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Outdated Education System, Key Reason For A Failed Economy

By Ruvini Jayasinghe | July 7, 2022 


Education is key to the economic development and prosperity of a nation, said top educationist and industry leader Bradley Emerson, in an in-depth interview with BMD on the evolution of world education, Sri Lanka’s education system, the disastrous impact of the country’s current economic crisis and the resulting foreign currency shortage burdening students following courses at higher education institutes partnering with foreign universities.

In a candid discussion, Emerson gave searing insights into the relevance of education to a country’s economic growth, and said that an outdated education system was a key reason for a failed economy.
Education and Technology have driven other developing countries from the third world to the first world, he said.

Emerson who currently heads the Imperial Institute of Higher Education (IIHE) as its Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer is an eminent figure in higher education, who has established a prominent presence in steering the direction and advancement of higher education in Sri Lanka.

“It is the educationists’ and educators’ collective responsibility to focus on the world’s future requirements in recruitment of young professionals into the workforce and structure their overall curricula and methods of course studies accordingly, to make our higher education more meaningful,” Emerson told BMD.

“If the importance and urgency of these requirements go unheeded in a rapidly changing world, our tertiary and professional education systems will produce graduates who are incapable of fitting into the latest demands of the current and rapidly changing job market,” he added.

“Our country’s failure to align ourselves with the latest demands in international education is a chief reason for our failure as a country,” Emerson said.

Underscoring the view that he prescribes to, that a chief reason for a country’s economic failure is an outdated education system, Emerson identifies the human brain as the base to all forms of learning. Education has to recharge this organ, keep it agile to probe and reach its maximum potential, to tap its fullest capacity and completely unlock and leave it wide open to function at its optimum.

World education has evolved from basic accumulation of knowledge to artificial intelligence, data analytics and robotics. Robots are now conducting online interviews. Avatars are beings created to replace humans in work environments. We have to align our education system to cater to this digital environment.
Emerson says IIHE has been in education for over 25 years and is now looking beyond mere profits to the higher purpose of education.

Education historically was to increase literacy and then to increase knowledge. Now when knowledge is at the fingertips, what is the purpose of education, Mr Emerson asked? Our education system still continues to fill brains, but doesn’t assess the application of knowledge, but focuses more on memory capacity. Education today should shape the young minds to adapt, to be more agile, entrepreneurial and wise, Emerson said.
A 2014 Mackenzie Global report titled ‘Education for Employment’ says that, “There were more jobs than unemployed people in the world,” a harsh reality of the far-reaching consequences of irrelevant education systems, Emerson said.

Education should be relevant to the job market requirements, he said. Its about the learning outcome and the cognitive ability to apply the learning he added.

He also called for government support for students following degree courses in the over 100 higher education institutes in the country. The recent currency crisis has severely affected these students and Emerson recommends a special foreign currency allocation to assist these students, our future leaders and workforce to continue their education undisrupted.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Why do you identify education as the key to the economic success of a nation?

A: A country’s education system has to be structured and taught to steer the country’s economy and its growth.

The future trends and necessities of the world economies have to be understood by educators to structure the current education system to produce professionals who will have the skills, ability and adaptability to fill those roles.

One of the best examples I can cite is CIMA, where I held office before I joined IIHE. CIMA revises their curricula every five years. The revision is based mainly on the results of intensive discussions with business entities and other organizations which form the world economy, based on the fundamentals of the skill and competency levels expected from new CIMA professionals in the next five years. The world accounting body directly feeds the global recruitment need with qualified professionals ready to hit the ground running by aligning and adapting their course studies to the swiftly changing demands in the global employment market.

Take Finland the world leader in successful education systems. Finland’s budget for teacher training at all levels is higher than the rest of their education budget. This indicates the level of importance given to training the trainers in all levels of education. Their teacher training programmes are even exported to other countries.

Q: How has education evolved to be more relevant to the current global workplace requirements?

A: World Education has undergone a metamorphosis from the old standard of an obligation to increase the level of literacy, to an obligation to facilitate the increase in knowledge through reading, memorizing and reproducing.
Now many countries across the world have stopped examinations and introduced the assignment module, to assess applied and acquired knowledge.
One of the best such examples is Singapore’s education system which has scrapped examinations in primary, secondary and tertiary education to introduce the more meaningful continuous assessment of students through assignments.

Q: How has IIHE responded to changing demands in world education and adapted new teaching methods?

A: IIHE was established in 1996 and in its more than 25 years of teaching has continuously adapted its curricula to meet the rapidly changing dynamics of global business.

We changed our vision statement recently giving new purpose to our vision.
“We believe that education is no longer about filling the minds of students but about shaping the minds. This way we enable agility among the graduates we produce”
The transformation of teaching methods depends on the parent university and at IIHE our degree courses are formulated by our parent university Wales Trinity Saint David, the third largest university in the UK after Oxford and Cambridge.

We have adapted the parent university’s five skill assignment format for all our courses.
The five-skill assignment format includes: engagement with information, assessment of knowledge of the subject, cognitive skills which are relative to the student’s assimilation and inspires to bring a solution, practical skills where all assignments are problems which students are required to solve and transferable skills where students are trained to bring to the table the skills they have acquired.

The content, teachers’ level of skill, teaching techniques and assessment of students are all equally important in education.

Cognitive skills are given high importance in modern learning. The ability to filter knowledge and process what is most relevant is important in problem solving. Meanwhile children as young as 14 to 18 are taught “Design Thinking” and given problem solving assignments to test these skills in schools in Singapore.
While problem solving skills are rated as a top skill among students their interpersonal skills and their social interactable ability are also important in developing their total skills strength.

Finally, education now takes students to nature and trains them to observe and learn how nature behaves and find solutions to problems through this study.

Q: To what extent has the current economic crisis, especially the foreign exchange crisis affected students in higher education institutes?

A: The currency crisis is a burning issue for our students. Of the total number of students who sit for the Ordinary Level examinations each year, only five per cent (30,000 students) secure university admissions locally. Of the other 95% who wish to pursue higher studies for university degrees, a considerably small percentage go to universities abroad on scholarship or with their parents funding. The rest of them enter the more than 100 higher education institutions in Sri Lanka which partner with some of the most prestigious universities in UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, India, etc.

The government’s recent sudden exchange rate policy or the free float of rupee devalued the local currency to unprecedented low levels against the dollar and other hard currencies. This has created immense difficulties for students who went abroad for higher studies and also to students who are following degree courses at the higher education institutions affiliated to foreign universities who have to pay their course fees in the currency of those respective countries. Average cost of studies abroad have spiralled to Rs. 8 million to 10 million per annum, leaving the parents in a dire situation,

unable to afford the current cost of educating their children in foreign universities.
Around 18,000 to 20,000 students go abroad each year to study in foreign universities. There are more than 30,000 – 40,000 students studying in local higher education institutions which partner with a foreign university or other international professional bodies including CIMA, ACCA and CIM.
Government should consider it as a high priority issue and allocate funds for education at a concessionary cost.

Education of our youth in my view is a fundamental right and a constitutional right. We have witnessed and been affected as a nation several times over with dire results of undergraduate unrest over social and financial issues. Their collective protests created a civil uprising affecting the entire nation and the birth of a new leftist movement which eventually has its representation in parliament.

Education and higher Education are top priority to any government. Ignoring these students’ financial issues in continuing their education could impact seriously on us as a nation saddled with a young generation with disrupted education and failed dreams.

Education is key to the economic development and prosperity of a nation, said top educationist and industry leader Bradley Emerson, in an in-depth interview with BMD on the evolution of world education, Sri Lanka’s education system, the disastrous impact of the country’s current economic crisis and the resulting foreign currency shortage burdening students following courses at higher education institutes partnering with foreign universities.

Q: How do you propose the government address this issue?

A separate fund could be created for this category of education and allocate certain amount of funds for it. In a crisis you need to reprioritize your needs. The government must find an alternative for this purpose and have a different mechanism to set exchange rates for this purpose.

There are insurmountable social and psychological factors besetting the youth of our country, our next generation of leaders, stuck at home unable to continue their pursuance of higher studies and a career of their choice. Governments should take serious consideration of these social factors when making policy decision and offer some relief measures to these students.

Leadership questions
What is your perspective on leadership?

There has never been a better time for leadership. Ever since human civilization leadership has probably been the singular ingredient for progress and success be it national, societal or business history. Theoretically, there are many description and definitions but in history I have seen these models demonstrated. At national level, we have the likes of Gandhi, Lee Kuan Yew, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher. In the corporate world the Tatas, Steve Jobs, the Amaleen Brothers, Hans Wijayasuriya and few people I admire.

On the social front St Mother Theresa, Chevan Daniel ( Gammadda) Rev.Metta Vihari ( a Danish business man turned Monk) to name a few. I admire. There is a common thread that cuts across all these people : Vision, the unshaken belief in the vision, a plan to achieve the vision and most importantly the genuine intent and courage to execute the plan to realize the vision.
Recent literature is moving toward empathy based leadership. Coaching is increasingly becoming the most effective transformational tool.

Q:How should a leader handle their organizational crisis?

Crisis has come, is currently present and will come in the future. I have been in crisis positions a couple of times in my career. I joined Pan Asia Bank from Nations Trust Bank when every one thought Pan Asia Bank would follow Pramuka Bank to a collapse. I initiated the turnaround and the Bank is in profits. When the CIMA Sri Lanka Council was stood down in 2010 there was huge adversity and a brand crisis, which was not only withstood, but the CIMA brand regained greater glory.

What I have learnt, be it an organizational crisis or a national crisis, there are three stages: Firstly to survive, then to revive and finally thrive. Each of these stages have different strategies. Leaders need to understand this and craft different strategies. If you take the current national situation, In my view what the state need is not an all-party government, but an STF – Strategic Task Force made up of battle tested corporate leaders.

Q:How do you set organizational goals?

Goals are obviously aligned to the organizational journey. Often goals are set based on the past performance of an organization. Although such goals could be aligned to the corporate journey and vision, my view is that goals need to be set based on the market potential and the allocation of resources.

Q: How do you motivate employees?

To me motivation stems from the motive of the leader. That has the visible and genuine intent of what you want to achieve. Take an example of leaders of extremist groups both globally and locally. What motivates people to die for the cause? The belief in the purpose and the visible commitment of the people leading to the purpose. To me nothing motivates more than a committed and genuine leadership.

Q: What is your advice to young entrepreneurs/leaders/ professionals?

Every generation has an obligation to make the next generation better. For that one need to rely on the government. People need to recognize that there is a universal agenda for us to be where we are. Wake up everyday with intent of becoming better you, commit yourself to touch one soul and make a difference. Most live below potential. Make time to find yourself so that you can leave a legacy.