Education Systems Around the World Are Failing to Prepare Students for the Workforce: Survey

By Emmeline Zhao

Impoverished children study at a school run by a social organization in Bhubaneswar, India, Thursday, April 9, 2015. According to the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2015, two out of three countries where lower secondary education was not compulsory in 2000 had changed their legislation by 2012, including India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan. According to a new report, rural India saw substantial improvement in nearly all aspects of school facilities and infrastructure between 2003 and 2010. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)

Globally, education is failing to keep pace with rapidly changing economies, and is not preparing students for the workforce, according to members of the education community around the world.

The sentiments come from a new survey, “Connecting Education to the Real World,” being released today at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar. The summit unites thousands of experts and innovators across global sectors to foster collaboration and innovation in education. The study, conducted by Gallup, is based on responses from 149 countries, across 1,550 members of the WISE community – teachers, students, recent graduates, education policymakers, and members of the private sector connected with WISE on education reform issues. Survey results were previewed exclusively for RealClearEducation.

Respondents were largely critical of the effectiveness of their education systems, and called for focus on teacher quality and collaboration between educators and employers. Just 12 percent considered their education systems innovative. Only 1 percent thought their systems were “extremely innovative.”

"Partnerships are essential to preparing young people for post-university employment," Sarah Brown, executive chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education and president of children's charity Theirworld, said in a statement. "Education cannot work in isolation of the economies and societies in which it is situated, and employers cannot be disconnected from the institutions preparing the next generation of the workforce."

Three-quarters of those surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with the education system in their countries. Just 34 percent said they saw improvement in their country’s education system in the last decade, while 29 percent said they saw worsened systems. Across WISE community members from the U.S., just 16 percent said the American education system has improved in the last 10 years, despite decades of reforms efforts.

Across the board, primary and secondary schooling raised more concerns than post-secondary education. Just one-third of WISE education experts rated their primary and secondary systems as “excellent” or “good,” while 67 percent said they were “fair” or “poor.” While they rated higher education slightly better, even a small majority – 51 percent – considered those systems fair or poor.

Fewer than half of those surveyed said their education systems are preparing students for success in the workforce. Even fewer thought their universities, specifically, were doing so – although a majority of those surveyed thought that the responsibility is on universities, not employers, to prepare students for work. 

The biggest challenge in higher education is the lack of work and internship opportunities that would prepare students for jobs, most respondents said.

This comes shortly after a report released last week by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce identified that work done during college is often unrelated to the career they’re pursuing post-graduation. Collaboration across universities and businesses is critical, and linking student academic and work experiences must be a renewed focus, the researchers concluded.

And just 20 percent of college students feel “very prepared” to enter the workforce, according to this year’s McGraw Hill Education’s student workforce readiness survey. More than half said they didn’t learn how to compose a resume.

In July, the U.S. youth unemployment rate fell to 12.2 percent, its lowest level since the beginning of the recession, and down from 14.3 percent a year earlier. But the figures are slightly biased by a drop in the proportion of youth participating in the workforce. It’s also more than double the overall adult unemployment rate of 5.6 percent.

The notion that there is an expanding “skills gap” in America has become prevalent particularly in post-recession years, prompting widespread debate on whether the American liberal arts higher education system needs to be pivoted toward a skills-focused strategy. But liberal arts and career training aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, told RealClearEducation.

“The underpinnings of well-done liberal arts education are extremely valuable to workplace success,” Busteed said. “But I do think these findings point to a strong desire by experts around the globe to integrate more work experience – like internships – and work-like project-based learning into any curriculum, which can certainly be done in liberal arts too.”

U.S. WISE experts rated the American education system relatively well for teaching critical thinking, teamwork, entrepreneurship, and innovation and creativity, but rated it poorly for teaching math and science. This contrasts with global education experts, who on average said their country’s educational systems are better at teaching core academic subjects than cognitive skills required for career success.

The largest higher education concern among American experts was cost, with 70 percent of respondents citing price – compared to the 35 percent global average. U.S. response to impact of college on job prospects and income potential also yielded large gaps from the global average. One interesting global tidbit, however: When experts were asked whether they would urge their child to accept a dream job offer or otherwise, just 35 percent said they would recommend the job – 57 percent said they would urge the child to go to college and forget the job.

A large majority of respondents identified teacher quality as a key challenge and call for strengthening the profession and providing technological support for good teachers. Further, 59 percent said teachers are not treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. The exception lies, however, in East Asian countries, where respect for authority figures has strong cultural roots, and 81 percent of respondents said teachers are well respected. American experts were more likely to identify standardized testing and school funding as major challenges to U.S. primary and secondary education, and less likely to criticize to outdated technology, teacher quality, and project-based learning.

Map courtesy Gallup/WISE

On priorities, 78 percent of global WISE experts said their school systems should put more funds into recruiting, training and retaining high-quality teachers, than on investments in education technology. But that response is in tandem with putting technology in the hands of quality, trained teachers who can optimize the learning potential from technology: 82 percent said technology-based methods can improve education in disadvantaged communities, and 74 percent said technology can better learning for all students.

The global WISE experts have three major recommendations: Foster more collaboration between schools and employers; Strengthen the teaching profession – both in teacher quality and respect for educators; Harness technology to supplement, not replace, high quality teachers.

“The survey reveals a surprising amount of consensus among experts worldwide on several dynamic solutions that, collectively, could transform education and therefore have dramatic implications for the world’s economic performance,” according to the paper. “Given the realities of limited government funding, only by engaging employers in the task of educating succeeding generations of workers will education achieve its full potential. Indeed, what employers don’t invest in the system now will cost them later in lost productivity and training expenses. In combination with more investment in teachers and school funding, deeper connections between schools and workplaces will ensure tomorrow’s students will move seamlessly from the classroom into productive jobs."

Emmeline Zhao
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