Definitions of skills tend to focus upon their technical composition or how they are used to support a country’s development. In the context of 21st Century skills this involves investigating two important and related issues. A total of 5 country case studies have been selected for understanding how governments define their 21st century skills. The case studies were chosen to compare and contrast how countries at different stages of development define this term.
The UK definition of 21st century skills is narrow and focuses upon two specific areas, namely employability and personal skills. In some cases, the two terms are used interchangeably. However, the term employability is associated with the world of work and what people need to succeed in the labour market. Whereas, life skills have a wider meaning and refer to skills that people need to succeed in society (and not just business). Whereas the broad definition given to 21st century skills focuses upon the skills that Britain needs to develop and become more productive, as well as competitive.
South Africa emphasises the important role played by the state in defining 21st century skills. This narrow technical definition focuses upon the concepts of practical, foundational and reflexive competences. What is also interesting is that the government defines 21st century skills in terms of critical and scarce skills. This has involved a lot of debate in South Africa over the precise meaning of such terms and must be seen against the fact that large proportion of the population were denied access to skills during the apartheid era. It is also important to note that the definition of skills in South Africa is in the process of radical change. Now the government wants to emphasize skills in the context of specific occupation. This rests the argument that the focus must be upon the development of occupations and not just incremental skills. This represents a radical shift in the definition of skills around specific occupations.
Australia is slightly different in that the TVET or non-formal education system is identified as essential for producing 21st century skills. This centres around a work development framework for core skills and these are defined as non-technical skills, knowledge and understanding that underpins successful participation in work. Once again, as occurs in the UK, these are defined as employability or generic skills covering: problem solving, collaboration, self-management, communication and information technology skills etc. The government does not give so much attention to the broader goals within society since the whole issue of employability has been at the centre of government reforms for the past 15 to 20 years. The connection between employability and skills is very strong within the Australian definition.
Within Malaysia the definitions surrounding skills is more complex and the term core abilities are used to replace the term skill. These are used to define the abilities required by citizens including how to: manage resources, work within and with systems, work and interact with people, plan and organize work activities, exchange, communicate information and process information. Within the broader context these abilities are seen as part of nation building and part of the country’s blue print for development. This involves going beyond a traditional focus on content knowledge and cognitive skills to include 21st century elements of leadership, ethics and spirituality, with a strong sense of national identity.
Finally, the case of Cambodia is different to the others as the government is still trying to define 21st century skills. Currently, this is seen as being totally separate from technical skills and is associated with what other countries used to call soft skills. In so doing, soft skills are delivered at both non-formal and formal education using the following modules: communication, mathematical skills for the workplace, career planning, prioritising and organising, and occupational health and safety. The government’s also views 21st century skills as means of tackling unemployment, rising living standards and ensuring equity in society.
In all parts of the world globalization impacts on how skills are developed, but the relationship between how governments respond and develop their skills systems is complex. This has implications for how they perceive or define their 21st century skills. On the one hand, governments must ensure that their skills systems respond to global norms and standards. The must ensure that they can compete in world markets and move up the development ladder. On the other hand, the definitions given to skills by governments and stakeholders must reflect the local context and national aspirations for where the skills development system is going like it. In business publications and strategies this situation has been referred to as thinking globally and acting locally.