Wise words: nations must play the long game

Global summit hears that public spending on academy should not be cut. Sarah Cunnane reports from Doha

December 16, 2010

Education reform is "a marathon, not a sprint", and long-term goals should not be sacrificed for short-term gains, an international panel of experts has argued.

Irina Bokova, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, told delegates at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha that it was vital to convince governments to continue to invest in education throughout the recession.

"The costs of cutting funding today will be felt by individuals for generations," she said at the event last week. "The stakes are high. Education is important for growth, and it provides individuals with the tools to respond to change and make the most of it. However difficult, governments must protect education budgets."

Steen Jorgensen, sector director in human development at the World Bank, agreed that education funding was vital and argued that "the main funder of education is, and should be, government".

"I am an economist today because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a culture which values education," Mr Jorgensen said.

Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University, a private research institution in New Orleans, US, said that it was not possible to reform education and its funding effectively by looking at schools and universities separately.

"The future of higher education is primarily dependent on the compulsory education system," he said. "In the long run, the higher education system can be no better than the system that feeds it."

Dr Cowen argued that a "small investment" in education yielded "outstanding" results in improving a country's economic and social wellbeing. In the US, for example, evidence showed that graduates were five times more likely to volunteer than their peers who left education after high school, he said.

The panel suggested that global solutions were needed to the widespread problems facing education funding, advocating a culture of "raise it globally, spend it locally".

Ms Bokova said: "'Business as usual' simply won't work any more. What we do now to fund education will lay the foundations for the decade ahead."

Mr Jorgensen proposed a model for industry investment based on "education credits", along similar lines to the carbon credits bought by businesses to offset their carbon use.

Ms Bokova said that wherever funding came from, it was vital for the long-term future of society that it be maintained. She paraphrased a Chinese proverb: "If you are planning for a year, plant a tree. If you are planning for a decade, plant trees. However, if you are planning for life, educate people."


Ever-expanding HR: the secret of Finland's success?

The Finnish education system, often held up as a role model for others, succeeds because it has a culture of developing "human resources" rather than "physical resources", according to the country's former prime minister.

Esko Aho, who is now executive vice-president of corporate relations and responsibility at Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia, said that this "value base" had played a "huge" role in shaping Finnish attitudes to education, and private-sector involvement in particular.

Mr Aho praised the steps that the country's academy had taken since the 1980s to collaborate more effectively with business.

However, he added that higher education was still too isolated from business and "the improvements we have made are not enough".

Rather than being greeted with suspicion, private companies investing in the academy should be met with a "warm welcome" as they offer more than cash.

"It shouldn't only be about money where companies are involved: they also bring their innovations," he said.

"It's a very big reason for welcoming private-sector involvement in higher education."

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