Stop worrying about grammar schools, teacher recruitment is the real problem

Those countries with the best education outcomes – from Finland to the Asian education powerhouses of China, South Korea and Singapore – have a deeply ingrained culture of respect for teaching.

Rarely have debates on education electrified party conferences, but yesterday Theresa May won the loudest applause for her promise to “bring back the first grammar schools in fifty years.” Jeremy Corbyn won an equally giddy reception last when he told Labour conference that he would oppose it.

Though this is retro political comfort food for left and right, it is a distraction from the overwhelming education issue that has barely featured in the conference speeches: a crisis in the recruitment and retention of teachers. In the UK, half of schools think that the teacher shortage is affecting GCSE performance; according to a poll last month by the Association of School and College Leaders 80 per cent say the recruitment situation is “worse or significantly worse” than a year ago.

While shortages are damaging in the West, their impact in the developing world is catastrophic. Across Africa, the only region of the world with a growing school-aged population, 70 per cent of countries face critical teacher shortages at primary level, and 90 per cent at secondary. In Pakistan, Cambodia and Ethiopia – where class sizes already average 64 – attrition rates are so high that the total number of teachers is shrinking year on year.

The causes of the crisis are not hard to understand. Throughout the developing world teachers are underpaid, undertrained and under-appreciated. In Kenya, teachers have been in dispute with the government over pay so low that they live a hand-to-mouth existence. Teachers’ wages across Africa are thought to be lower in real terms now than they were several decades ago.

In India the World Bank estimates that up to 40 per cent of teachers are regularly absent from class. One case emerged of a teacher who has been absent for 23 years of her 24 year teaching career. But teacher idleness is not generally the cause of absenteeism. More often, teachers are out of the classroom working in a second job because they can’t rely on their government salary being paid on time.

At the same time, the population explosion in much of the developing world – combined with the (vital) efforts to get every child enrolled in school – is creating a huge additional demand for teachers. Many of those teachers already in the classroom are so badly trained that they cannot teach effectively. Too often they rely on rote learning and dictation from the front of the class, techniques that fail to inspire curiosity or critical thinking. In most countries, a teacher is never tested again or given further training once they have been recruited. In some cases, the problem is not just training but the education levels of the teacher at the front of the class. Just one in five teachers in Uganda meet the minimum proficiency standards in numeracy and literacy.

So how do we recruit and retain the army of well-trained, well-motivated teachers the world desperately needs? Firstly – whether in the UK or in Uganda – we need to raise the status of teachers. Those countries with the best education outcomes – from Finland to the Asian education powerhouses of China, South Korea and Singapore – have a deeply ingrained culture of respect for teaching.

In China, the public likens the status of teachers to that of doctors. According to the Varkey Foundation’s Teacher Status Index, three quarters of Chinese people would encourage their children to become teachers – far higher than elsewhere in the world. On China’s Teachers’ Day pupils send flowers and write them letters to tell them how they are appreciated. The authorities even had to intervene to prevent parents proffering gifts of iPads and expensive perfumes.

Teacher pay has an obvious correlation with teacher status and recruitment rates. Higher salaries attract the best candidates into the profession and give them an incentive to stay. Research by the economist Peter Dolton shows that a 10 per cent increase in teachers’ pay tends to result in a five to 10 per cent improvement in a country’s educational outcomes.

Improving teacher quality has a far greater impact on educational success than other expensive investments such as changing the curriculum or even cutting class sizes. Given the stretched finances of developing world governments, the international community should prioritise helping funding good teachers’ salaries because it simply makes social and financial sense.

Yet international education aid has been falling since 2010 – even as spending on global health has continued to grow. Education once again has fallen down the political agenda. Shamefully, the number of children who are out of school is rising again in the developing world. Of those in school, half the children in South Asia and a third of children in Africa lack basic reading skills after four years of education. At current rates of progress, we will be 50 years late in meeting the Sustainable Development Goal commitment of a good education for every child – when today’s children will be long past retirement age.

But before despair sets in, we should remember that South Korea was, 50 years ago, in the same situation as many developing countries today, with similarly high levels of illiteracy. Now it is among the best education systems in the world. How? It recruited the best young people into teaching, trained them well and then showed them respect. As Education Secretary Justine Greening rightly said in her conference speech: “no other profession has the power to transform futures so much.” Empowering teachers is the most important measure that ministers around the world can take to improve education – even if it isn’t a message that gets standing ovations in the conference hall.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the Independent newspaper on 6th October 2016

UN says 69 million teachers needed for global school pledge

I was interviewed for this piece on the BBC on 5th October 2016

Almost 69 million teachers need to be recruited around the world by 2030 if international pledges on education are to be kept, warns Unesco.

The United Nations agency’s estimate is for the number of teachers required to meet the promise of primary and secondary places for all children.

The biggest gaps in staffing are in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.

The Unesco report says there needs to be a “seismic shift” in recruitment to overcome “massive shortages”.

At present, the report from the Unesco Institute for Statistic says there are about 263 million children without a primary or secondary school to attend.

This includes about 25 million children who will never set foot inside a school of any kind.

World leaders last year agreed a set of global targets for access to education, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.

But the report says that keeping this promise for primary and secondary school for all by 2030 will require a huge increase in teachers.

The most acute pressure is in sub-Saharan Africa, where countries would need to train another 17 million teachers to meet the demand.

The Unesco study warns that there are already shortages of teachers in these countries, as they struggle with rising populations.

“Without urgent and sustained action, the situation will deteriorate in the face of rising demand for education,” says the report.

The report identifies countries where staffing numbers are “getting worse, rather than better”, including Burundi, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Malawi and Mozambique.

But there are a number of countries in the region on track to have enough staff to meet the targets, including Ethiopia, Rwanda and Swaziland.

The study highlights the importance of the quality as well as the quantity of teachers.

In countries such as Niger, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia, fewer than 60% of teachers in primary school have been trained.

Pauline Rose, professor of international education at Cambridge University, says the lack of teachers also affects class sizes, particularly when the population is rising.

“So in countries like Malawi, it is common to find over 100 children in classes in the early grades of primary school. This has been a persistent problem for many years.”

The lack of pupils completing secondary school in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa further compounds the shortage of teachers.

Prof Rose says that in “some countries around half of secondary school graduates would need to go into teaching to fill the teacher gap, which is clearly not viable”.

There is also a problem with low pay which makes teaching less attractive, particularly to the most able graduates.

Prof Rose says that in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa teachers are “paid below the poverty line, and so not surprisingly they take second jobs to compensate. This has an impact on the quality of their teaching”.

And she says there might be enough teachers trained on a national level, but there could still be local shortages in regions where schools cannot get teachers to apply.

The Unesco report highlights the importance of retaining staff and says this will require teaching to have a competitive salary and contracts which will give them job security.

Vikas Pota, chief executive of an education charity, the Varkey Foundation, said: “We already know that better pay will attract the best graduates into the profession and give them an incentive to stay.

“A 10% increase in teachers’ pay tends to result in a 5% to 10% increase in pupil performance. Given the stretched finances of developing world governments, the international community has a responsibility to help fund this.”

The Varkey Foundation has been experimenting in Ghana with interactive distance learning to try to offer training on a wider scale than would be possible with in-person classes. It is training up to 5,000 teachers over two years.

The UN report says the success of global targets for education will depend on tackling the teacher shortage.

“Such efforts could falter if they fail to prioritise those on the front line: the world’s teachers, who are tasked with the actual delivery of a good quality education for all.”

Last month, there was another warning from Unesco about the delays in creating enough primary school places by the 2030 target.

A report warned that at current rates of progress it would be 2042 before all primary-age children would be able to attend school.

The most limited access to schools was found in countries which were the poorest or most troubled by conflict.

Niger, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, Mali and Chad were among the nations whose children were likely to spend the least time in education.

The Evening Standard Progress 1000 list

This post is a mirror entry from my work site:

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“We are delighted to announce that the London Evening Standard newspaper have listed Colin Hegarty, top 10 finalist of the Global Teacher Prize 2016, and our Chief Executive, Vikas Pota in the Progress 1000 list of most influential people in London.  The list includes figures who have shaped our lives across so many different fields – ranging from HRH The Prince of Wales and Mayor Sadiq Khan, who came top of the list, to Mo Farah and Adele.

At the tenth anniversary of the awards, held at the Science Museum, Sarah Sands, Editor of the Evening Standard said: “We chose the word ‘progress’ carefully. That is what London’s influential people and businesses are achieving. And of course it is right we should celebrate progress at the Science Museum, for we are addressing the wonder of possibilities.”

Vikas Pota said:

“I am honoured to have been chosen for the Progress 1000 list of London’s most influential people. It includes so many amazing talents who have contributed so much to this great city that continues to lead the world, and  am  humbled to have been included among them.

“This recognition is valuable to our mission at the Varkey Foundation, where from our base in the capital we work to give every teacher around the world the status they deserve and every child, wherever they are, the chance of a good education.

“My family moved to London from East Africa and it has provided many opportunities to immigrants like us, which we, in the age of Brexit, would be well placed to remember when considering what the new arrangements will be.  London is an incredible city, and I am thankful for the words of encouragement and celebration that my family and I have received.”

You can see the full list here

Sustainable development goals are failing because we don’t care enough about education

Last autumn, the world’s governments came together to agree 17 ambitious sustainable development goals, which promised to overcome a vast array of problems – from poverty and hunger to health and gender equality – by 2030.

The UNESCO report published today ‘Education for People and Planet: Creating Sustainable Futures for All’ charts the progress in meeting these targets.

It demonstrates an obvious truth: education is the rock on which sustainable development is built. In parts of Africa, mothers who have a secondary education are three times more likely to have children that survive beyond the age of five.

If Nigerian girls spend four extra years in school they have, on average, one fewer children. In Sierra Leone, young people without an education were nine times as likely to join rebel groups.

But, as UNESCO Secretary General Irina Bokova notes in the introduction, today’s report should “set off alarm bells around the world”. The fourth SDG – ‘an inclusive and equitable quality education for all’ – will not, on current trends, be fulfilled for several more decades, when today’s children will already be approaching retirement.

The number of children who never set foot in a classroom, after years of falling, is rising again.

In Uganda, only one in five elementary schoolteachers meets the minimum standard of proficiency in maths, while in Kenya, state schools teachers are absent almost half the time. Such failure if it continues will, in turn, prevent us from meeting the other sustainable development goals.

Post-financial crisis, international political will towards solving the global education crisis has dissipated. Education aid including from the EU and World Bank, has been in decline since 2010 – falling by $600 million between 2013 and 2014. Meanwhile aid spending on health continues to grow – a sign that education is falling down the list of donor priorities.

Irina Bokova

Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO delivers a keynote lecture Credit: M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA

Yet there has never been a greater need. Nearly half a billion children live in countries affected by war, famine and deadly epidemics. Syria had achieved universal primary education by 2000 but now 2.8 million Syrian children are out of school.

In many other unstable countries – from Somalia to Afghanistan – there isn’t even any official count on how many children are out of school. Yet we devote less than two per cent of humanitarian aid to education.

This is the moment for a massive increase in investment. The Millennium Development Goals already picked the low hanging fruit – increasing the number of school places across the developing world. Providing education to that hard to reach final ten per cent – and increasing its quality – will be tougher still.

If we get education right, we are half way to solving the rest of the world’s problems

The developing world is about to be hit by an economic shock. The “fourth industrial revolution” – that will replace many jobs by automation – threatens 85 per cent of jobs in Ethiopia, far more than in the West.

The rote learning culture within classrooms in much of the developing world – particularly in Africa – will not produce the curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking that the jobs of the future will require.

Achieving quality will be expensive. Teachers have to be retrained and better remunerated. Curriculums must be revised. Assuming that developing world governments do manage to devote the target of four per cent of their GDP to education, that would still leave an annual finance gap of $39 billion to provide every child with a good school place.

The Italian G7 Presidency next year is an opportunity to showcase its commitment to global citizenship through the Sustainable development goals. It can make this flesh through a commitment from the G7 countries to enshrine in law their commitment to education aid – just as the UK has done in its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development.

We can’t, however, rely on aid alone to plug the gap. NGOs and the private sector must share the strain. Low-cost private schools are delivering quality education, in some cases for as little as 40p a day, in developing countries.

Parents are voting with their feet where they see gaps in government provision. In India one in three children in rural areas attend private schools – an increase of 40 per cent in the last 10 years. This is providing a stream of investment in building schools and improving teacher quality that is not at the mercy of hard-pressed government budgets.

As they stand outside the state system, schools run by charities and the private sector are more likely to be the kind of ‘disruptors’ that can raise standards and pioneer new teaching practices. But too often private education in the developing world is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Insensitive operators have, on occasion, failed to deliver. On the other side of the debate, some oppose private involvement on principal, despite evidence that it can achieve improved outcomes.

Public, private and voluntary sectors are here to stay so should be collaborating – just as in the UK’s academy programme, that hugely improved London’s state education system.

There are examples elsewhere; in Uganda, one of the organisations we have worked with, the NGO Building Tomorrow, constructs and is given the freedom to operate schools – but the Ugandan Government pays the teachers’ salaries. In India, the Akanksha Foundation has opened schools in low-income parts of Mumbai, partially funded by the state, with the aim of impacting the mainstream education system.

We need a serious commitment now by governments to meet the Sustainable Development Goals on education, unclouded by ideology, while they can still be salvaged. The evidence shows what we instinctively know: if we get education right, we are half way to solving the rest of the world’s problems.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the Telegraph newspaper on 6th September 2016

Despite the efforts of Malala and many others, there are still too many women denied a decent education

This week marks the 19th birthday of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist shot by the Taliban for championing the right for girls to have an education.

 

Despite her huge efforts and progress across the globe, there are still too many women denied a decent education. Across South Asia, the Middle East and large parts of Africa, men are still much more likely to be literate than women.  Sixty-five million girls are out of school globally. And for every 100 boys in secondary school in Africa, there are only 82 girls.

The statistics are well rehearsed. Mothers with six or more years of education have fewer children and higher childbirth survival rates.

A girl with an extra year of education can earn 20 per cent more as an adult.  And an educated mother is more than twice as likely to send her children to school.

Last week, International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, convened governments, business and aid agencies at the Girls Education Forum in London. Importantly, it didn’t just focus on getting girls into school, but giving them, in Ms Greening’s words, the “decent education that can give them the skills they need to live happy, productive lives”.

It was encouraging that in all the discussions there was recognition that girls education is not simply a matter of providing the school places – but about addressing the forces that keep girls out the classroom.

Poverty is usually to blame. If a family have to make a choice between financially supporting a boy or girl in school, they will tend to choose the boy, as they think an educated boy offers the greatest chance of future prosperity.

When the harvest is meagre and family income falls, it is girls that are taken out of school to work.  In Uganda, a fifteen per cent decline in rainfall caused a five per cent drop in attendance by girls in seventh grade, but had no significant impact on boys.

The curriculum too often reinforces images of girls as housewives and mothers rather than doctors or lawyers.   At home girls will often have to spend more time doing household chores before they can get down to her homework.   And cultural expectations of early marriage – and the prevalence of youth pregnancy – result in girls dropping out altogether.

So what is to be done? The ‘Making Ghanaian Girls Great’ (MGCubed) project, funded by DfID’s Girl’s Education Challenge (GEC) fund, has increased girls’ enrolment and retention in 72 primary schools in areas of rural Ghana where girls have historically dropped out of education in large numbers.

Justin Greening
Justine Greening, convened governments, business and aid agencies at the Girls Education Forum in London

Five thousand girls who are at risk of not completing their education take part in ‘virtual’ interactive lessons taught from a studio in the capital Accra, which are then broadcast into their classrooms.  This ‘virtual learning’ is a better guarantee of the quality of education: unlike in many African classrooms, there’s always trained teacher available even if they are not physically in the room.

The project also widens the girls’ horizons beyond the traditional domestic roles. Through after school classes they are given the chance to talk to Ghanaian female role models – from pilots to actresses to government ministers.

Other issues are broached – from early pregnancy and early marriage – and combined with practical advice in areas such as malaria prevention and personal finance.  Average attendance for girls in MGCubed classes has increased from 54 per cent to nearly 80 per cent and there has been a significant effect in raising maths scores.

So what wider lessons can be applied to girls programmes elsewhere?   Firstly, if quality teaching can be guaranteed every day then it will result in better attainment, which, in turn, will encourage parents to allow girls to stay in schools.

Second, families need to believe that the financial sacrifices associated with allowing a girl to attend school are worthwhile if they are to be supportive.   Girls must be taught useful life skills  – such as financial literacy – that help them support their family’s livelihood – and malaria prevention lessons, which they can share with their community

Third, if we are changing attitudes to girls we need buy-in from boys.  After they said they felt left out we set up boys after school clubs, in which gender is one of the issues that is addressed. We saw this as an opportunity for engaging them in supporting the girls in their education.

The programme did encounter real difficulties.  In Africa, children often learn at school in a different language than they speak at home, which creates an additional barrier when they are learning to read.  It makes far more sense to teach them literacy in their own language, at least when they start school.

Technology needs to be robust and simple enough to use that school staff can be trained to fix it when it goes wrong.  (In case of MGCubed, due to dust from the Sahara covering the solar panels that the schools were relying on to power their internet connection).

If we are going to keep girls in schools we must support smart, scalable and sustainable projects. Above, all we must raise expectations among their community, and, most importantly, among girls themselves, about what they can achieve.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the Telegraph newspaper on 12th July 2016 to mark the Girls Education Forum organised by the UK Government’s aid agency, DFID.

Educating Asian children in ‘exam factories’ won’t equip them for the world of work

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This article appeared on CNBC and the Forum Blog on 31st May 2016 in advance of the World Economic Forum’s ASEAN Summit in Malaysia

Educationalists and journalists have long beaten a path to Singapore to discover its educational secrets. Children within its school system perform better than any of their international peers apart from Shanghai, according to the PISA rankings, and a whole industry has grown up attempting to decode its formula.

The city state is perhaps the world’s most astonishing story of educational improvement. Its transformation from a low skill, low paid nation with high levels of illiteracy 50 years ago to a first world economy today, with a 1% unemployment rate provides inspiration and hope for policy-makers everywhere.

But the story of education in the ASEAN region goes beyond Singapore. The legions of educational tourists would do well to extend their trip to the region’s other education systems, which have also taken giant leaps forward.

In the Philippines, basic public education has recently been extended by two years to grade 11 and 12 – finally giving the poorest students the chance to study at senior high school and go on to the best universities. Since 2010, the education budget has more than doubled, 30,000 new classrooms have been built and 43,000 new teachers hired to prepare for the effort. A bold new government voucher scheme has been introduced to allow students (where state provision isn’t available) to enroll in private schools.

Vietnam caused astonishment when in 2012 it entered the PISA tests for the first time, and returned stunning results – scoring higher in maths than the UK and the US with a ranking of 17th out of 65 countries. This from a country with a per capita GDP of only $1,600. It has invested heavily in education – making up a fifth of government spending, and shifted its curriculum away from rote learning.

But, for all the impressive progress in the region, international education rankings alone will not protect workers from the brutal forces of economic change that will sweep through the world economy over the next two decades – destroying entire job sectors, creating new ones, and demanding a constantly changing mixture of skills.

The recent Future of Jobs report published last year by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council of the same name, based on a survey of executives in 15 of the world’s largest economies, argues we are entering a Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which over 7 million white-collar and administrative jobs could disappear due to technological change in the next five years alone. New sectors – from nanotechnology to robotics to data analysis – will replace some (but not all) of these jobs.

The future economy will need strong vocational skills – which are often still treated as the poor relation to academic routes – as well as soft skills. Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of hiring at Google, says that “while good grades don’t hurt”, the company is looking for softer skills too: “leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn”.

Employers throughout the world report that the education system is not delivering the skills that they need. In 2015, more than a third of global companies reported difficulties filling open positions owing to shortages of people with key skills. Even in education poster-child Singapore, a 30% increase in skills shortages was reported last year: a reminder that there is more to a world-class education system than outstanding PISA scores.

We can only speculate about the skills mix that will be required in 50 year’s time – when today’s school children will still be at the height of their working lives – but the ability to adapt and learn new skills throughout their career will be as important as their core knowledge of physics and chemistry. As the Forum’s New Vision for Education report argues: “To thrive in a rapidly evolving, technology-mediated world, students must not only possess strong skills in areas such as language arts, mathematics and science, but they must also be adept at skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, persistence, collaboration and curiosity.”

There are already signs that governments in the region are beginning to realize that academic skills will not be enough. Malaysia’s deputy education minister recently called for an end to spoonfeeding. While, earlier this year, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, returned from a trip to Europe and called for closer co-ordination between the economics and education ministers to ensure Indonesia has a “work-ready labour force”.

Malaysia launched the vocational education scheme 1Youth 1Skill in 2010 to provide “what industry wants”. Young people who choose this route have a higher success rate at securing jobs than graduates. Singapore radically overhauled its Institute of Technical Education (ITE) a decade ago. Previously a joke circulated that its acronym stood for “it’s the end” – the last resort for the academically weak. Today its university-inspired set-up offers award-winning programmes that attract students from around the world.

Education ministers throughout the world are rightly beating a path to Singapore’s door to find out the secrets of its spectacular success in science and maths. But, in learning these lessons, they should remember that, as far as we can tell, the jobs of the future will require flexibility, creativity, independence of thought, and teamwork – whether they are in Kenya or Kuala Lumpur. We will pay a price if we turn our schools into exam factories where these qualities have been squeezed out of the curriculum. In conversations at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN 2016 summit next week, we should remember that education doesn’t begin and end with PISA scores.

Appointment as Visiting Practitioner at Harvard

 

The Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) is renowned for its belief that research-based education policy and practice have the power to create a more just and prosperous society. For nearly 100 years, they have prepared smart and passionate individuals to become transformative leaders in education. I have been fortunate to have collaborated with them over the past few years on projects as well as assessing the impact of the Varkey Foundation’s work. .

For example, many of you will have recently seen the work Professor Fernando Reimers, Ford Foundation Professor of Practice in International Education, and I worked on to develop a programme to channel the knowledge and experience of the Top 50 teachers from our Global Teacher Prize initiative to benefit those in the profession who want to develop their own thinking and practice.

A few weeks ago, at the Global Education & Skills Forum we also launched an Alliance on Teachers, which brings together some of the foremost international thinkers and practitioners into a working group that is committed to writing a White Paper on the future of the teaching profession.

This year, I am honoured to be appointed as a Visiting Practitioner in Education at HGSE and am excited about sharing my experiences with the faculty and students at the school to build upon our goals to build a better world.

Following the appointment, Professor Reimers said: “We welcome Vikas Pota to the Harvard community, and look forward to exchanging ideas that have profound long-term impact on education systems through building the capacity of the teaching profession.

“Vikas’s experience in education reform projects globally, as well as his knowledge and networks, will undoubtably be a valuable resource to us. We look forward to providing opportunities for our students to interact with Mr Pota to aid their own development as professionals seeking to strengthen public education systems.”

I look forward to visiting Cambridge regularly and, especially, in providing the benefit of our experience to the student community at the school.

 

A bridge from the present to the future – Honorary Degree speech

With my mother at the graduation ceremony

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, honoured guests, Aston Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen. I want to thank the University for conferring this honour on me.

My grandparents left India to pursue better lives in the 1920s, where they helped build the Railways in East Africa. Both regions were colonies of the British Raj. My father and his siblings were born in East Africa too, as were a number of my generation. As is well documented, political circumstances in these countries changed for the worse and in cases like that of Uganda, the Asian community had to flee, literally, overnight. In Kenya, the situation wasn’t as pronounced but as they had done once, my family decided to move for better prospects of their future generations. We arrived in London in the early 80s.

Soon after arriving, my father passed away. I was very young. My mother, a young 40 year old, raised my sister and I with the support of a loving extended family. With her world having fallen around her, she continued through her life, in what can only be considered a spectacular success. She worked two jobs at times to ensure we were provided for. She worked in a samosa shop, she worked in a photo processing plant, she worked in an old people’s home, and the reason she went on to explain to us was simply that she wanted us to live a better life.

One day, I remember this vividly, when I had to choose my GCSE options at the age of 14, she said something that has stayed with me since. She said: “all I want you to do is to get to university, because everyone around you who has, seems to have done well for themselves”. I accepted her reasoning.

It is this commitment to education that has resulted in, today, this Honorary Degree being conferred on me.

THE FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

We live in an age which is increasingly being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, one which is characterized by robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomous transport, advanced bio-technology and genomics, and the fundamental question that is being asked is whether universities can keep pace and remain relevant in a reality that is moving at warp speed.

Well, let’s take a look at a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Jobs, which I am a member of, that asked Chief Human Resource & Strategy Officers of major companies about their employment, skills and workforce strategy for the future. They were specifically asked what the current shifts mean to our world order.

They said that the following skills sets are what are required to remain competitive as organisations:

  • Complex problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • People management skills
  • Coordinating with others
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Judgment & decision-making
  • Service orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive flexibility

MAKE THINGS HAPPEN, FORM RELATIONSHIPS, MAKE OUR WORLD A BETTER PLACE

It is about all of the above, and more, but more than ever, my experience tells me that it is a bias for action – making things happen that trumps them all.

Furthermore, you are the most connected generation ever, and I think success will come to those who are able to join up the dots, and give meaning to situations that just don’t normally add up.

Together, your generation – more than any previous generation, can go out and make anything happen. You can change the world.

A BRIDGE FROM THE PRESENT TO THE FUTURE

So, how do universities remain relevant?

Well, the answer lies within my story. Whilst, I gained an academic degree from Aston, what I truly gained was an understanding of people. Moving to Aston Triangle and Birmingham provided me with my first independent opportunities to learn from others with many different viewpoints and backgrounds.

By embracing all aspects of life here, I became a confident person. By holding roles in societies, I learnt new skills, by living with others – like my two friends who have joined me here, I learnt the meaning of friendship. Through time, we have relied on each other, pushed each other, helped each other and, yes, learnt from each other. Together we’re stronger.

And I continue to learn from people all over the world all the time. My education goes on and on.

Friends and honoured guests – long after you have left the corridors and lecture halls of Aston, it is the people you meet that will help you build a bridge from the present to the future. That is the most important education I have received.

I had the fortune of meeting Aung San Suu Kyi after she was released from house arrest, where she explained that the need of the hour in her country’s education system was to ensure that children knew how to work better in teams. How to relate to other people is the key. These “21st century skills” apply more so in building equitable and peaceful societies and I gained these and more at Aston and this is why universities will continue to be cherished and remain relevant.

I ask each and everyone of you to take this simple lesson to heart. It can make the biggest difference to your life.

Friends, Aston was important to me. I see the education I received as being broader than just the degree I received over here. Aston gave me my first taste of being an adult, and in many ways it gave me wings, which have taken me to so many places in the world, where I have had the fortune of meeting remarkable people who are doing spectacular things to make the world a better place. For this I thank the University.

I end with a message to my two daughters who accompany me here. My wife and I are immensely proud of them.

But in the end I ask them to take away one thing from today… the words from my mother, their grandmother.

Whatever the question. Whatever the question

Education is the answer.

Thank you.

Vikas Pota

22nd March 2016

Birmingham Town Hall

How to teach children so they will be able to compete with robots

This article appeared in The Independent on 19th January 2016.

“Digital disruption” may have become a threadbare cliché in tech circles, but it barely does justice to the head-spinning scale of economic change laid out in today’s Future of Jobs report published by the World Economic Forum. Based on a survey of executives in fifteen of the world’s largest economies, the report sees us entering a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” which will transform labour markets in just five short years. 7.1 million jobs will be lost – with the greatest losses in white-collar and administrative roles. At the same time, some of these losses will be offset by the creation of 2.1 million new jobs in sectors such as nanotechnology and robotics and ever-more important functions within companies such as data analysis and sales. The report estimates that 28 per cent of the skills required in the UK will change in the four years to 2020.

The WEF report is reinforcing a message that others have delivered. Last year, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England warned that nearly half of all jobs in the UK are under threat from automation in the next two decades – affecting people at all levels of the workplace.

Given the scale of this change in such a short period, what can the education system do to keep up?  Firstly we should acknowledge the perils of gazing into the crystal ball. As educationalist Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his TED Talk, children starting school now will probably be working until around 2065 – yet we can’t even predict what the world will look like in the next five years. How can we possibly predict the skills they will need? In the 1980s, there were suggestions that Japanese teaching was essential in British schools, as that was seen as the business language of the future – obviously looking at it now time would have been better spent preparing for the digital revolution that was just around the corner.

First of all we need to move to an expectation that workers will retrain and reskill throughout their careers. This has of course often been said, but now the need is becoming urgent. It may be exhilarating or alarming that over 90 per cent of Millennials (those born between 1977 and 1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years, according to the Future Workplace “Multiple Generations @ Work” survey of employees and managers.

We can’t predict exactly what those skills will be, but we can predict the qualities that will be required – soft skills like leadership, flexibility, communication, decision-making, working under pressure, creativity and problem-solving. The drift of educational policy has been to banish much of this from the classroom and fixate on core subjects like science and math to the exclusion of wider learning.

It’s interesting that the demand for a wider curriculum is coming, not from some fossilized relic of 1970s teacher training, but from the world’s largest companies. Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of hiring at Google, said in a recent interview that “while good grades don’t hurt” the company is looking for softer skills too: “leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn”. Julian Thomas, Head of Wellington College – another unlikely revolutionary – has spoken out about his sense that the current education system was “designed for a different era” and, under pressure from constant testing, has squeezed creativity out of the curriculum. Tony Little, former Master of Eton College, has written about the dangers that wider intellectual development is being stifled by an all-encompassing obsession with exams.

Some companies are stepping in to plug the gaps that they think are missing from the education system. Siemens, frustrated with the skills and knowledge among their graduate applicants, has developed its own “future-proofing” training scheme that everyone joining the firm undertakes. By the end of their course, employees are expected to be able to summarise tasks and explain how to solve them in English as well as German.

Technology can make life-long constant retraining and reskilling a more viable option. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) have lowered the price of education and widened access by removing the need for students to be taught at set times or places, facilitating those already in employment to study or those who couldn’t otherwise afford to. Udacity, an online university, recently introduced ‘nano-degrees’ designed to train people for jobs as web developers or data analysts. With the galloping pace of technology, it’s likely that future employees are going to have to take several such courses through their lifetime.

Amid this nervy uncertainty, the WEF report is hopeful about the prospects for the UK economy. For every job lost through automation and technological change here, it estimates that 2.91 new ones will be created – more than twice as many as in the US.  Just as the first industrial revolution created the Spinning Jenny and the steam engine, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is developing artificial intelligence and 3D printing. But far-sighted decisions by policy-makers are required to ensure our education system is rooted in the needs of the twenty-first century rather than the nineteenth.

Vikas Pota is CEO of the Varkey Foundation and member of the WEF Global Agenda Council on the Future of Jobs