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.


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


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.


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

‘The Gradgrind philosophy endangering education’… To get away from our Gradgrind focus on ‘Facts’, we must free ourselves from the single-minded pursuit of exam success, writes Vikas Pota

This article appeared in the Telegraph Newspaper on 24th November 2015:

For at least the last couple of decades, education ministers from around the world have been in thrall to a ‘back-to-basics’ educational philosophy.

They have preached the time-honoured virtues of learning times tables and to punctuate accurately, and of memorising Kings, Queens and Presidents in the order that they appeared.

They have defined themselves against the wide-eyed ‘child-centred learning’ of the 60s and 70s, in which creativity was more important than knowledge, inspiration more important than structure, and collaboration more important than competition.

Since the 1980s, a hard-nosed case against progressive education has reigned. Who has time to teach these wispy values of creativity and collaboration when students should be cramming for maths to compete with Singapore?

Why prioritise ‘soft skills’ when there is an international competitive race to be won in hard technology and science?

The back-to-basics advocates have some truth on their side. Child-centred learning did lead to a harmful abandonment of basic skills in some schools.

“Who has time to teach these wispy values of creativity and collaboration when students should be cramming for maths to compete with Singapore?”

International comparisons of educational outcomes have created a “race to the top” – a global competition in education standards that means many children are getting a better education than a generation ago.

Measures like the OECD’s ‘Education at a Glance’ index, published today, have focused minds in education ministries around the world on the importance of basic skills.

But there is a growing consensus that in rejecting progressive educational theories, there has been an overcorrection.

As Tony Little, former headmaster of Eton, and Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington College, have pointed out, the side effect of the current preoccupation with hard skills (and incessantly testing children on them) is that room for wider skills – from music to art to broader reading around a subject that is not strictly necessary for exams – are being squeezed out.

Julian Thomas says the current education system was “designed for a different era”

Pressure for change is also coming from employers who think that an excessive focus on ‘hard skills’ is not creating the kind of workforce that they want. In fact, employers say that they value most the ‘soft skills’ of teamwork, resilience and creativity – precisely the values that are being sacrificed in the rush to prepare for the next exam.

In a recent McKinsey survey of more than 4,500 young people and 2,700 employers across America, Brazil, Britain, Germany, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, some 40 per cent of employers reported that they struggle to fill entry-level jobs because the candidates have inadequate skills.

The report also found that 45 per cent of young people feel that their education leaves them unprepared for the workplace.

Soft skills are likely to only become more important in the future jobs market. As Andrew Mcafee, co-director of the MIT initiative on the Digital Economy, says, we are now entering the “new machine age” in which machines have skills they never had before.

Technology will cut a swathe through white-collar jobs in the next 50 years, just as it has through blue-collar jobs in the last 50.

Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne from Oxford University argue that jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47 per cent of the occupational categories into which work is customarily sorted – including in accountancy, legal work, and technical writing.

Patrick Allen as Gradgrind in Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1977)Patrick Allen as Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1977)  Photo: Rex

As Fareed Zakaria wrote in a recent book making the case for liberal arts education, while robots have taken over the role of making trainers, the ‘value added’ is still the work of people with ‘soft skills’. A $5 pair of trainers becomes a $75 dollar pair of trainers through the work of those who know how to market, design and brand them.

The World Economic Forum in its vision for how to prepare young people for those jobs not taken by machines recognises that critical thinking, problem solving, persistence, collaboration and curiosity will be essential.

The new world of rapidly changing and varied work will require a workforce who can thrive in the face of constant change and frequent failure.

Business is not waiting for education to catch up. Siemens in Germany takes trainees and “future-proofs” them by teaching them soft skills such as team work, how to divide tasks efficiently and problem-solving – as well as ensuring that their literacy and numeracy skills are improved if necessary.

“The new world of rapidly changing and varied work will require a workforce who can thrive in the face of constant change and frequent failure.”

We are in danger of turning our schools into institutions based on Mr Gradgrind’s philosophy in Dickens’s Hard Times: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

The world of work in which today’s school children will enter will be rich with possibilities – but if don’t widen the skills that children are taught in schools, then we are not just giving young people an unnecessarily impoverished education, we won’t even be preparing them with the skills necessary to make their living in an ever-more competitive world.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

Syrian refugees would be getting an education if the West actually delivered on its pledges

This article was featured in the Independent newspaper on 29th October 2015:

One of the silent casualties of the war in Syria is education.  Despite all the outpourings of international sympathy for Syria’s children there has been a lack of hard cash from international donors. Yet the sums involved are pathetically small beer for Western Governments. The UN says that just £145m is required for Syrian refugee education. If Governments had done what they promised, there would be no problem, but less than a quarter of pledged funds have actually been paid.

A lack of funding means that aid agencies have been forced to cut monthly payments for thousands of refugees, which leaves those living in countries like Jordan without free education unable to afford the school fees. In refugee camps, it also means that education is badly overstretched. For instance in Jordan’s huge Za’atari camp class sizes of 80 – 120 are common.

Improving poor teacher pay in the camps, hiring more of them, and giving them better training, would improve the nightmarish conditions of overcrowded classrooms and language barriers that they face every day.  Given the stretched resources of the host governments, this funding can only come from international donors.

The experience of conflict zones from Rwanda to Bosnia is that those in secondary and vocational education tend to see the greatest disruption to their education.  Refugee teenagers are often forced to work since their families, who have spent all their savings on the journey, can no longer support them. Education for older teenagers remains a Cinderella cause – donors tend to focus slim resources on the primary years.   For the future of Syria it is essential that this generation of young people are given skills to help rebuild the country and to avoid the hopelessness that could see them sucked into violent extremism.

The international community also needs to give financial support to countries such as Lebanon that are becoming overwhelmed by the pressures placed on their schools by the influx of newcomers. This can have a negative impact on the Lebanese children in class, who can be held back while Syrian children, who speak only Arabic, take class-time to learn rudimentary English or French.  To aid integration, more international funding needs to be given to ensure that the settled population in refugee host countries does not see a decline in education quality.

This is already happening in some countries. UN agencies, the World Bank and bilateral donors have agreed to provide 200,000 free school places in Lebanon for Syrian refugees, covering the cost of tuition, schoolbooks and basic stationary, relieving some of the pressure on the public school system. This kind of support must be extended to   Turkey and Jordan, where the education system is being stretched by the crisis.

Funding is not only required in the classroom. Many Syrians already have qualifications that are not recognized outside the country. Years of study and knowledge count for nothing in many of the countries to which they have fled.  There needs to be a concerted effort to calibrate what equivalent of these qualifications is in their new countries.  Those who fled with barely the clothes on their backs often do not have the necessary paperwork to prove their qualifications.

Resources need to be invested in a system that, where possible, collects the available data from Syria – and allows schools, universities and employers to verify which qualifications an individual holds.

Many of the problems facing young Syrian refugees are hard to fix – from the physical and mental scars of war to the sense of cultural dislocation that comes from having to leave their homes. But finding the comparatively small sum needed to provide decent education should be simple – particularly when vast sums are being allocated to help the refugees that make it to European countries.  Germany alone has budgeted £4.7bn to help predominantly Syrian asylum seekers in the country.

The UN should convene an emergency summit to discuss the educational crisis affecting Syrian refugees – in which international leaders would come under pressure to raise the necessary funds. And deliver them in full this time.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation 

Developing world education is failing, it’s time to open up to the private sector

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper on 25th September 2015 – on the day the Sustainable Development Goals were approved by all UN member states:

There have been some real achievements in global education following the establishment of the millennium development goals (MDGs) by the UN in 2000. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the proportion of children enrolled in primary school has risen from 52% in 1990 to 80% this year.

However, in the dash to get children into the classroom, there was too little focus on the quality of the education once they were there. UNESCO estimates that of the world’s 650 million primary school children, at least 250 million lack even basic literacy and numeracy skills.

The new sustainable development goals (SDGs), which will replace the MDGs at the end of this year, address this issue of standards, calling for “inclusive and quality education for all” by 2030. But these will remain empty conference room sentiments if the $16bn (£10.5bn) per year required to achieve good quality universal education throughout the world is not met.

However well-intentioned, governments in the developing world cannot raise the sums needed to provide high-quality education on their own. If they could, they would have done so decades ago. Education spending must be balanced against budgets for other essential infrastructures such as hospitals, roads and sanitation.

Too often government schools leave education in the hands of teachers who haven’t been adequately trained. Even worse, according to UNESCO, many countries – including Cameroon, Ethiopia and Senegal – are only meeting the goal of universal primary education by employing untrained teachers.

Low state teacher salaries, which are often paid sporadically, discourage people from entering (and staying in) the profession. In rural Zambia it can cost teachers up to half their wages to cover the costs of transport and accommodation needed to simply collect their pay from district offices each month. In Malawi, one in 10 teachers reported that they were often not in school because they were travelling to collect their salaries or make loan payments.

To build the schools and train the teachers needed to meet these new SDG targets, we cannot rely on governments alone. Parents in the developing world, even those on low incomes, are voting with their feet and opting for private education because of shortcomings in state provision.

World Bank data shows that the number of primary school pupils attending private schools is on the rise, with some costing as little as a dollar a week. In rural India in 2013, 29% of elementary school pupils were educated privately, up from 19% in 2006.

Though NGOs do vital work, only the private sector can provide the scale of investment necessary, unencumbered by political and bureaucratic obstacles. Bridge International Academies, a chain of low-cost private schools, for instance, has created 400 nursery and primary schools in Kenya and Uganda using standardised classrooms. Large-scale providers, with international reputations to nurture, can be better guarantors of quality and consistency than individual schools in the community that lack the deep pockets to invest over many years.

The notion that private business must be involved in this process has gone some way to being accepted. From the start of negotiations on the SDGs, UN officials have sought to formally bring the private sector into the dialogue, but some still see private sector involvement as a threat. Just last year the UN special rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, warned that the costs associated with private schools were exacerbating inequality and said that, “for-profit education should not be allowed in order to safeguard the noble cause of education”.

In my experience, the worlds of business and education too often speak entirely different languages. An ideological distaste for the private sector means that even where business could help philanthropically, it is rarely approached for help.

There are some notable exceptions. Aviva, through its Street to School community project, has helped more than one million children receive support and education in 17 countries. Deutsche Bank has helped more than five million school children through its support of literacy initiatives in Brazil and provided shipping container classrooms in China.

However, these great efforts pale in comparison to the scale of business philanthropy in global health. The Brookings Institution estimates that corporate giving to global health is 16 times the amount given to global education. Last year, a report by the Varkey Foundation found that the Fortune 500 companies spend just $2.6bn (13%) of their total annual CSR budget of $19.9bn on education-related projects. Fewer than half provide any spending on education-related CSR at all.

The cultural divide between business and education is particularly unnecessary given that business is deeply concerned about the impact of poor education on organisations and the future prosperity of markets. A PWC global survey of more than 1,200 CEOs found more than half were concerned that skills shortages would stunt growth, particularly in emerging economies. A better-educated population would add rocket fuel to economic growth in the developing world. According to the OECD, if all 15-year-olds achieved a basic level of education, Ghana could increase its GDP by 3,881% and South Africa by 2,624%.

As more than 150 world leaders meet in New York for the U N Sustainable Development Summit 2015, they must recognise that to have any chance of meeting the new SDGs on education, business must be seen as part of the solution.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

‘Over testing risks squeezing out creative skills in pupils’

This article was featured in the Telegraph newspaper on 9th April 2015:

This year’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, published today by Unesco, underlines the stark disparities in education between the rich and poor world.

In particular, it highlights that the world’s poorest children are four times more likely to be out of primary school than the world’s richest children.

While the West frets about the future of skills and how to equip young people for technological change, some battered education systems in the developing world are struggling with the basics.

For education ministers in these countries, the correct policy prescriptions are clear, even if they are fiendishly difficult to implement given their lack of resources.

For their equivalent numbers sitting in their ministerial limousines in the developed world, who have the luxury of being free from such fundamental worries, it is perhaps less clear what they should be doing to ensure that their education systems turn out young people who can compete against lower-paid skilled workers from emerging economies.

The standard response in the world’s education ministries has been to judge how they size up to the global competition through placing faith in the OECD’s PISA rankings, especially on those in STEM subjects.

Countries as varied as Germany, the UK, the US and Sweden have undergone bouts of hand-wringing after disappointing PISA scores. Policymakers everywhere make the trip to Shanghai and South Korea to find out if they can bottle the elixir of educational success that has propelled these countries to the top of the rankings.

The lesson that Western countries seem to have taken from the East is that the curriculum needs more maths and science and less emphasis on the liberal arts. This is generally accompanied by the claim that, to raise standards, a heavy dose of standardised testing is required to hold teachers to account for pupil performance.

Of course STEM subjects are vital, but the pendulum has swung too far in favour of a curriculum that undervalues the creativity and the critical thinking that can come from the liberal arts. Politicians from all parties have acquiesced in this.

Witness, for instance, the former UK Education Secretary Charles Clarke’s description of medieval history as “ornamental” and a “waste of public money”. Or Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent claim that the state doesn’t need “more anthropologists” but instead people with “technology and engineering degrees”.

This dichotomy that is unthinkingly repeated between the ‘practical sciences’ and the ‘self-indulgent humanities’ ignores the fact that many innovators do not come from a science tradition.

Neither Steve Jobs nor Mark Zuckerberg were STEM majors. Jobs attended Reed College – a liberal arts school – and later said that it was a course in calligraphy that had the most influence on the revolutionary design of the first Apple Macintosh.

Zuckerberg’s studies at Harvard ranged from ancient Greek to psychology; Facebook’s success relied less on technical innovations than on insights about how people would present their identities on the Internet, and Zuckerberg has said that Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology”.

There are countless other examples of innovators being informed by insights from the liberal arts. George Soros’s spectacular success on Wall Street can be attributed to belief in the irrationality of markets that came from his reading of Karl Popper and other philosophers.

And Financial Times journalist, Gillian Tett, perhaps the only mainstream journalist who predicted the financial crash, saw the risks of collateralised debt obligations by drawing on lessons on group dynamics from her PhD in anthropology.

The second assumption is that STEM education teaches skills that automatically lead to innovation. For example: it is hoped that the current vogue for teaching coding in schools will kick-start a new generation of development wizards.

We should be cautious. As many programmers will testify, learning how to code requires two things that will not be covered in any coding class: a large number of hours of experimentation, trial-and-error, and problem solving – mostly done either as part of a job or for fun in one’s spare time; and a real fascination with designing and fixing software. Jobs and Zuckerberg were technically able but they didn’t become so at school.

Standardised testing, introduced by countries fearing they are falling behind the global competition, is in danger of squeezing out the innovation that countries will need to succeed.

Even Arne Duncan, US Education Secretary, has warned that standard testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room”. An obsession with testing can narrow the curriculum – so that creative pursuits such as art and music are seen as dispensable, limit the scope and time for extra-curricular activities, and prioritise rote preparation at the expense of a wider understanding of subjects.

So how should we encourage innovation? The answer of course is that we need STEM-literate humanities graduates and humanities-literate STEM graduates.

Yes, we need some testing to understand how well teachers and pupils are performing. But we don’t want testing to become an obsession that leaves both stressed and focused on getting through an exam rather than opening up their mind to new possibilities.

We don’t want the school day so crammed that there is no room for literature, poetry, music and art.

Today’s report does actually also show that things are very slowly getting better for developing economies. Since 1999, the number of out of school children and adolescents has declined from 204 million to 121 million.

There is still a long way to go but I would urge education ministers, as they continue to develop their curriculums, to learn from the mistakes we have made in the developed world.

If the story of Steve Jobs, who created the world’s biggest company, teaches us anything, it is that we can never predict from where in the curriculum inspiration and innovation will come.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

India and China face huge education challenge

This article was printed in the Financial Times on 19th January 2015 in the widely read Beyond BRICS blog:

By 2030, the economies of India and China together may contribute 65 per cent of global GDP and be home to the majority of the world’s working age population. India alone will possess the world’s biggest pool of potential employees.

But the giddy predictions of future growth seem more fragile when it is considered that this potential labour force is dependent on education systems that often fail to teach basic skills.

India has the largest number of illiterate adults of any country globally. Teacher absenteeism is the third highest in the world, and many teachers lack basic training. Some 12.8m young Indians enter the work force each year and, without adequate skills, will often struggle to find employment. Shanghai leads the rankings done by Pisa, the Programme for International Student Assessment, and has become a poster-child for education ministries around the word. But in rural China, many students still do not finish secondary school.

A global survey in 2012 of more than 1,200 CEOs found more than half were concerned that talent shortages would constrain growth, particularly in Asia and other emerging economies. Over 40 per cent of Indian CEOs said they had shelved or delayed an initiative because of talent-related constraints.

This skills shortage risks stifling future growth. However, to date, business worldwide has shown little enthusiasm for investing in education itself. This week the Varkey Foundation published the world’s first study into global corporate social responsibility (CSR) spend on education by Fortune Global 500 companies. It found that these companies only spend $2.6bn – 13 per cent – of their total annual CSR budget of $19.9bn on education-related projects. Less than half provide any spending on education-related CSR at all.

The report finds that Chinese companies, in particular, score fairly low when it comes to spending on education. Chinese Company Law (Article 6 of Companies Law of the People’s Republic of China) requires companies to “undertake social responsibility” while conducting business. But across the 95 Chinese companies in the Fortune Global 500 list, just $52m a year was spent on education related CSR. Nearly all was spent within the country, with a small proportion identified as spent in Africa. Interestingly, half this education CSR spend was committed to infrastructure whilst 28 per cent went on primary education and only 5 per cent went to secondary education.

Even though the quality of reporting is extremely variable in China, it seems that Chinese companies, on the face of it, spend a lot less on education related CSR than their US and European counterparts. The eight Spanish companies in the Fortune Global 500 spend US$344m a year on education related CSR activities whilst the 132 US companies in the Global Fortune 500 spend $1bn.

Encouragingly, CSR reporting is rapidly increasing in China, which should provide more robust statistics. According to a report published last year by the SynTao think tank, only one company reported on CSR in 1999, but this stood at more than 1,700 in 2012.

So does India fare better?
The report shows that the eight Indian companies in the Fortune Global 500 spend $15m in total – again relatively low compared to their European and US counterparts. However, this picture is changing fast; we can hope for an upturn in Indian education related CSR spend. Under new rules that came into effect in April last year, India is now one of the few countries in the world with a law for mandatory CSR spend. Large companies are required to spend a minimum of two per cent of their average net profits on CSR-related activities.

To further complicate the picture, whilst the report identifies the individual education related CSR spend of the Tata entities in the Fortune Global 500 it does not recognise all the philanthropic efforts of the vast Tata empire. Tata Sons, the holding company for more than 90 Tata entities from Tata Steel to Tata Motors, is 66 per cent owned by trusts. This means that roughly two thirds of profits across all the Tata companies have supported an assortment of Indian philanthropic causes over a century.

This Indian culture of self-help may be as a result of enlightened self interest; faced with poor skills, Indian industry has for long resorted to training its own workers. For instance, IT giant Infosys established its own Global Education Centre which trains thousands of new recruits in technical, communications and management skills.

The report also finds that when Indian companies spend on education they spend well. In general, education-related CSR projects globally are often low-value, unstructured and un-coordinated. However, spending on education by companies in India is often institutionalised, long-term, and needs-based. Furthermore, over two thirds of Indian education related CSR spend goes directly to schools (39 per cent to primary and 29 per cent to secondary). In fact, most of the Indian companies in the Fortune Global 500 list run schools for underprivileged children in urban areas, teaching them basic literacy and numeracy.

India and China have seen wage increases significantly higher than corresponding increases in developed economies, a sign of a short supply of skilled talent. So unless emerging economies prioritise education-related CSR spend then this shortage of skills will threaten profitability.

The Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution have found that $1 invested in education today in India returns $53 in value to the employer at the start of a person’s working years. Companies would do well to remember that, without adequate skills, those predictions of soaring economic growth might turn out to be a historic missed opportunity.

Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey Foundation, a partner of the Business Backs Education global advocacy campaign.

Teachers’ pay must be at the heart of global education reform

This piece was printed in the Guardian on 29th January 2014:

Progress in global education – especially in the poorest regions of the world – remains painfully slow. The latest Unesco Education for All global monitoring report, published Wednesday, underlines how far we still are from guaranteeing a good quality education for every child. While many pupils are now attending school, the quality of the education is often so poor that they are failing to learn the most elementary skills. Around 175 million young people in poor countries – equivalent to one quarter of the youth population – cannot read all or part of a sentence.

The situation for girls is particularly dire. If current trends continue, it will take until 2072 for all the poorest young women in developing countries to become literate. In other words, it will only be the grandchildren of today’s pupils in sub-Saharan Africa that can expect to learn the skills that the developed world takes for granted.

Though the subject of improving education in the region could keep conference organisers in business for years, the overwhelming problem outlined in the report is simple: the availability of teachers and the quality of teaching.

Over the last few years, there has been much excitable talk about Africa being on the cusp of an economic renaissance. But this will amount to another lost opportunity if the number of teachers is not increased to cope with the continent’s exploding young population. Worldwide, 8.2 million new teachers need to be recruited by 2015 (pdf). If they are not, then Sub-Saharan Africa will be the worst affected region.

The quality of teachers is equally important. In a third of countries analysed by the report, less than three-quarters of primary school teachers are trained to national standards. In West Africa, where the teaching of basic skills is particularly poor, over half the teachers have little formal training and are on low-paid temporary contracts.

Poor pay results in many teachers earning supplementary income through second jobs, or running family businesses, when they should be in the classroom. This culture has been allowed to develop because there is little accountability: independent observers do not regularly inspect schools, and teachers do not have to prove their competence in the classroom after they have been hired.

There is, of course, no simple solution to this litany of problems. But the Education for All report is right that developing countries must attract the best candidates into teaching and incentivise them to stay. When governments have to choose whether to spend education budgets on new facilities or the salaries of teachers, there’s a good argument that spending on attracting teachers will yield the most tangible results. Peter Dolton from LSE has proven that there’s a clear link between the level of teachers pay and the quality of a country’s educational outcomes. Those countries that are in the upper-reaches of the Pisa rankings – South Korea, Finland, Singapore – all make an effort to recruit the best graduates and often demand that entrants to the profession have a second degree.

With many competing demands on fragile states – to build roads, provide healthcare and provide a welfare safety net – it’s unrealistic to expect that governments can provide the additional education provision required by Africa’s youth bulge alone. If managed well, partnerships with the private sector can bring in the investment to build schools quickly and import international expertise. For instance, entrepreneur James Tooley has pioneered school places in Ghana for 65 cents per day – including a school uniform, a hot lunch and work books – which is within reach of regular families.

Most importantly, we must raise the status of teaching. This isn’t just a problem in developing countries. In a survey in 21 different countries on which profession the public thought was comparable with teaching, it was only in China that people thought that the status of teachers was similar to that of doctors. Unsurprisingly, with such attitudes towards teachers, Shanghai topped the 2012 Pisa rankings. And it’s not just about teacher pay. We must culturally value teaching – seeing it not simply as a worthy vocation but as a job for the highly skilled that is essential to our future.

Without that, we will condemn more generations to leave school unable to read to the end of a sentence.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation


How well paid teacher workforce is the most valuable resource in Africa

This piece was printed in the Times Educational Supplement on 29th January 2014:

After decades of depressing news, the last few years have seen an outbreak of giddy optimism about the prospects for Africa. The continent’s economy has begun to shift from mining and agriculture to tourism, telecoms and banking. Six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies over the last ten years have been in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s no surprise, then, that The Economist has christened Africa “the hopeful continent”.

But such hopes could be dashed unless education improves. Unesco’s Education for All global monitoring report, published today, paints a damning picture of basic skills in the poorest parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. Though school attendance has increased, 175 million children remain illiterate. As ever, girls fare the worst. The report predicts that it will take until the next century for every girl from the poorest families in sub-Saharan Africa to finish secondary school.

The reasons for Africa’s poor educational performance could easily fill a thick exercise book – from large classes and poor funding to insufficient textbooks and rickety schools. But the malaise has one overwhelming cause: the lack of respect and decent salaries for teachers. This discourages many with the talent to teach from entering the classroom.

It is a particular disaster because 70 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population under the age of 30. Africa’s much-trumpeted renaissance will be stymied if education capacity does not keep pace with the youth bulge, as Asia has successfully managed to do over the last thirty years. The continent’s business leaders frequently argue that finding employees with the right skills is the biggest to challenge they face. And the scale of the task is urgent – according to the Unesco report, 8.2 million new primary school teachers need to be recruited by 2015.

However many teachers are hired by education ministries, it is the quality of their teaching that will help determine whether sub-Saharan Africa will continue to grow. According to the report, west African education is dogged in particular by the fact that less than half of teachers have been formally trained and work under poorly paid temporary contracts.

Teacher absenteeism is also a major issue: in a school I visited in the region, just two of the twenty teachers that were supposed to be there were present. This is not due to idleness. Teacher salaries are often so meagre that teachers have to work a second job to support their family – at the expense of those in the classroom.

Such behaviour takes hold because of a lack of accountability. All too often, once a teacher has been hired, they have a job for life; there is no requirement to demonstrate their skills over time. And there is no equivalent of the Ofsted visit where independent observers can validate the quality of teaching.

This is not to criticise the teachers who are often working heroically in the most arduous circumstances. However, the Education for All report is right that the priority for developing countries is to employ the best teachers, pay them competitive salaries, encourage them to stay in the profession and ensure that they improve their skills throughout their careers.

Governments in developing countries have painful choices to make about spending priorities. But, as Peter Dolton from the London School of Economics has demonstrated, there is a clear link between the level of teacher reward and a country’s educational performance. The star performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings – from Finland to South Korea to Singapore – all prioritise attracting the brightest, best-qualified graduates into the profession through offering excellent pay and conditions.

Practical measures to improve the skills of those teachers already in the classroom are essential. The Varkey GEMS Foundation last year began running a two-week course to improve pedagogic techniques. The programme trains teachers to encourage their students to apply their knowledge rather than simply recalling rote-learned facts. Those teachers that benefited from this programme will, in turn, train their colleagues back in their schools, eventually improving the skills 250,000 teachers around the world.

We should beware too, of techno-utopians who predict that they can transform African education. Though the iPad and the laptop can be valuable teaching tools, internet connectivity in the more remote parts of the continent should not be overestimated. In most schools, using the latest technologies simply isn’t the most pressing concern. The budgets devoted to technological fixes would be better spent, for the moment, ensuring that pupils have access to books, paper and pens.

The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) noted in 2010 that “the demand for education services [in Africa] is rising at a faster rate than governments can supply”. With the endless competing demands on meagre resources of these poorer states, the resources of the private sector must be leveraged to build and operate schools on the scale required. Over forty per cent of pupils are already enrolled in low-cost private schools in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

When the Varkey GEMS Foundation published the Global Teacher Status Index last year, we found that, out of twenty-one countries polled, only one country – China – thought teachers enjoyed the same high status as doctors. It is no coincidence that Shanghai now leads the Pisa rankings.

Respect for teachers is essential for African development. The euphoria that has greeted the glad economic tidings from Africa is entirely justified after decades of poverty and conflict. But, as the Unesco report reminds us, without well-trained, well-paid and well-respected teachers, hope for the next generation of young Africans may prove short-lived.


Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation