Building the knowledge society

Minister Dempsey ©OECD

These are important times for education in all the member countries of the OECD. The neverending search for competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy has led all public policy-makers to focus on education as a key factor in strengthening competitiveness, employment and social cohesion.

This is an inevitable consequence of the increasing complexity of all our economies. Indeed, the pace of technological change worldwide is now so fast that, to a large extent, we must plan for the unknown. The only certainty is that education needs to drive these changes. If it does not, then we are all in trouble and we will fail our citizens.

For education policy-makers, the challenge is to rise above the tendency to compartmentalise policy. We must fully recognise the connections that bind together the various public policies which have an impact on learners of all ages, and we must be externally focused and alert to positive initiatives and developments which take place in other policy areas. In short, we cannot and must not seek to stand apart from change.

For policy-makers outside the education sector, who may be tempted to see education in purely economic terms, the challenge is to recognise that the primary purpose of education is to provide everyone with the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential, both as individuals and as a member of society. We may be living in the knowledge society but, of course, it is not only knowledge workers who contribute to society. Far from it. In addition to technological skills, competencies in creativity, tolerance, appreciation of diversity and social skills form an important part of any high quality education system.

Ireland currently holds the presidency of the European Union and I know from ministerial colleagues in other member states and the accession countries that getting the balance right between the needs of the economy and the wider social aims of education systems is one of the most significant challenges facing education policy-makers over the next 10 years. This inter-connection between the economic and social aspects of education is reflected in the theme I have chosen for the education element of Ireland’s presidency of the EU: “Building an Inclusive and Competitive Europe”.

This is taking place against the background of education becoming a tradable commodity. Every day individual learners are making choices about education programmes delivered across national boundaries and from a variety of education providers, often through technological media. This phenomenon has huge implications for mutual recognition of qualifications, quality assurance and accreditation. The world will not stand still while we in the education sector decide which is the best way to go. The OECD continues to play a pivotal role in assisting policy-makers. The organisation’s dedication over many years to high-quality research leading to collective discussion and analysis of policy has earned it an extraordinarily high level of public respect and trust. In Ireland, its publications are eagerly awaited and are always covered extensively in the national media. I know this mirrors the position in many other countries.

The recent establishment of a separate Education Directorate is further recognition by the OECD of the central role which education now plays in economic and social development. Shortly after the Education Directorate was set up, Ireland hosted the first meeting of Education Chief Executives to discuss the role of education in the OECD context. In March, I will host the Meeting of OECD Education Ministers in Dublin which will focus on raising the quality of learning for all. This meeting is linked to our EU presidency’s programme of activities and underlines the very close working relations the European Commission now has with the OECD in the field of education.

Ireland has been a very strong supporter of further developing the links between thetwo organisations, which we see as essential in the face of the huge challenges which lie ahead for education. The knowledge society is still in its infancy and the focus on education by all parties is set to increase even further over the coming years. The challenge for education policymakers will be to develop education systems that support sustainable economic well-being without losing sight of the wider social consequences. Discussing the issues with each other, strengthening the links between the OECD and other organisations, and maintaining a strong bias towards research-based action represents the best approach to achieving this balance.

*The 2004 Meeting of OECD Education Ministers, under the title “Raising the Quality of Learning for All”, takes place in Dublin, Ireland, on 19 March 2004. It will be preceded by the Forum on Education and Social Cohesion on 18 March. For more, see 


Visit the Irish Department of Education and Science, at

The OECD Education Directorate

For more on the Irish EU presidency, visit

©OECD Observer No 242, March 2004 

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