17 April 2024

Digital skills: Who’s ahead and who must do better

| The European |

Hadi Moussa of Coursera examines how European countries compare in the digital skills proficiency race, and how the continent can keep pace globally

According to a 2020 report by the World Economic Forum, 85 million jobs may disappear by 2025, and the 97 million jobs taking their place will be more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines, and algorithms.

Providing the skills for the fourth industrial revolution at the scale required presents a significant challenge for European economies. According to the European Commission, in the future, 9 out of 10 jobs will require digital skills. This year, the Commission again reported that the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) shows that every third person who works in Europe lacks basic digital skills. This skills shortfall comes at a pivotal moment for much of Europe and the UK. While geopolitical crises dominate Europe’s attention, also of pressing importance is Europe’s skills strategy.

Europe’s digital skills put to the test

Data from Coursera’s Global Skills Report – a study analysing the skills proficiency from over 100 countries, based on data from over 100 million learners across the platform – shows that there are grounds for optimism regarding Europe’s potential to compete on skills. The report found Europe returns relatively high scores compared to other parts of the world for digital skills proficiency. Seven of the top 10 performing countries in this year’s report are in Europe, and for the second year running, learners in Switzerland achieved the highest level of aggregate skills proficiency, followed by Denmark and Belgium.

However, expected high performers like the UK, with a GDP of £2.2tn achieved tenth place in Europe, and perform worse than Georgia and Lithuania, who have a GDP of $18bn and $65bn respectively. Consider also the findings from the Learning & Work Institute’s report, which found that more than one in 20 UK households do not have access to the internet. It is no wonder that according to the Commission for Employment and Skills, 43% of STEM vacancies exist in the UK due to a shortage of applicants.

Why the UK lags behind Europe

This discrepancy hints at the urgent need to invest in skills training and education in the UK. According to IFS, school spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20. This represents the largest cut in over 40 years, and although there have been subsequent increases in spending, the implications of the cuts will likely be felt for years, likewise the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance which undermines diversity in the workplace just when we need it.

Diminishing educational expenditure, if it’s not supported by business training, can exacerbate the skills gap. Training spend per employee in the UK has fallen 28% in real terms since 2005, from £2,139 to £1,530 per year, which is less than half the EU average. This has been compounded by the UK adult education budget falling by 49% between 2009/10 and 2019/20. The proportion of people getting training at work has fallen 14% in the same period, and those with the lowest levels of education are disproportionately likely to have been affected by a decline in private sector investment in human capital.

How Europe can stay competitive

Whilst European nations are committing to digital upskilling in the next few years, with 2023 being the European Commission’s year of skills, realising these goals will require governments, businesses and educational institutions to improve their digital training. This is evidently understood by European citizens themselves: our Global Skills Report shows Europeans subscribing in high numbers to training in fintech, distributed computing architecture, and curiously, bioinformatics. These are promising signs, but if Europe’s attainments portrayed in the Coursera report are to be replicated across the continent then average level of internet access and basic IT skills must be raised across the board. This urgency is heightened by the global recession. Reskilling workforces at scale is a necessity if European nations are to unlock opportunities required for greater economic resilience.

For businesses, investing in employee training will pay dividends. Unemployment rates across Europe are relatively low and employees will still be selective about where they work. Bankable, transferable skills-based digital training will retain and attract talent, and support the productivity that leads to economic returns.

For educational institutions, it will be important to give graduates practical preparation for work. Academia and business should no longer be siloed off from one another: a humanities student should expect within weeks of graduating to be able to manage a digitised business budget. This requires both a new mindset, and new skills which can be delivered through degrees which also offer professional qualifications.

China is already an AI superpower. If Europe is to keep pace, we need to democratise digital skills training. At a time of stretched public finances, the private sector, in collaboration with institutions, governments, and alternative education providers, must take on a greater share of the retaining burden. Online, flexible learning can help people at scale and skill up in accordance with their needs. This training must also be stackable, in which credentials and qualifications can be gained to create a bespoke overall qualification for the individual. This will do much to encourage both uptake and retention of highly-skilled individuals in STEM education, and in science, technology and engineering, many of our futures will depend.


Hadi Moussa is General Manager and Managing Director, Europe, Middle East and Africa of open online education resource provider Coursera.

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