Economies are driven by pools of skilled problem-solvers. These are the unsung innovators who study how problems are and were solved elsewhere and in the past, and adapt those solutions to their day-to-day realities. They include the farmers who plant exotic crops, the engineers who find new ways to use local materials or the managers who leverage culture to better organize labor.
In order to prosper, countries need relatively few of these innovators since ideas, especially in the information age, propagate quickly. In fact, the Chinese, Korean and even British economies were built on a low-skilled workforce lead by people who organized labor and adapted imported methods and tools to gain a competitive advantage.
The challenge for Africa is to find a way to:
- train pools of highly skilled labor,
- make them employable, and
- establish a system that gradually raises education outcomes.
Transfer costs to families
It is striking how in Asia both poor and rich parents invest an incredible amount of time and money to supplement public education. Because it's the norm for kids to be tutored after school, students perform well in international assessments.
This culture does not yet exist in Africa and governments must implement policies to convince families to bear more of the cost of education. This is especially important because cash-strapped African governments are unable to build new classrooms, purchase equipment or hire enough teachers to provide a world class education to every student.
Nudge students to invest more in their education
Technology is about to revolutionize the traditional classroom model. In a few years, most children should have inexpensive tablets loaded with tailored learning software, enabling self-teaching.
Governments must implement policies to encourage students to take their education more seriously. They should include making learning more enjoyable and collaborative, and rewarding top performers with lucrative career prospects.
Form public-private partnerships
The resulting pool of highly skilled labour must be hired by existing firms or be given help to start their own. The purpose of the public-private partnerships is to have a pool of workers with the practical skills to solve local issues.
Such a partnership will also motivate students. If they know that outstanding academic performance inevitably leads to a successful career, students and parents will have more incentive to invest in education.
Now how to accomplish it
All the solutions revolve around sowing dreams in students and families. No matter how unlikely, they have to sincerely believe that if they excel, they will be guaranteed a high standard of living.
In Asia, for instance, families push their children hard academically because there exists a handful of world class universities where attendance guarantees a good career. The same goes in poorer neighborhoods of South America and Africa where children with very little resource and formal coaching come to dominate international football. Those children invest considerable resources in sports because of the dream of making it big in Europe.
Realistically, there are so few places in these school and teams as to make it almost impossible to get in. However, just the dream of having a great career can raise private investment in education so much as to significantly raise the national skills level. Unfortunately, there are no elite universities on the continent, and therefore world class education is reserved for the fortunate few who can afford to study abroad.
To this end, the existing strong regional trade blocs (i.e. Southern African Development Community, East Africa Community, Economic Community of Western African States) need to establish networks of world class universities where each school specializes in a particular field. In order to raise their academic profile, these universities must partner with reputable international peers and regularly exchange staff.
This method of promoting education is a bargain as cost will be shared within the bloc and financing deals with the private sector can be signed. Trade organizations, in return for funds, will be able to have a say in the curriculum so graduating students will easily fit in their companies.
Finally, in order to motivate students, the top ranked secondary school students will receive a full scholarship to attend these elite institutions. Upon graduation from elite schools, students will be guaranteed a private or public sector job. Such guarantee given to the cream of the crop is vital to ensure that students continue to invest in their education.
Africa is full of brilliant students and graduates who cannot get a job because there are no standardized metrics available to employers. Since it is possible to purchase grades or get questionable diplomas from a plethora of small universities, hiring is risky.
Because no matter how well they perform it is incredibly hard for students to get well-paying jobs, they fail to invest enough in education. This further reduces the average skill of graduates and the willingness of employers to hire.
African governments should replace their divergent national secondary school assessment for a continent-wide test recognized by industrialized nations. This will help brilliant students get scholarships in foreign or local elite universities.
African universities must also encourage their students to enroll in internationally recognized professional tests such as the Chartered Accountant or Registered Nurse certifications. If participation is too expensive or fails to consider local realities, African trade organizations should establish continental standardized exams.
The upcoming introduction of cheap tablets will revolutionize education. Whereas, traditionally, African students learned in overcrowded classrooms with few textbook, they will soon be able to have individually tailored lessons and access to unlimited knowledge.
Tablets can now be bought at less than USD50, the network of fiber optic cables covering the whole continent is completed, and most importantly the best programmers in the world are working on education software.
The Global Education Xprize attracted hundreds of programmers tasked with building a tablet that would teach children to read, write and do math on their own. There are also many Massive Open Online Courses offering free lectures from top professors online.
Through competitions, governments can encourage students to make full use of this technology. This may include continental spelling bees such as in India, math competitions like in Canada or science contests.
Of course, not every student will be motivated to participate, but the motivated ones who are currently hidden in the system will have the opportunity to shine and a much higher likelihood to better theirs and their nation's future.
By Kasole Nyembo