Education systems are not keeping up with fast-changing global economies, and in advanced and developing countries alike students are not being prepared for the modern workforce.
This "skills gap" was the focus for this year's World Innovation Summit of Education (WISE), an event that brings together thousands of leading education experts and policymakers.
The latest WISE research suggests the depth of the problem. The group's 2015 survey, conducted in collaboration with Gallup, found that only 39 percent of education leaders, hailing from more than 145 countries, believe that their universities are adequately addressing the skills gap. Even fewer, 23 percent, say the same about primary and secondary schools.
The reality is sometimes even worse than the perception. In the United States, Gallup polling found that 96 percent of university leadership thought that their institutions were "very or somewhat effective" at preparing students for the workforce. Yet only 11 percent of business leaders surveyed thought the same thing--pointing to a major disconnect between those that educate the youth and those that employ them.
These concerns were raised by the WISE participants, with much of the discussion focusing on the role of professional training programs, including internships, apprenticeships, and career counseling. As Gallup Executive Director Brandon Busteed concluded, "these findings point to a strong desire by experts around the globe to integrate more work experience...into any curriculum."
Unfortunately, while there was an across-the-board consensus about the nature of this disconnect, specific solutions were largely absent. Conversations about collaboration between educators and employers, or between public and private institutions, were positive but vague.
However, there are some good examples, like the McKinsey "Generation" program, which offers bootcamp style career training for young adults entering the workforce. Or Pathways to Progress, a project of the Citi Foundation that will help train 100,000 low income youth in the United States. As McKinsey's head of global education practice, Mona Mourshed, argued, understanding the rate of return of this kind of training is key for aligning incentives. Companies invest billions in training without much clear sense of what they are getting out of it.
For the rest of society, too, it is important to make clear the opportunities that exist for these new types of partnerships. Most of the WISE participants, according to the survey, still believe that universities alone have the primary responsibility for preparing students for the workplace. Among Latin American responders believed this especially strongly--which is worrisome given that barely 15 percent of the region's population will graduate from university. Without other methods of training, it will be very hard for the vast majority of Latin Americans to get the skills they need.
The conference did, in contrast with last year's gathering, include many more types of stakeholders, from non-profits to entrepreneurs. The global consultancy Parthenon-EY produced and presented a major report on the role of private capital in providing education around the world. The report investigated a broad array of case studies in which private capital and innovative business models are being applied to the education sector. This included efforts in African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria (Bridge International), the Middle East (Qatar Outstanding Schools Program), Latin America (Brazil's Ideal Invest), and India (the Educate Girls program.)
Improving education for girls, in particular, occupied a principal place at the two-day conference. The gathering's highlights included two emotional speeches from Her Highness Sheika Mosa bint Nasser, Qatar Foundation chairperson and the force behind WISE, and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. Both emphasized the ongoing tragedy that more than 60 million girls around the world are still unable to go to school--in too many cases because of war, displacement, or other crises.
And as Rebecca Winthrop, head of the Brookings Center for Universal Education, has persuasively argued, educating girls is of the utmost importance. "More educated girls, for example, have healthier children, help reduce infant mortality, and play more active roles in leading their communities and countries," she writes.
Thus it is more important than ever that solutions to provide better education to girls and other underserved segments of society can be found, evaluated, and expanded. In this sense, WISE was once again able to help align major stakeholders behind a constructive global agenda that prioritizes vulnerable communities. Achieving this is the responsibility of all facets of society, and the WISE assembly demonstrates that progress is indeed being made.