Skills and competencies for a changing world: The virtual seminar 2017

Timothy Ireland is an associate professor in Adult Education at the Federal University of Paraiba, in João Pessoa (Brazil).




The latest virtual seminar, organised by the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) in cooperation with DVV International, took as its starting point four articles published in issue 83 of Adult Education and Development, which was dedicated to skills and competencies: Alessio Surian’s “The 5 skills it takes to build another world – Learning from and for the World Social Forum”, Rabab Tamish’s article “Enhancing competencies in the Arab World – issues to be considered”, the article on “The New Skills Agenda for Europe” by Dana Bachmann and Paul Holdsworth, and finally Priti Sharma’s “Soft skills in non-formal education: building capacities of the youth”. The novelty this year was the inclusion of a webinar with the author Paul Holdsworth.

Not only do the articles represent different continents – North America, the Arab World, Europe and Asia, but their authors too adopt quite different stances with regard to the central theme of skills and competencies. As Imelda Sáenz comments “The documents shared in the seminar show that the realities in the field of education in the Arab, Central Asian and European regions, and certainly all the others, are quite dissimilar among each other and widely complex and hetero­geneous in their interior”. The question of context is fundamental. Rabab Tamish comments on the distance between how competencies are presented in the international context and how they are applied in local settings. More than that, whilst all the authors recognise the fundamental need to prepare future generations, as well as newly-arrived immigrants and those with a low level of skills and competencies, to face the prospect of employment in a rapidly-changing world, the way in which this is carried out and the nature of the world that we want vary quite starkly even, within the same continent. Perhaps it is true to say that the notion of the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre seems to sum up these differences clearly.

VET first?

The discussions and commentaries on the World Social Forum and the world we want have the advantage of asking the question: “What is the world that we want to live in?” and suggesting possible skills and competencies necessary for building another possible world.

However, what challenged and provoked me were the questions posed by Cristina Maria Coimbra Vieira and Rosa Maria Torres. Cristina Vieira discusses the new agenda from the Portuguese perspective. She raises several important questions, stating for example: “The emphasis on economy seems to somehow silence the intrinsic needs and interests of workers as learning subjects, as well as their prior learning experiences” and “Focusing on the individual within a functionalist view, that means ‘equipping’ people with skills needed to respond to the changing requirements of labour markets, is the best way to disclaim societal responsibilities as a whole.” This more critical Portuguese perspective on the New Skills Agenda for Europe would perhaps suggest that making vocational education and training (VET) a first choice is not consensual in the community. Whilst written from an Occidental perspective, it does suggest that a one-size-fits-all recipe is not the best way of approaching the cultural diversity that is so fundamental to Europe.

Rosa Maria Torres from Ecuador also asks the fundamental question “Learning for what?” And she replies that “There are many ways to think about and deal with this question. Well-being and prosperity mean different things to different people and cultures throughout the world”. She then points to the indigenous concept of Sumak Kawsay (Buen Vivir, Good Living), as an alternative to the current Western development paradigm: alternative in the sense of being radically different and non-Occidental. Indeed, for Artur Escobar (apud Gudynas 2011), the concept of Buen Vivir does not represent an alternative development but an alternative to development based on the cosmology of the indigenous people. Buen Vivir is concerned with achieving a harmonious relationship between self, others and the environment. Nature is deemed to have rights in the same way as human beings have. In Dávalos’ (2008) words, it “incorporates nature into history […] not as a productive factor, nor as a productive force, but as an inherent part of social being”. The skills and competencies necessary for achieving this relationship give a new meaning to education and learning.

To sum it up in 6+1 statements

In general there existed a certain consensus, namely that the question of preparing the new generations and those with few skills and competencies to face the prospect of employment in a rapidly changing world is a reality which has to be confronted. There is clearly a need to strike a balance between the development of soft skills in non-formal education and that of hard skills in the VET context. Perhaps we can summarise this, first of all, by saying that the world we inhabit is unique and it houses all humanity. Secondly, we are all nature, and this links us to all forms of life. Thirdly, despite our cultural and social diversity, we live in an interdependent world – whether we want to or not. Fourthly, there is little denying that our world is an increasingly interconnected one. Fifthly, although not always interpreted in the same way, there exist certain human rights which are common to humanity, which include the concept of decent work. Sixthly, in order to guarantee planetary survival, we have little alternative but to invest in forms of sustainable development or other modes of development. Lastly, we live in an increasingly globalised world, which means that dialogues like the one which this virtual seminar generated are essential for seeking common ground between different positions in our search for mutual understanding and conviviality – the urgent need to learn to live together.

Virtual Seminar 2017

All the contributions of the virtual seminar can be read ­online at

A video recording of the webinar with Paul Holdsworth (European Commission) on “The New Skills Agenda for Europe” is available on youtube at

Adult Education and Develop­ment

Issue 83 > “Skills and Competencies”

Free print copies of Adult Education and Development, issue 83 on “Skills and Competencies” are still available and can be ordered at


Davalos, P. (2008): Reflexiones sobre el Sumak Kawsay (El Buen Vivir) y las teorías del desarrollo. In: Copyleft-Eutsi-Pagina de izquierda Antiautoritaria, No 6, 2008.

Gudynas, E. (2011): Buen vivir: Germinando alternativas al desarrollo. In: America Latina en movimiento, February 2011. 461–481.

Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.