Education is key – but long-term: Can we survive?

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Business Today, July 19, 2017

Two years ago all world leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, agreed two major accords. They took the details back to their countries for their legislature to read and to agree implementation. Most leaders reconvened, signed the accords, and thus ratified their acceptance of the targets.

One accord is the 2015 UNFCCC Paris Agreement on Climate Change which extends the 1997 Kyoto Protocols coming into force in November 2016. It asks each nation to limit their pollution and so restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or less.

The second accord builds upon the 2000 Millennium Goals which had targets to be met in 2015. The new agreement was agreed and ratified by the UN’s 70th general assembly in New York (September 2015) and is known as the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 17 main goals to be met by 2030. One goal is to offer universal gender-free education to all children to fully develop their potential. SDGs provide clear guidelines and targets for all countries to adopt in accordance with their own priorities and within global environmental challenges.

In a world increasingly fractious, even chaotic and dangerous, these two accords carry onerous decision-making choices for every nation as major policy changes imply considerable costs at a time when all nations suffer from slow global economic growth. The Swiss banker, UBS, notes many of the wealthy are willing to invest in their new SDG fund which they consider needs about $5 trillion per year worldwide to meet the UN’s targets by 2030. The banker believes there is $250 trillion of global private wealth and will set out rules for its investment that benefits all actors in ways in which national governments cannot: this fund might ease governments’ difficulties in meeting their SDG targets, especially ones that develop their education systems.

The annual Edelman ‘Global Trust Barometer’ data shows trust in institutions and governments has plummeted to new lows. Many people question why populism has grown world-wide and why national leaders tend to succumb to populist demands? Their answers are mixed, but they consider better education is the foremost global imperative developing analytical and critical thinking – noting the time from primary school to adult involvement is at least 16 years. The poorly educated ask “so what?” magnifying this into a Twitter storm ” we believe social media – they can’t be wrong.”

Sadly many governments have decimated their previous education budgets as they are ‘soft’ targets. In India, surveys show that teachers often do not show up for work, creating problems later: 14 per cent of Indian students (when leaving school) cannot read anything, and nearly half school leavers cannot read text meant for 7-year old children. A 2016 study by the Indian Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry found that only 7 per cent of Business School graduates were worth a job. Nor were engineering graduates any different: about 600,000 engineers graduate in India every year and of those, only 18 per cent were employable.

Achieving good education is not only an issue in India – in the UK (supposedly with a good education system) the British Nutrition Foundation surveying knowledge about healthy eating found nearly a third of five to seven-year-olds thought that cheese came from a plant; that animals are the source of pasta; and fish fingers are made from chicken. And according to PISA, the international comparison of educational achievement, children in the US fare poorly against the best – in Singapore, Japan, Estonia and Canada. What is education doing for all these people? Where is their critical thinking ability?

India has the largest global diaspora and many of its brightest are heads of multinational firms registered in the US and elsewhere: by 2012, 16 per cent of start-ups in Silicon Valley had an Indian co-founder even though Indians represented just 6 per cent of California’s population. And in India itself there are pockets of brilliance with family-run business taking the lead. The Fortune 500 lists a range of foremost Indian firms located across all economic sectors and across many states: one cannot say that India lacks intelligent children, only that it does not do enough for its masses.

Prime Minister Modi is to launch ‘Swayam’, a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) attempting to lift all education achievement, but these self-motivated modules demand the student can read. Prime Minister’s Modi’s education reforms are a good start and the reform process should be implemented evenly and quickly throughout all States. Mr Modi notes good school access has been achieved, and has directed reforms to ensure good teaching embraces achievable learning goals.

Recently at the Horasis India Meeting in Switzerland delegates suggested more should be done for rural India, not only to decrease wasteful food losses by re-engineering the supply chains, but also to retain the rural population in place instead of letting it flee to crowded towns in search of work. They suggest increasing food processing at source – with cleaning, trimming and packaging absorbing labour. This change implies processing firms take on the necessary apprenticeship education to train poorly educated school leavers. Firms may say they are not in business to educate – but Mr Modi has seen first-hand how such schemes have benefited Swiss firms whose engineering products are second to none and in high demand globally.

Perhaps the most calming route forward is to remove the fear of losing one’s job which can be done by giving every adult a universal basic income (UBI). Finland is already making experiments with this concept and India proclaimed in its January 2017 Annual Economic Survey that “it is an interesting idea whose time may be ripe”. Such a change by government might increase trust in our institutions and so develop a better environment allowing time for children’s education to be redeveloped, and empower apprentice schemes to educate older workers. Better education will enable all people to critically consider alternatives and their consequences rather than following populist herd opinions.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community. Horasis hosts the annual Horasis India Meeting.