Experts discuss the challenge of achieving universal, quality education

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© World Economic Forum/2011/Flubacher
Universal, quality education was one of the challenges addressed at the 2011 annual meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

By Pi James

NEW YORK, USA, 3 February 2011 – At the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) held recently in Davos, Switzerland, leaders from business, politics, academia and other fields met to discuss solutions for pressing global challenges, including the challenge of achieving universal, quality education.

On the eve of the Forum, UNICEF Radio podcast moderator Amy Costello spoke on the phone with WEF Global Education Initiative Director Alex Wong in Davos, and Rebecca Winthrop, Director of the Centre for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. They talked about decisions that need to be made in order to expand access to education for children.

Listen to the Podcast in Streaming MP3 format

Learning Crisis

In the podcast discussion, Ms. Winthrop said there is a learning crisis plaguing low income countries today.

“Kids are enrolling in school in much greater numbers than ever before,” she said, “but that really masks the fact that they’re actually not learning very much. One example is that in Uganda, half the kids in third grade can’t read a single word.”

Mr. Wong cited the “political challenge” of achieving universal, quality education. “We’re not making the right investments in long-term quality, because the payoff is so long,” he said.

Need for investment

“We know how to train teachers. We know how to put in curricula. We know what the right things to do for kids are to give them all the right skills,” added Mr. Wong. “But the investment required, and the time and the commitment, is not there if you don’t have the political support.”

A Brookings Institution analysis of the wealthiest philanthropic donors in the United States found that global education was a very low priority for them. Ms. Winthrop said she believed this was because a focus on enrolment – which is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal on education – has “lulled people into thinking that the global education agenda is done, check, we can cross that off the list.”

© World Economic Forum/2011/Flubacher
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a press conference held during the 2011 annual meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum.


‘Education is the key’

Mr. Wong agreed. “We’re trying to get the message to policy makers that if the key challenge in the global economy is now more balanced, even economic growth, that – again – education is the key,” he said.

“It’s not just [about] putting them into school…. It’s making sure they’re coming out with the right skills that make them employable and make them so creative and innovative that they might actually go ahead and start their own business.”

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