. Our rangatahi and young people must be well equipped with the essential skills, as well as cultural dispositions, to effectively lead and respond to changes in our future economy. 

In the near future we’re likely to see more responses that involve some fundamental changes to the way we think about the economy, with pressure to move away from a financial maximisation mindset, to some more socially oriented ways of working and sharing wealth. This idea was raised by Prince Charles at the Davos World Economic Forum earlier this year where he stated that we need to evolve our economic model in ways that will lead to nothing short of a revolutionary paradigm shift. Such changes will not only affect our thinking about future jobs and employment, but also impact on the expectations we have as a society about how we resource education settings, and our education system in general.