Necessity could be the mother of innovation

Never before in history has there been such a dramatic demographic shift. It is estimated that there are over a billion people in the 15-24 age group. Emerging markets have by far the largest percentages.

This is referred to as a ‘youth bulge’ because it should decrease over time with improved education and healthcare. We were warned of its coming by institutions like the United Nations. We could have prepared ourselves better, but now it is upon us.

Not unexpectedly, youth unemployment and under-employment have now reached a critical level globally with the ‘crisis’ of unemployment now so pronounced that the current cohort of youth has been referred to as ‘generation jobless’. This is partly due to a lack of jobs, but also to a mismatch between skills and market requirements. This is most pronounced in developing countries.

As the 2014 United Nations Human Development Report points out: “Youth should comprise a demographic dividend to society and ensuring their well-being, self-determination, productivity and citizenship is the best way to reap that dividend.” A dividend is harvested from the incredible power of youth inventiveness and innovation, dynamism and energy.

Witness the entrepreneurial gifts and legacies of people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who made their mark when they were young, to name but a few. One hardly needs to emphasise the results of an inability to harness that energy – social upheaval, political crises, instability and violence.

"Young people and the future of emerging markets" was the subject of this year’s meeting of the Emerging Markets Symposium held at Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford, UK. Authorities on various aspects of the issue were assembled from all over the world to address what is clearly a formidable agenda.

What makes it particularly formidable for emerging markets is the compressed time scales within which the issues need to be addressed, with fewer human, fiscal and financial resources, to say nothing of poorer infrastructure and weaker institutions than many higher income countries.

The education challenge

Education has got to be one of the key dimensions of this historic challenge. The facts about education in emerging markets are known: there is not nearly enough of it (particularly with rising numbers), its reach is limited, access to it is difficult for vast swathes of young people (particularly women and the disabled), funding is constrained and technology underused. Quality is wildly variable.

What are universities and other tertiary institutions to do about this challenge? The issues are not going to be solved by trying to replicate current policies and procedures. Business as usual is simply not an option. It would be totally unaffordable and impractical.

The solutions lie in adopting the best and most pragmatic innovations and practice, making the necessary policy changes, redirecting funding accordingly and, most importantly, getting on with implementation.

Some pragmatic solutions that represent opportunities are as follows:
  • Harness the technology
    Harnessing what technology makes possible must be top of the list. A precondition here is broadband coverage. Broadband is an educational imperative and requires appropriate policy.

    Technology makes so-called distance and open learning much easier to establish and every university should have courses on offer in this mode. This also means that part-time education is an accepted route to various qualifications.

    Technology has created a vast library in cyber-space. Part of this library consists of freely-available MOOCs, or massine open online courses, many of them prepared by staff from some of the world’s best universities.

    Education is obviously never value- or context-free, but competent teachers provided with the excellent material to be found in MOOCs should be able to contextualise appropriately.

    Moreover, North-South divisions regarded with suspicion in some quarters are breaking down as more and more MOOCs are added in different languages and translation facilities become more sophisticated.

    MOOCs hold the key to addressing the shortage of teachers in physics, chemistry and mathematics in particular. Institutions need to be encouraged and their staff incentivised to use them. It takes great pressure off staffing requirements and improves outcomes and student satisfaction.

    Education authorities, school and university authorities and, perhaps most importantly, authorities responsible for accreditation and quality assurance should amend their policies accordingly.

    Technology has also enabled providers to use software that improves the educational experience. Such software includes a range of educational games – which make learning a lot more fun – and so-called ‘adaptive’ learning material which reacts to students’ progress by offering further explanation and examples where answers suggest they are struggling, and moving on swiftly if they are not.

    Quality assurance agencies and accreditation authorities should not lightly give their stamp of approval to education institutions that refuse to use such tools.

    Technology also enables predictive analytics. The data available on student drop-out rates reveal that they are scandalously high – all over the world, including emerging markets. This not only undermines the individual students’ confidence in themselves, but is extremely expensive to the institution and the system.

    There are now several programmes that not only track students’ progress but also provide early warning systems to alert students and teachers where interventions are necessary. Use of this kind of tool should be mandatory and policy and funding should be adapted accordingly.

  • Embrace the ‘for-profit’ providers
    ‘For-profit’ providers have to be seen as part of the system. Too many countries are still hostile to them. Perhaps it is time to realise that this is a response we cannot afford.

    The fact is that ‘for-profit’ providers are not only providing a substantial percentage of education across the world, they are often proving it in more innovative and dynamic ways than the traditional universities – for all the latter’s protests. Needless to say there should be sensible rules in place to monitor quality and control accreditation.

  • Move to competency-based education development
    There is much evidence to suggest that there is a serious need for reform not only to the content of curricula but also to assessment methods. Educational systems have for too long ignored the particular skills and attributes that make graduates employable.

    In many places the system is not producing what the market needs. There will have to be some policy and funding steers to redress this. One of the ways to do so would be to move towards what has come to be called ‘competence-based’ education and assessment.

  • Reform accreditation
    Accreditation procedures are under fire in many places. One American senator has called them “watchdogs that don’t bite” and another has likened the system to a cartel that blocks innovation. There is some truth in this and it doesn’t apply only to America. If a system is going to radically change, the accreditation procedures and principles can accelerate or impede radical change.

    One of the cherished principles held dear by accreditors is the length of time spent obtaining a qualification. There is nothing sacrosanct in the length of the academic year which is effectively using only half the number of weeks available: a luxury we can hardly afford.

  • Strengthen quality assurance
    One of the main steers for any education system is quality assurance. Many systems have few quality assurance mechanisms – and not much in the way of capacity to institute them.

    Poor education at any level is unacceptable and the price is high especially in emerging markets where the unemployment rates are so high and other options to gain further qualifications are scarce. No wonder so many young people are angry.

  • Partner with the informal and commercial sectors
    A great deal of learning happens in organisations outside the formal education sector. One thinks of organisations like the Peace Corps and other such NGOs like National Youth Service and other community – and indeed commercial – endeavours where young people learn. Their learning needs to be accredited and validated.

  • Strengthen funding as a ‘steer’
    Once policies are established, funding is an obvious steer that needs no further emphasis except to mention that teacher education and early childhood initiatives need to be prioritised.
A leap into the future?

This article makes some suggestions about how better to use the resources that many countries devote to education. None of them will be completely new to people of influence in emerging markets. At the same time few of them are seen being implemented there. Vested interests play their part in blocking implementation. None of these suggestions is altogether easy to implement.

It is said that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Emerging markets have urgent needs that might well spur them on to innovation.

But they also have the advantage of being able to leapfrog technological developments, learn from the best and make policy steers that would put them in the forefront of education transformation – if they have the will. How wonderful would that be?

Professor Brenda Gourley was vice-chancellor and CEO of the Open University in the United Kingdom from 2002 to 2009. Before that she occupied the same position at one of South Africa’s largest universities, the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). She currently holds several advisory and consultancy roles in both the public and private sectors.