Minding the gaps at the Global Education & Skills Forum

Vikas Pota, CEO of the Varkey Foundation.

DUBAI — A child entering school today will graduate in 2030, just as the Sustainable Development Goals reach their final milestone. That is, if we’re thinking of one of the children fortunate enough to enter school and then supported enough to graduate.

That is not a given, because while many of the SDGs are on track, education simply is not one of them. In fact, this year’s World Development Report focuses on a “learning crisis.” Around one-third of all children receive little or no education. This crisis persists at a moment when technological advancement is happening so fast that even educated workers in advanced economies worry their jobs will be replaced by automation.

This is the backdrop for the Global Education & Skills Forum, a kind of Davos for the global education set, that begins tomorrow and which Devex is covering in-depth. The likes of Priyanka Chopra, Al Gore, and Nicolas Sarkozy will be wandering the conference halls, rubbing shoulders with hundreds of the world’s best teachers and educators. But beneath the creative hubbub lies a stark reality no one here can shake: Global education is failing.

There are several gaps leaders here are grappling with. The most obvious one for decades has been the gap in access to education — just getting kids into schools. That gap remains — a quarter of a billion kids do not go to school — but dramatic progress has been made on this count.

But unfortunately, for too long, progress on educational access has obscured the low quality of education many students were receiving. This learning gap is now a central focus of development agencies and education ministries and a major topic of conversation each year at this forum.

But closing both those gaps can’t happen without addressing the financing gap, one the World Bank estimates totals $39 billion each year. That’s several billion more than the estimated $33 billion required to close a similar gap for global health, yet education leaders complain that their sector, unlike global health, hasn’t been able to make a successful funding case. There is, for example, no equivalent in education for the Global Financing Facility and no private education donor of the scale of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Global Partnership for Education, a vertical fund in some ways similar to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, has an annual budget of around $1 billion versus $4 billion for the Global Fund.

For Vikas Pota, chief executive officer of the Varkey Foundation, a leading education philanthropy that puts on this forum, it is because “education is like a 15-year cancer” — it is a slow-motion crisis quite unlike a pandemic or natural disaster. Entrepreneurs and reformers looking for quick fixes won’t find them here in Dubai. This is a systems problem, as complex as they come.

The biggest gap of all, Pota thinks, is a leadership gap. It’s not that educators don’t know what to do or don’t have models that work. Exciting educational technologies and innovative funding models do exist. What’s required, says Pota, is "to build up the political capital in the job of the education minister” so he or she can take on the new policies that are needed.

Pota thinks a lot about education ministers and the challenges they face. Some 200 have attended this forum, now in its sixth year. With half a billion kids attending schools their own rating agencies classify as failing, “governments should be ashamed,” he says.

There’s also a global teacher gap to contend with. Even advanced economies are facing a serious challenge recruiting and retaining teachers. While there’s promise in education technologies, Pota insists that all the evidence shows “teachers are here to stay.”

In fact, he thinks, financial technologies — so called “FinTech" — are “15-20 times further ahead” when compared to EdTech. That’s in large part because technology providers are doing “market research, not education research.” They’re paying too little attention to what the technologies will actually deliver and, according to Pota, ought to be asking themselves, “Does it improve learning outcomes?”

The Varkey Foundation, the private foundation of Sunny Varkey, the world’s most successful education entrepreneur, sees these gaps in countries such as Ghana and Argentina where it makes grants and runs its own initiatives. Varkey, a signatory of The Giving Pledge, has moved his own private schools and education services business GEMS to expand from its base in the United Arab Emirates to countries throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Even so, this forum avoids easy answers, like just touting more private education, in favor of more complex systemic opportunities such as improving public education. As Pota emphasizes, 99 percent of the educational system that needs to be improved falls under the purview of government.

Devex is here to find insights amid the deep complexity of the global education crisis. Our on-the-ground team will be covering the forum and reporting back through the course of next week with a special focus on global education. Look out for our coverage of the promise of EdTech, opportunities to improve and expand the global teacher workforce, and the importance of leadership in education.

The Global Education & Skills Forum caps off with the Varkey Foundation's Global Teacher’s Prize, a kind of Nobel Prize for teachers that awards $1 million to a single teacher based on an independent process. For an organization dedicated to building the capacity and status of teachers, setting up educators from around the world to be feted by world leaders and celebrities is a fitting coda to two days of intense policy debates. But those debates, those key gaps, need more attention too, so we hope you’ll tune into Devex’s coverage by keeping track of #GESF or subscribing to our newsletters.

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About the author

  • Raj kumardevex

    Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief of Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community.