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.
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, the future of AI, 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
People management skills
Coordinating with others
Judgment & decision-making
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.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I visited Ethiopia to attend the World Economic Forum’s Africa Summit – a choice which confused many of us, as, like many other African countries, doesn’t strike you as being a natural choice to host such an event, but when we scratched beneath the surface, what impressed was their total focus on applying science and engineering to boost their economic and agricultural productivity, which is obviously working as they’re now the world’s third fastest growing economy. Imagine that! I remember, as a young boy, cycling to my local record shop to buy the charity single that brought Ethiopia into focus, and where we all sang along to “do they know its Christmas time at all”.
And it’s not the only example of a country that we think of as ‘developing’ as being in a vastly different economic environment than we might think. While we all know of the rise of the BRIC economies, but did you know that a country like India produces more engineers & doctors than the whole of Europe put together?
Both examples show that investing in STEM education makes good economic sense. Education can be the driver for economic growth. But it’s not always universal and girls and women are often being left behind. There’s an obvious moral argument to this – how can it be right to leave behind so many people – but there’s also an economic argument. On what basis can we look at ourselves if we don’t do more to ensure that we create generations of female mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and technologists?
Did you know that since the inception of the Nobel Prize for Physics, only two women have won this prize? Only four have won the Chemistry prize. How can this be right? We can drill even further as the statistics for women “of colour” are even more alarming such as; only 2% of all women professors in the US are “of colour”.
How can this be right?
The work that the Varkey GEMS Foundation does with UNESCO concerns the recruitment of more women into the teaching profession, the skilling of these recruits to ensure girls advance in STEM subjects, and an ongoing commitment to their professional development as educators.
As a company, if there’s one thing that GEMS has learnt from educating children is that good teachers matter. Who stands at the front of a classroom often makes the essential difference to a child’s prospects of success.
As a charitable foundation we believe that the role & status of teachers has become so derided that we fail to appreciate their critical contribution to a country’s progress. We also fail to understand the way in which the teaching profession is changing, for example as technology allows for easier transfer of knowledge, the classroom teacher takes on an ever more critical role – that of a “mentor”. In this avatar, teachers can have an incredible influence on parents, students and the wider community, and can convince those who don’t believe that science pays, of the rewards advancement in STEM subjects can hold for families and communities – whether in cosmopolitan cities like London or Paris or in the most rural locations in Lesotho or Kenya, where our intervention is targeted.
No longer are STEM subjects taught in isolation, real world challenges demand an inclusive, combined approach. In this new way of learning, teachers become even more vital as they join the dots for students to make the subjects real and practical.
We need to be clear in our minds that a focus on STEM education can boost a country’s economic chances – which in these challenging and austere times is important to understand. But, clarity of thought is one thing, we ought to also bear in mind the moral argument in training girls and women, for they have been neglected for far too long by a male dominated political culture, which is hard to defend on any basis.
Teachers are the backbone of the education sector. By investing in them, we invest in ourselves.
As a father of two daughters, I wanted to convey my thanks to H. E. Ms. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO for convening such an alliance to further the education of girls and women and look forward to reporting back the progress we’re making in Lesotho & Kenya over the next few years.
Chief Executive Officer
The Varkey GEMS Foundation
I, like almost everyone I talk to, am bothered about the state of affairs regarding education & skills. I’m not referring to the political agenda in England revolving around free schools, the promotion of academy status for schools, the education maintenance allowance, university fees or any such subject that’s being debated in our political media; rather I’m referring to the injustice of the 60million or so children who’ve never set their eyes on a school building. More so, I get even more vexed when I hear about the millions of children who do attend a school, but leave without learning anything! How comes that never comes up in our media?
The reason I mention this, is recently, I was fortunate to have met with Madhav Chavan, who in the mid-90s founded a NGO in India called Pratham. Later that evening, I attended a dinner hosted by their UK chapter where he laid out the challenge.
His argument was simple. One of the main reasons children fail in the Indian schooling system is because they lack basic literacy skills – they can’t read or write. As a result of this realization, Pratham’s dedicated itself to reaching the absolute bottom (of the famous Indian) pyramid to equip those children (and now adults) with these skills.
To assist their work, one the most valuable things that Pratham instituted and conducts with rigour is a national survey, called ASER, which has now become the de-facto study on education in India, as approx 720,000 people in 16,000 villages across the sub-continent are surveyed.
Chavan highlighted some of the following statistics, which made me sit up and think (read: pull my hair out):
• 97% of children in India are enrolled in a school – emphasis is on enrolled. They don’t necessarily attend or sit exams.
• After four years of learning, in class 5, between 40 – 50% of children can’t read or can’t write.
• In rural India (which is the majority of India), after four years of schooling, in class 5, 60% of children fail to solve a simple division sum.
If this is the case, regardless of where we live, we all need to worry.
If a quarter of the world’s work force is expected to reside in India within the next 15 years, where are all the skilled workers going to come from? Yes, India has a large, and young population that could be a massive advantage in its ascendancy to super-power status, but there’s simply no hiding from these facts.
Right now, it’d be quite easy to take a pot-shot at the role of government, but as Chavan explained, India is a very complex country, where there is a long term commitment in fixing this problem. I assume the challenge comes in dealing with the situation here & now – which if you’ve ever visited India is a challenge in most spheres of life.
As is so true, he explained that where good leadership exists, you find change. For example, some progressive state governments do recognise the huge hurdle that exists and are doing something about this. Bihar is a good example. It has 10 million illiterate adults, and to institute a programme to equip them with “employment ready” skills will require an army of volunteers, which Pratham is trying to marshal with the support of Nitish Kumar, their Chief Minister.
Similarly, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, realizes as a result of ASER data on his state that in order to translate his success in attracting massive investment commitments he needs a skilled and educated workforce. He’s now mandated his Ministerial team to visit schools to assess for themselves the problems in their system.
If you read my first post in January 2011, you’ll see that I took my kids to a Pratham school in Mumbai. The thing that struck me was that Pratham’s model works because it’s so simple. Because it’s low-cost. Because they’re at ground level. But more importantly, because they can prove their method works.
At the dinner later that day, surrounded by ultra successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and city professionals, Chavan conveyed his message with great effectiveness. His audience were positively agitated and somewhat pissed off at the situation in their beloved motherland. In typical fashion, wanting to put the world right several suggestions were offered by those assembled, but Chavan put it all in perspective, at least for me. He explained: in a country where almost 75% of the population defecates in the open, you need solutions that take into cognizance the reality of India, here and now, and build on them rather than building clouds in the sky.
He’s right. You & I know it. By offering our support to the likes of Pratham, we’ll be doing something about the challenges facing our future generations.