The modern university modelled on the Berlin university implemented by Humboldt, where research played an important role, was inseparable from the ideas of education, reflection, creation and critique (the university educates, it does not merely train or upskill). The emergence of the knowledge society and the recognition that a well-educated workforce is an indispensable component in the economic competitivity of nations has changed the vision of the university as idealised by Humboldt. The role of universities has become progressively tied in with the economy, downgrading the university from being an institution to become mainly a provider of services, the handmaiden of the economy.
In Europe, the Bologna declaration clearly states that degrees awarded after the first cycle shall also be relevant to the European labour market. This has contributed to developing a utilitarian view of higher education as a key element in a strategy of economic growth and competitiveness. This paradigm shift has been accompanied by a growing emphasis on skills and competences, which have come to be valued above educational attainment, and which should be evaluated as learning outcomes. The elaboration of an overarching framework of qualifications for the European Higher Education Area, based on learning outcomes, was mandated by the European Ministers of Education in the Berlin ministerial conference. This outcome-oriented approach has been tied in with employability. In particular, generic skills and competences (in addition to discipline-specific skills) have been given much attention, as these are claimed to be most valuable to employers and, therefore, opening up better career opportunities for graduates.
A number of authors argues that conceiving study programmes in terms of learning outcomes may be counterproductive, as they can prescribe and limit learning, constrain intellectual development, stifle liberal approaches to education, ignore the necessary contribution of employers to adapt graduates to the particular characteristics of the work place, and promote the subordination of higher education to the immediate needs of employers.
In a world where knowledge is in permanent change and new knowledge may become obsolete in a short period of time, in a world where individuals are likely to have different employments during their working life, the capacity to adapt, to change and to be able to permanently update their capacities and knowledge assumes unquestionable relevance. Therefore, it is more than ever important that universities educate their students to become individuals ready-to-learn, rather than individuals ready-to-work, conditioned by a set of learning outcomes in compliance with the immediate demands of the economy. Universities cannot be reduced to training students for the labour market, they have a much more enlarged responsibility towards society in educating students to be active and model citizens, aware of social and environmental problems and prepared to learn and update their knowledge throughout all their working life.