Last week’s World Economic Forum on Africa 2015 summit in Cape Town was, I had predicted, full of optimism about the continent’s future. Gratifyingly, the heady mood was tempered for the first time by an acknowledgement of a basic truth: most of Africa’s education systems are irreparably broken. There was also an acceptance that standards will only improve with a massive increase in resources – which is beyond the scope of governments alone.
I was also pleased that some of the more wide-eyed claims about technological transformation in education are becoming more grounded. Technology, through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and distance learning technologies, are part of the answer to Africa’s education crisis. But deep-seated problems – from teacher training to teacher absenteeism – won’t be banished by a consignment of tablet computers.
The OECD’s recent index of education system quality left little doubt about the scale of the problem. Out of 76 countries, South Africa and Ghana ranked lowest. In South Africa where half of all young people are jobless, half a million vacancies go unfilled because of a lack of skills. The OECD estimated that even if all 15-year-olds achieved a basic level of education, Ghana’s economic growth would soar by 3881% and South Africa’s by 2624%.
Few would argue with this picture. But the consensus breaks down when we ask what we should do about it and who should fund it. Usually at some point in an international forum, there is a call for a ‘Bill Gates of education’ to magic the problem away – a philanthropist who will pour their vast fortune into tackling illiteracy and innumeracy just as Gates has spent on preventable diseases.
Unfortunately, the scale of the problem is such that one individual, however brilliant and well resourced, will not be enough. We need the combined efforts of corporates, Governments and NGOs. For every child to achieve a basic education in low-income countries, UNESCO estimates that $26 billion per year is required. To give every child a basic secondary education, which is the least that will be required in the modern economy, would take $38 billion a year.
So far the engagement of the private sector in education has, overall, been woeful. According to Brookings research in 2011, the private sector spends sixteen times as much on global healthcare as it does on education. Figures published by the Varkey Foundation last year showed that the Fortune 500 companies spend less than 13% of their total Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) budget on education-related projects.
Most of the total education-related CSR spend goes to secondary education in North America and Europe rather than to primary education in low-income countries, which is essential for teaching the basics. That is why the Varkey Foundation launched the Business Backs Education campaign last year, in which companies commit 20% of their global CSR spend on education by 2020, focused on the areas of that world that need it the most.
Education will not improve if we allow sclerotic governments to stand in the way of raising standards. National donors are increasingly refusing to give funding directly to states where there are fears of corruption or there is no likelihood that grants will be well spent. We should not be theological – ff the voluntary sector or private sector can achieve better results, then we can’t afford not to harness their expertise.
The phenomenal success of low-fee private schools in Africa is well known. But elsewhere, in areas like vocational education, the private sector’s ability to provide long-term investment and to disrupt long established practices is also improving standards. One example is the Nigeria philanthropist Tony Elumelu, who has partnered with ARC skills to create a social impact skills development company that plugs the shortage of plumbers, electricians and welders.
Finally, one theme that I tried to contribute throughout the event was the importance of teaching. Teachers matter. We can’t expect reforms to take place unless teachers are well trained, well motivated, well respected and well rewarded. It is damning fact that teacher pay has declined in real terms in many countries over the last forty years. No wonder, then, that educational attainment is low if teaching is widely seen by the brightest graduates as a low status profession, an option of last resort.
So, as ever, a vibrant and exciting World Economic Forum meeting. My only disappointment was that none of the world’s education ministers came. Whether Africa’s long heralded economic rebirth takes place is, largely, in their hands.
Author: Vikas Pota is CEO of the Varkey Foundation
Image: Students attend a lesson at a public school in Gudele, on the outskirts of South Sudan’s capital Juba, April 8, 2013. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu