Strengthening education and skills for innovation (OECD STI Outlook)

Rationale and objectives

Education policies play a central role in innovation, by supplying the foundations and skills innovative economies require to develop processes and undertake organisational changes, but also to adopt new products and to adapt to changes over time. A number of OECD and partner countries highlight education and skills as key priorities in innovation policy. Since innovation and technological development in recent decades have had a profound impact on the labour market and the skills required for many occupations, there is an increasing focus on how well the education system equips young people with the skills to participate in and respond to innovation in the workplace.

The skills associated with innovation include specialised knowledge, general problem-solving and thinking skills, creativity, and social and behavioural skills, including teamwork. As many of these skills are developed from an early age, they need to be acquired in part through formal education. The increased recognition of the importance of these broader skills has also highlighted the contribution to innovation of training that goes beyond the traditional focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, even though these disciplines occupy a prominent position in innovation policies. A range of education policies aimed at broadening learning can influence different types of innovation, even if innovation does not feature explicitly in the aims of the policy. Skills policies are of growing importance; recent OECD work has highlighted that almost two-thirds of adult population lack the skills to succeed in a technology-rich environment (Figure 8.1) (OECD, 2013).

Major aspects

Increasing students’ participation in STEM remains a primary component of policy measures to strengthen education for innovation. Policies include incentives to increase student places, improve teaching, adopt performance targets for schools, and reform national STEM curricula. Figure 8.2 shows the proportion of new entrants to tertiary education who study engineering, science and health fields.

Postgraduate and doctoral-level education also needs to foster skills for innovation, partly because many doctoral students go on to undertake innovation in the higher education, public and private sectors. Figure 8.3 shows net entry rates into advanced research (doctorate) programmes.

Recent policy trends

Despite the continuing focus on science and technology education and careers, a number of recent policy measures in OECD and partner countries address the wider skills required for innovation. There is a growing trend to shape school and university curricula and teaching methods to encourage the development of these skills in addition to subject-based knowledge, while extracurricular activities seek to foster competencies such as creativity. Denmark’s national innovation strategy (2012) aims to integrate innovation and entrepreneurship training into mainstream education at all levels through initiatives such as more practice-based instruction. Since 2011, Belgium (Wallonia) has implemented the CreativeWallonia action plan to foster creativity both within and beyond formal education. The scheme uses instruments such as teacher training and encouraging higher education institutions to teach skills linked to creativity and innovation. As part of a five-year plan launched in 2013, Korea aims to encourage more problem-solving and practice-oriented instruction in primary and secondary education. In Costa Rica, the Innovating at Home programme teaches parents to develop their children’s creativity from an early age.

Fostering students’ entrepreneurial skills is one way to increase innovative entrepreneurship. Policy measures can take the form of dedicated entrepreneurship education or efforts to include entrepreneurial skills in curricula and school subjects. The Action Plan for Entrepreneurship in Education in Norway (2009-14) aims to strengthen skills such as creativity and innovative thinking through their integration in curricula at all levels of education. Similarly, Portugal’s National Strategy for Industrial Development for Growth (2014) and the 2013 Spanish Law on support to entrepreneurship and its internationalisation aim to foster entrepreneurial competencies through changes to school curricula. Entrepreneurship is now a mandatory component of primary and secondary school curricula in Sweden and Finland. Since 2012 higher education students in Poland must study an entrepreneurship component, while entrepreneurship has become a part of the training of higher education teaching staff in Estonia. Mexico has reoriented higher education programmes in order to foster entrepreneurial skills and an entrepreneurial culture. A number of countries have implemented training, public information and communication, or mentoring initiatives to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.

Introducing technology into the classroom is another popular policy measure that is seen as a means of facilitating the acquisition of new skills, as well as a way to foster students’ interest in topics such as computer programming. Norway’s Virtual School Mathematics programme offers secondary school pupils in need of greater challenges an online teaching programme with virtual classrooms; this also allows teachers to give more attention to students who require extra support. The United Kingdom has introduced a new computing curriculum, which places more weight on the principles and practice of computer science and covers digital literacy and ICTs. Ireland has launched an ICT strategy for schools in order to help develop an e-learning culture.

Increasing the number of students in STEM subjects at all levels of education is seen as a way to increase the pool of individuals able to enter research occupations or undertake innovation. For example, as part of the Five-Year Strategic Plan for Federal STEM Education (2013), the United States aims to increase the number of graduates in STEM fields by one-third, or one million, over the next decade. Belgium, Latvia and South Africa all have national plans to boost STEM participation at the tertiary or secondary levels, and other countries also have such policies. Since 2013, New Zealand has sought to increase the number of graduates in engineering, in line with the needs of the labour market.

Policy measures to boost participation in STEM disciplines include the funding of new places in tertiary education, and better information and promotion campaigns to inform young people about career opportunities in science and technology or as researchers. The STEM Ambassadors programme in the United Kingdom has created a nationwide network of volunteers in scientific and technological occupations who work with schools across the country to increase interest in STEM subjects. Finland established a national working group on science in 2013, one of the aims of which is to boost interest in science among young people. In addition, many countries have measures to increase STEM participation among under-represented groups, particularly women.

Efforts to boost participation and interest in STEM subjects may have limited benefits in the absence of high-quality and motivating teaching in schools. Policies to improve the quality of STEM teaching, such as raising the skills of teachers or reforming the curriculum, are therefore important complementary initiatives. Japan has used the Super Science High School programme to reform the national school curriculum in science and mathematics education and to explore innovative teaching methods. Australia, Austria, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States are all undertaking or are exploring policy initiatives to improve STEM teaching. Initiatives to attract top STEM graduates into teaching, particularly in low-performing schools, are another policy option.

There are several examples of national efforts to expand and reform doctoral programmes. The Australian Research Training Scheme, which has been operating for ten years, supports research training for students who undertake research master’s and doctoral degrees. It has a budget of USD 600 million PPP for 2013-14. The National Development Plan in South Africa includes a provision to increase the number of doctorates per million population from 34 in 2012 to 100 in 2030. Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Finland, Ireland and Mexico have recently reformed postgraduate education. Australia, Canada and the Czech Republic have policies explicitly aimed at attracting high-quality postgraduate students from abroad. To increase the mobility of doctoral students, Belgium has the “Doctoris” programme and France the “Industrial agreements for training through research” (CIFRE) programme. While the primary aim of such policies is typically to improve the link between research conducted in universities and in the private sector, they also help develop a wider set of competencies among doctoral students.

The ability to work across disciplines has become recognised as an important skill for innovation, especially as concepts such as “design thinking” have become more popular in tertiary education. At the doctoral level some countries specifically assistmultidisciplinary doctoral programmes. Japan’s Programme for Leading Graduate Schools offers financial support for multidisciplinary PhD degree programmes that train graduate students to be creative global leaders through multidisciplinary coursework, laboratory rotations, and internships, in addition to the standard PhD thesis. The South African Young Summer Schools Programme offers doctoral students a three-month training programme in systems analysis (multidisciplinary thinking). In Austria, a number of universities are developing new structural programmes to supplement and broaden doctoral training, while interdisciplinary and transferable skills training are included in Finland’s National Guidelines for the Development of Doctoral Training (2012).

Some OECD countries have centres of excellence that seek to strengthen postgraduate research degrees. In Japan an evaluation of the Centres of Excellence programme in 2013, which was designed to enhance education and research in graduate schools, showed that 44% of the centres selected in 2007 “mostly achieved” their objectives and 54% “fully achieved” their objectives. Similarly, Norway’s mid-term evaluation in 2012-13 of the first five National Researcher Schools concluded that both the researcher schools and the scheme as a whole are achieving their aims of raising the quality of postgraduate training. In the United Kingdom, Doctoral Training Centres are being extended to new disciplines, with a critical mass of supervisors. The centres are co-funded by the universities, Research Councils and public- and private-sector partners in strategic interdisciplinary research areas in various university departments.

References and further reading

Innovation Policy Platform (IPP), module on skills for innovation, available at

OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2014), Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2014), Science, Technology and Industry Outlook Policy Database, edition 2014, Education and Skills for Innovation, available at

Toner, P. (2011), “Workforce skills and innovation: An overview of major themes in the literature”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 55,

Contributed by Stephan Vincent-Lancrin and Richard Scott of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI).