The Gig Economy: Positioning Higher Education at the Center of the Future of Work (USAID Higher Education Learning Network)

5 Dec 2023 14:00h - 15:00h UTC

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Full session report


Online learning has experienced a significant increase in popularity, with platforms like Coursera making education more accessible by offering free courses. This development is seen as a positive step towards achieving SDG 4, which focuses on Quality Education. The availability of online courses has opened up opportunities for individuals to enhance their skills and knowledge from the comfort of their own homes, regardless of geographical location or financial limitations.

Furthermore, the rise of online learning has also raised important questions about its potential to address the needs of individuals who aspire to participate in the gig economy. SDG 8, which aims to promote Decent Work and Economic Growth, highlights the importance of providing opportunities for people to join the labour market on their own terms. As the gig economy continues to expand, there is a growing demand for workers with specialised skills and expertise. Online learning can potentially fill this gap by providing flexible and affordable training options for individuals seeking to acquire the necessary skills to thrive in this dynamic sector.

While there is strong support for the potential of online learning to contribute to both SDG 4 and SDG 8, it is important to note that the sentiment towards online learning remains neutral. This may indicate that further research and analysis is needed to fully understand the impact and effectiveness of online education in achieving these sustainable development goals.

In conclusion, the growth of online learning, exemplified by platforms like Coursera, has brought about positive changes in making education more accessible. It is also raising important questions about its role in addressing the needs of individuals in the gig economy. While there is optimism about its potential contribution to achieving SDG 4 and SDG 8, further investigation is required to fully gauge its effectiveness. Nonetheless, online learning has given individuals the opportunity to acquire new skills and knowledge, creating more inclusive learning environments and potentially advancing progress towards these important global goals.

Jack Elliot


Higher education has the potential to play a central role in shaping the future of work. It can address the crisis of underemployment and unemployment by actively involving business and industry in curriculum development to ensure its relevance. By doing so, higher education can equip students with the necessary skills and knowledge to meet the demands of the evolving job market. It is important to prioritize relevance over prestige in higher education to bridge the gap for the gig economy and skills polarization. Online learning also presents opportunities, but challenges like limited Wi-Fi access need to be addressed through innovative solutions. Building a sense of community and engagement in online education is crucial, as is recognizing the significance of informal education through platforms like social media. Higher education institutions can prepare students for the gig economy by emphasizing teaching and curriculum relevance. Focusing on unique strengths and resources is important, as well as addressing the needs of local communities and making systemic changes to be more relevant. It is necessary to prioritize practical experience, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and integrate content-focused delivery with process-oriented strategies.

Jennifer Lebron

The analysis of the speakers' presentations reveals several key points regarding the role of higher education and the challenges posed by skills polarization and the gig economy in the world of work. Firstly, it was highlighted that higher education plays a crucial role in educating and equipping future workers with the necessary skills. The inherent prestige and stable infrastructure of higher education institutions were also noted, emphasizing their significance in workforce development.

Furthermore, the analysis delved into the impact of skills polarization and the gig economy on the labour market. Skills polarization refers to the disappearance of middle-skilled jobs, with highly skilled and low-skilled work gaining prominence. The gig economy, characterized by non-traditional employment arrangements like platform work and short-term consultancies, was also discussed as a defining aspect of the evolving work landscape.

Consequently, these changes challenge the traditional role of higher education and have a more pronounced effect on certain individuals. The analysis raises important questions about how skills polarization and the gig economy undermine the relevance of higher education in the world of work. Additionally, it explores the individuals who are most affected by these dynamics.

During the panel discussion, gratitude was expressed towards the panelists and attendees, with the absence of panelist Alan noted due to technical difficulties. This acknowledgement showcased a positive sentiment towards the event and the contributions made.

The analysis also highlighted promotional aspects, including upcoming features on Alan in the newsletter and an invitation for participants to join the Higher Education Learning Network (Helen). This network provides a platform for ongoing dialogue and engagement on topics such as employability, higher education, and the future of work.

Lastly, the USAID Higher Education Learning Network encouraged active participation in the discussions, reflecting a positive sentiment towards fostering collaboration and knowledge-sharing among its members.

Overall, the analysis sheds light on the important role of higher education in skill development and its challenges in the face of skills polarization and the gig economy. It underscores the need for ongoing dialogue and collaboration to ensure that higher education remains relevant in preparing individuals for the ever-changing world of work.

Jennifer DeBoer

Higher education institutions play a crucial role in shaping the future of work. They generate new knowledge and conduct research, keeping them at the forefront of innovation to meet the changing demands of the job market. Universities also act as vehicles for social mobility, providing opportunities for individuals to improve their socio-economic status through education and training that prepares them for the evolving work landscape.

In addition, universities foster global connectedness by facilitating international conversations and collaborations, enabling the exchange of ideas and expertise on a global scale. However, to stay relevant, higher education institutions must adapt to the changing demands of learners and industries. This includes offering flexible and tailored learning options, recognizing acquired skills, and being responsive and adaptive to learner-driven demands.

A challenge faced by universities is the disconnect between the skills and knowledge they provide and the skills demanded by employers. This can lead to underemployment or unemployment for graduates. Universities need to rethink their traditional value proposition to bridge this gap and meet the expectations of graduates.

There is also a growing movement towards open knowledge creation and widening access to elite knowledge. This includes initiatives that allow refugee researchers to contribute to research questions, reducing inequalities and empowering marginalized communities.

Universities hold the power of credential verification, but they need to balance this with meeting the needs of private employers for skilled workers. Collaboration between higher education institutions and private employers is crucial to address skill gaps and ensure graduates are job-ready.

Access to online learning is important, but it must be accompanied by the necessary support for true inclusivity. This includes providing devices, data connectivity, language proficiency support, and childcare to ensure access for all.

Online learning can also promote communal understanding and the application of solutions. Through digital inclusion, students from different backgrounds can collaborate on finding solutions to common challenges.

Higher education institutions demonstrate strong connectivity across national borders, facilitating collaboration and knowledge exchange. This global perspective promotes cross-cultural understanding.

Challenges exist in the transferability of credentials and skills, especially when individuals move to different contexts. Standardized and portable credentialing systems are needed to validate skills across different settings.

Research institutes are gaining importance in bridging academia and industry. Operating separately from universities, these institutions provide agile structures and foster collaborations, enhancing innovation in various sectors.

The rise of gig work presents challenges in terms of worker protections. Universities and higher education institutions should engage with policymakers to develop policies that ensure gig workers are protected and have fair working conditions.

In conclusion, higher education institutions shape the future of work through knowledge generation, social mobility, and global connectedness. Adapting to learner and industry demands, addressing the gap between education and job market expectations, and promoting inclusivity and collaboration are essential for universities to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the future of work.

Adetomi Soyinka

This series of arguments and stances emphasizes the crucial role that higher education plays in preparing young Africans for future job opportunities. The statistics provided indicate the significant representation of young Africans in the global youth population, with projections showing that by 2030, they will make up 42% of the youth population. Moreover, it is predicted that by 2050, over half of the global youth population will be African. Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that in the next decade, a majority of the global labor force will be in Africa. These figures highlight the importance of equipping young Africans with the necessary knowledge and skills to meet the demands of an evolving job market.

While the importance of higher education is acknowledged, concerns were raised about the readiness of universities to adapt to changing career paths desired by young people. The argument is made that universities need to provide a robust infrastructure that ensures young Africans acquire the knowledge, skills, and expertise needed for the future. Nelson Mandela's quote is referenced, suggesting that education is seen as a pathway out of poverty, further reinforcing the significance of higher education institutions in building job capabilities.

There is a recognition that the landscape of career aspirations has shifted, as young people now aspire to careers such as dancers, writers, and entrepreneurs, indicating a more diverse range of interests. The readiness of universities to adapt to these external changes is questioned. The need for universities to produce and transmit knowledge that meets the needs of young people is emphasized, as the gap between academia and employers continues to grow. The risk of universities becoming irrelevant if they fail to keep up with societal needs and produce relevant knowledge is also stated.

The effectiveness of online learning is explored in this analysis. Concerns about quality assurance mechanisms are raised, and the acceptance of online credentials is highlighted as being employer-driven. It is argued that quality assurance and formal qualifications are crucial factors for the success of online learning. Additionally, it is noted that the effectiveness of online learning also depends on an individual's learning style, as some individuals perform better in physical communities of learners.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the potential of online learning, with the analysis suggesting that it can effectively be implemented on a large scale. The rapid transition to online learning during the pandemic is presented as evidence of its viability. This positive sentiment towards online learning complements the broader discussion on higher education's adaptability to a fast-changing world.

The role of government in higher education is recognized, with examples given of governments facilitating conversations between employers, academia, and policymakers to address youth employment and education concerns. A triple helix approach involving government, academia, and industry is supported as a means to address higher education challenges. An example from Nigeria is noted, where this approach is being used to formulate policies and actions to combat underemployment and unemployment.

The need for systemic changes in higher education is asserted, with a focus on shifting from content delivery to critical thinking and problem-solving strategies. The importance of providing practical experience to students is highlighted, as less than 10% of business school graduates have high-impact practical experience.

Lastly, the analysis suggests a more inclusive approach involving the greater stakeholder community, not just government and universities. This observation underscores the idea that addressing higher education challenges requires collaboration and input from various stakeholders.

In conclusion, this comprehensive analysis stresses that higher education is fundamental in preparing young Africans for future job opportunities. It highlights the need for universities to adapt to changing career paths and produce relevant knowledge. The potential of online learning, the role of government, and the necessity of systemic changes are also explored. The overall argument calls for a collaborative and inclusive approach within the stakeholder community to address higher education challenges effectively.

Ghazala M. Syed

Higher education is facing the challenge of aligning itself with the needs of the gig economy. To address this, it is crucial for higher education institutions to provide education and training programs that equip students with the skills and knowledge required to thrive in the gig economy. These programs should focus on developing skills such as adaptability, entrepreneurship, and problem-solving.

To cater to the evolving needs of students, higher education institutions should become more flexible and agile. This can be achieved by offering short-term courses and certificates that allow for upskilling and reskilling. By providing opportunities for students to acquire new skills or enhance existing ones, higher education institutions can empower them to meet the demands of the gig economy.

Moreover, there is a growing recognition of the importance of soft skills in the gig economy. Higher education institutions should place more emphasis on developing these skills, which include communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. By nurturing these abilities, students will be better prepared to succeed in the gig economy, where project-based work and remote collaboration are common.

Online learning has emerged as a potential solution to provide access to education, particularly for marginalized individuals who face challenges related to distance or cultural security. It has been observed that online learning has played a significant role in ensuring quality education, especially during the COVID-19 crisis when traditional forms of education were disrupted. Initiatives such as the use of online learning by USAID to reach marginalized students demonstrate the potential of this approach to bridge gaps in access to higher education.

However, it is important to note that online learning may not consistently meet quality standards in some countries due to the lack of regulation. Different types of institutions offering online education require proper regulation to ensure that students receive the education they need and deserve. Stricter regulation can help maintain the quality and credibility of online learning platforms and programs.

The relevance of higher education, in terms of providing employment opportunities, varies depending on the economy of the region. In contexts where opportunities are limited or economies are less developed, higher education may not immediately translate into employment prospects. In such cases, the emergence of the gig economy enables workers to access employment opportunities across borders and find work that suits their skills and interests.

In order to adapt to the changing landscape of upskilling and reskilling, higher education should take the lead in driving the policy dialogue. It should actively participate in shaping policies to ensure that they align with the needs of students and the demands of the gig economy. Developing policies that recognize the importance of lifelong learning and the value of prior learning can contribute to creating an environment where individuals can continuously enhance their skills and remain relevant in the evolving job market.

In conclusion, higher education institutions must adapt to the needs of the gig economy by providing education and training programs that equip students with the skills and knowledge required. This can be achieved through flexibility, offering short-term courses and certificates for upskilling and reskilling, and focusing on the development of soft skills. Online learning can help provide access to marginalized students, although proper regulation is necessary to ensure quality. The relevance of higher education in employment opportunities depends on the regional economy. Higher education should drive the policy dialogue to adapt to the developments in upskilling and reskilling, while also supporting lifelong learning and the recognition of prior learning.



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Adetomi Soyinka

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Ghazala M. Syed

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Jack Elliot

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Jennifer DeBoer

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Jennifer Lebron

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