It takes little to understand that an educated society is one that transforms itself into higher levels of innovation and productivity. The World Bank in its 2007 quality of education and economic growth report says, “Education can increase the innovative capacity of the economy – knowledge of new technologies, products, and processes.”
Other studies show in many countries individuals’ earning is dependent on their level of education. That may be partially true, but certainly undeniable.
Vikas Pota, global head of corporate affairs and chief executive officer at Varkey GEMS Foundation, a philanthropic arm of GEMS Education, a private education company which owns and manages 90 K-12 schools around the world, believes without quality education, “not just quantity” Africa will not be at a point where it reaches its growing economic potential.
Mr. Pota was one of the participants in the World Economic Forum for Africa, held between the 9th – 11th May 2012 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
He told this magazine the thing that “depresses” him the most is “in summits like this we talk about economics and trade, but the biggest problem Africa has today is lack of quality education.”
To his dismay, of all the mega topics discussed during the two-day summit, the issue of providing quality education in Africa has failed to attract the attention of the bigwigs who participated and spoke in the summit. But for Mr. Pota it’s very simple: “if you are interested in economic growth, how can you build that without the foundation?” And rightly so.
It is the quality
Until recently the global focus on education was targeted on expanding access to primary education. It took many countries a good two decades before they realize gains to national development from education come not only if they provide education en mass, but in quality too.
Mr. Pota’s organization, The Varkey GEMS Foundation, is a “not-for-profit organization, established to improve the standards of education for underprivileged children.” It also provides education scholarships and is engaged in building schools to “increase the capacity of education systems in the developing world.”
Quality is the one thing that Mr. Pota says should never be compromised. “the situation has improved drastically from what it was and in the next 20 years this situation will be dissolved, but there needs to be an emphasis on quality education not just quantity,” he says.
True to his optimism, recent activities worldwide highlight on the crucial need of providing quality education for underdeveloped countries. The Dakar Framework affirms that quality is ‘at the heart of education’; the Millennium Development Goal commits nations to providing primary education ‘of good quality”; and rights activists assert quality education is declared as a one of the universal human right provisions.
The Ethiopian tale
In the last two decades Ethiopia has registered an impressive success in expanding access to education. The country has been committing large resource for the sector with education taking more than 25% of the national budget in 2010-11 fiscal year, according to the Educational Statistics Annual Abstracts (ESAA).
ESAA reports that the gross enrollment in primary education is above 96% and by the year 2010-11 about 17 million students were attending secondary education all over the country. The number of higher education attendants has also increased dramatically to 465, 000 in 2010 from less than 10,00 two decades ago along with public universities numbering 31 today from just a few in 1990s. Many private colleges have also been established in major cities. Some claim enrollment growth rates in Ethiopia are perhaps never seen in any other part of the world.
Clearly, compared with the near 70 million children worldwide with no access to education, there is a “massification’, as some intellectuals refer to it, of education at all levels throughout Ethiopia.
However, even with such large amount of annual budget educational institutions in Ethiopia are severely underfinanced; instructional quality is still dominated by “chalk and talk”; curriculums mostly copied from foreign countries are backfiring; academic freedom and leadership qualities in almost all higher institutions are ruthlessly compromised by unnecessary political intervention ;and thousands of independent teachers from primary to higher level institutions believe, and resent, the government has placed its loyalists in every educational institutions, which is undermining their ability to deliver.
The 2011 Legatum Index of quality of life puts the quality of Ethiopian education at 107th out of the total 110 countries surveyed, just above Central African Republic, Mali and the Sudan. It also says that only 40% of parents surveyed were satisfied with the quality of their children’s education.
Mr. Pota gently refers to such phenomenon, which may not be typical to Ethiopian case, “leakages [in the system] and ineffective analysis of what’s going on.”
Break the vicious cycle
In 2011, the UNESCO and the Varkey GEMS Foundation have signed a memorandum of understanding to work together “to tackle looming teacher shortages in developing countries.”
Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General said during the ceremony, “well-trained and motivated teachers are the key to achieving universal primary education by 2015.” According to the UNESCO to meet global needs for qualified teachers 1.9 million new teachers will be required annually until 2015. “More than half of them will be needed in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Mr. Pota says public private partnership is one of the major things state education departments need to work out if attaining quality education is called for.
Surely, quality is an idea whose time has come. In countries like Ethiopia addressing the challenges of providing quality education seems an uphill battle, but according to a candid assessment by the World Bank creating strong incentive to choice and competition among educational institutions could be a starting point.
The Bank also suggests autonomy and accountability for educational institutions are decisive. “The road to improvement will involve major structural changes and will not follow from simple additions to resources”.
The government in Ethiopia has done a huge reform in decentralization, including the education curricula. However, according to an expert involved in the issue, decentralization of education to sub-national governments “does not in itself empower schools to be responsible for their actions.” Providing high resource without appropriate institutional reform is not worthy either.
For Mr. Pota “the right step is brining the focus” into the forefront. He says he was attending the summit to talk to influential business people in attendance that without a quality education “there is no future for their businesses.”
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org