Meeting Evolving Demands In International Education

Relevant education and training opportunities are key to converting the current “youth bulge” into a development dividend, such as the large youth population that fueled growth in Asian countries in the 1960s. As emerging economies continue to grow in size and diversify in nature, there is an immense demand for new skilled human resources. At the same time, these same economies struggle with a persistently growing young population, or the so-called youth bulge, eager to find employment in the formal sector. Unfortunately, there seems to be a great mismatch between that which is taught in schools and the skills demanded by emerging industries in low and middle-income countries. Most international education institutions and advocates still have a bias towards basic education and education access, but we must expand this conversation, and its interlocutors, in order to create more opportunity in the developing world. Given the current emphasis on education access, basic education, and MDGs, how can we change the conversation in the development community to pivot towards quality of education and training? Given changing financial flows, demographic shifts, and new technologies, education and training offerings must include relevant training and marketable skills.

The importance of quality education, especially beyond the primary level, cannot be overstated. As my colleague Nicole Goldin writes, “developing a high level of cognitive thinking during secondary and tertiary education is arguably just as foundational to youths’ long-term success as gaining a solid foundation during early education. Education impacts all other domains of wellbeing—in particular, employment, health, and citizen participation.”

Governments and the donor community must rethink a number of issues beyond education access, including accreditation processes, new technologies, relevant curricula, and the role of the private sector and civil society. As I’ve said before, nine out of ten jobs created in the developing world come from the private sector, so the private sector must be integrally linked to the education and training process in order to ensure that their labor needs will be met.

At the same time, governments also must rethink their role in expanding and maintaining the quality of educational opportunities, through regulation of new educational entities and ensuring access to education. Furthermore, governments also have a new responsibility: fostering the enabling environment for educational entrepreneurs to thrive.

Let’s take the case of Latin America. As my friend Gabriel Zinny writes in his new book, Educacion 3.0, investment in education is no longer the biggest hurdle. Governments and private organizations alike must now focus on the quality of schooling and innovations that will promote better results. Investment in education since the initiation of the MDGs in 2000 has been significant, which shows in increased primary enrollees across the world. According to UNDP, primary enrollment in developing regions has increased from 82 percent in 1999 to 90 percent in 2010. However, clear weaknesses remain. In Latin America, though enrollment is high, only 18 of 30 countries have achieved gender parity in terms of primary school enrollment and performance on international tests, including the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), remains dismal. In 2012, the eight Latin American countries that participated in PISA testing all ranked in the bottom third of countries in reading, math, and science. In other words, enrollment is not a substitute for quality education or workforce preparedness. As of 2013, there were an estimated 22 million “ninis” (ni estudian, ni trabajan—not in school, not working, in Spanish) in Latin America, many of whom are high school dropouts or high school graduates unable to find work. How do we retrain these underutilized people and put them to work? How do we motivate drop-outs to return to their education?

Though improving quality of and access to traditional higher education is certainly a part of the education puzzle, governments and the private sector alike must be open to alternative forms of education and workforce training. Unfortunately, there is a bias against some forms of vocational training or apprenticeship programs due to stigma associated with pursuing these roles, even though skilled manual labor is in great demand. In many cases young people have greater earning potential pursuing a skilled trade rather than a traditional university education, but the stigma surrounding this decision is a major impediment to meeting this need. There is also the additional complexity of what work is suitable for young women in the workplace, as some parents do not wish for their daughters to go to work in industries such as hospitality or tourism.

Increasing Internet access throughout the developing world also presents new opportunities in education and workforce training, for both young people and established professionals seeking to gain new skills. In what ways can Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which offer high-quality resources for students all over the world, be leveraged and incorporated into innovative global education solutions? This is a question that the private sector should be eager to answer.

Fortunately, organizations such as the International Youth Foundation (IYF) and RTI International, both of which I have worked with in different capacities at CSIS, are working to meet changing education needs through a range of programming and research that harnesses new technologies and accounts for changing workforce demands. IYF’s Passport to Success program, in particular, has helped more than 80,000 young people to match classroom education to the tangible hard and soft skills needed in the workplace. In India, 86% of program participants were in school or employed within 6 months of completing the curriculum. In October, RTI led a high-level discussion on African workforce development in Addis Ababa, along with international donors and regional organizations. With 15 million young people coming onto the African job market, discussions like these are key to fostering future growth.

Going forward, we have the opportunity to sustain the incredible growth of the past decade, and catapult a large youth population into an economic windfall. This will not occur if we maintain the status quo in education. Governments need to support entrepreneurship and innovation, and public and private actors alike must take advantage of new tools to prepare students to meet the labor demands of growing industries.

Article Published in on December 5, 2014.

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