Sport, thou art fertility!

Our new sponsors want you to wear underpants

The trouble with the modern Olympics is that they’ve totally abandoned the spirit of the ancient games and sold their soul to sponsors, professionalism, and cheating, not to mention the worst traffic jams you’re ever likely to see in a modern city. That, in any case, was the opinion of Pausanius writing nearly 2000 years ago about the games organised by the Romans.

He had a point, but luckily some things have improved over the years. McDonalds has been mocked for insisting their deal gives them an exclusive right to sell chips at London 2012 (TM), but as historian Mary Beard points out, at least they don’t expect their CEO to be allowed to compete in the sport of his choice. When Nero bankrolled the games, he insisted on driving in the chariot race. And getting the laurel wreath, despite as Professor Beard points out, coming technically what we’d call “last” after falling off at the first bend.

In his defence, he did actually race, for a few metres anyway. In the Greek tradition, the winner was the team’s owner, not the sweaty riffraff on the track, which is how a Spartan princess became the first woman to win Olympic gold.  Well, not quite gold, only some twigs and leaves, and there was none of this nonsense of giving a prize to the first and second loser. The medals came with de Coubertin’s modern games as did a range of other traditions, from the Hitler-inspired Olympic torch to the Brezhnev-inspired special traffic lanes. One of the weirdest inventions is the length of the marathon, practically a sprint compared to the original it claims to imitate. The distance varied until the London games in 1908 when Queen Alexandra insisted it start under the windows of the nursery at Windsor Castle, 26 miles, 385 yards from the finishing line in the stadium.

Other innovations from these earlier games have since disappeared, including shooting at deer, pigeons, and each other (I’m not 100% sure of this, but the records show an event called “duelling pistols”). Likewise, the poetry medal has gone, despite de Coubertin himself winning it with an effort that included the unforgettable line “Sport, thou art fertility”. And what fun it must have been to assist at the town planning competition! Shame they didn’t have slow motion replays on the telly.

If you never get beyond freestyle pole dancing or synchronised shoplifting on GuySports, you may wonder why anybody would go to all the trouble and expense of organising anything with so many dull moments as the Olympics in the first place. The answer doesn’t seem to have changed over the millennia. Cities and countries feel that sport is a good investment in their image, as well as a boost to the economy, and even in the golden age they were prepared to spend on success. It’s highly suspicious that the otherwise unremarkable town of Kroton was home to 11 of the 26 victors in the prestigious stadion race between 588 and 488 BC, compared with 2 for its nearest rival, as well as 20 of the 71 known gymnastics champions. Sounds to me like Manchester City or Paris St Germain buying up the stars.

Does it work? The Insights blog is proud to be sponsored by the OECD which has studied the impact of big events on the organising cities, and in 2010 produced a peer review of the Olympic and Paralympic legacy for East London. For me, the most interesting part is when it implicitly rejects the Olympics’ schizophrenic mixture of nationalism and individualism, arguing that to realise the legacy of London 2012, “it will be important to tell the story of east London’s inhabitants very much better. The area has a rich history as a centre for trade, logistics, and production, for hardworking people of exceptional character, for immigration and asylum… and for making lives worth living in ways they would not have been lived otherwise.”

Faster, higher, stronger versus friendly, adventurous, innovative. Take your choice.

Useful links

Other OECD work could have helped to prevent a major tragedy if it had been published a couple of thousand years earlier. After the boxer Kleomedes was disqualified in 492 BC, he went to a school in his home town and pulled away the column holding up the roof, which collapsed killing 60 children. Our work on school safety doesn’t address proofing the building against bad losers as such, but it does give plenty of sound advice about construction standards.

OECD Territorial Reviews: Competitive Cities in the Global Economy

Building a new power balance BRIC by BRIC

Today’s post is from the Bertelsmann Foundation and was written by freelance journalist and editor Justine Doody

Western dominance of global financial and political institutions is about to end if the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) have anything to do with it. In June 2012, as Europe stumbled, the BRICS came to the rescue, pledging $75 billion to the IMF’s Eurozone bailout fund of $460 billion. The move illustrates the bloc’s increased importance in the global economy.

Najim Azahaf, project manager of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s SGI project which analyses the governance structures and reform capacities of countries (and whose study on Sustainable Governance in the BRICS will be published this fall), claims that “the BRICS are about to change the power structure in the world economic system, and our study will provide a detailed profile of strengths and weaknesses in terms of institutional frameworks, government performance and governance capacity and help to answer central questions such as how sustainable their economic development is”.

It’s true that the BRICS’ growth has slowed in 2012, but their success in the downturn compared to the developed economies has seen their relative importance to the global economy skyrocket. Brazil, Russia, India and China accounted for 20 per cent of world economic output in 2012 according to the IMF, a fourfold increase in the last ten years. Along with South Africa, the grouping’s most recent member, the BRICS are home to 43 per cent of the world’s population. And they see in cooperation a way to make their mark on global governance, just as they have on the global economy.

One of the major motivations behind the BRICS’ cooperation is their shared desire to limit the power of the developed economies in the global financial system. Since its first summit in 2009, the group has sought changes to the structures of the IMF and the World Bank. At their March 2012 summit in New Delhi, the leaders of the BRICS again called on the IMF to implement quota reforms agreed at the G20 summit in 2010. The $75 billion promised to the bailout fund in June was given “in anticipation that all the reforms agreed upon in 2010 will be fully implemented in a timely manner, including a comprehensive reform of voting power and reform of quota shares”.

The BRICS agree that Western dominance of financial structures must end, but they have been slow to put forward suggestions for a new order. In New Delhi, they failed to unite around a candidate for the presidency of the World Bank and their action plan was heavy on agreements for future meetings but light on specific policy pronunciations.

This lack of specificity can be traced back to the considerable differences between the countries, on economic as well as on geopolitical issues. Russia is an energy exporter, and benefits from the high energy prices that threaten the manufacturing economies of India and China. Brazil profits from high food prices that disadvantage others in the bloc. China is a true economic superpower, where South Africa is a minnow. India’s population and economic potential is expanding quickly, while Russia’s is in decline.

On security, the bloc has to overcome mutual suspicions that stretch back generations. China and India have long-standing border disputes, and Russia fears that China has designs on Siberian resources. And the five countries have very different systems of government. India, Brazil and South Africa are democracies, China is a communist state, and Russia’s democratisation can at times appear in doubt.

But in spite of their divergences, the BRICS have found ways to work together that will impact their own development and that of the rest of the world. Intra-BRICS trade stood at $230 billion in 2011 and the group is targeting $500 billion by 2015. At the G20 summit in June 2012, the BRICS’ leaders discussed creating a joint safety net in the form of a reserve fund to be used to counter capital flight in any of the BRICS countries. The proposal should be finalised at the BRICS summit in 2013. At the New Delhi summit in March, they had already agreed to explore the creation of a joint development bank. The June declaration brought this plan closer to reality.

Financial cooperation will give the BRICS greater power to shape the world economy, but already, their influence has been felt across developed and developing economies alike. The BRICS’ involvement in development funding is growing. A study by Global Health Strategies showed that between 2005 and 2010, Brazil’s foreign assistance spending rose about 20 per cent a year, China’s grew by about 24 per cent, and India’s by 11 per cent – far more quickly than growth in development assistance from the G7 countries. And an IMF working paper in 2011 argued that the spillover effects of the BRICS’ good performance during the economic crisis added 0.3 to 1.1 percentage points to the growth of low-income countries.

The world is watching to find out whether the BRICS can provide an alternate engine of growth in a post-Western world, or whether their star will wane along with that of the developed economies. But in growth or decline, it is clear that their fortunes will have significant implications for the future of the global economy.

Useful links

Brazil, India, China and South Africa are key partners of the OECD.

On 30 November 2007, the OECD Council approved the roadmap to accession for the Russian Federation.

Let’s read them a story! Helping your children succeed in school

“Reading is neither a mother’s nor a father’s job; it should be a joy to both”

Today’s post is from Anne-Lise Prigent, the editor in charge of education publications at OECD Publishing

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” said Mark Twain. Well, watching a film like Race to Nowhere makes you think Twain was right. The film describes schools miserably unable to prepare young Americans to become “healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens”.

What went wrong? The schools portrayed are obsessed by success, but ironically they fail students. The pressure is such that the students’ only aim is to pass exams. Students are caught aboard a runaway train and use any means available to cope with the madness of the system. These include cheating, taking stimulants and tranquilisers, or even inflicting harm upon themselves. They don’t learn but merely memorize, regurgitate and forget. A student sighed with relief after her final exam: “Phew… I’ll never have to speak French again!”.

The audience with whom I saw this documentary at the American University of Paris was shocked. These parents, teachers and school leaders felt that the film mirrored their own experience, in France and elsewhere. Too much stress, not enough learning. Although the film dealt with the upper 2% of the American education system (so-called “elite schools”), the uneasiness it captured was apparently felt by many.

Shouldn’t education help us live and work in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world? The film’s drained (rather than trained) students finally arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired. Some have to take remedial classes when they enter college. A lawyer observed that the recent interns and new employees in her firm did not try to understand what the issues were and how to tackle them. Their only question was: “How many paragraphs should I write?”.

This is hardly the 21st century skill set education is supposed to deliver: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration. Through creativity (which comes first), we hope to find brand new ways of addressing economic, societal and personal problems. Schools should nurture creativity and innovation – and not just in the Arts. However, according to Ken Robinson: “our approaches to education are stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the 21st century – the powers of creative thinking”.

How schools can adapt to the 21st century is a crucial and complex issue, dealt with in an outstanding OECD publication: Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century. However, education does not only happen in the classroom. It starts – and continues – at home.

How can parents help their children succeed in school? How can they best help them acquire 21st century skills? Let’s Read them a Story: The Parent Factor in Education is based on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results and it shows that our involvement as parents is essential for children throughout their school years and beyond.

This attractive little book (which features exquisite New Yorker cartoons) will reassure parents: it is never too early and never too late to get involved in your children’s education. And it does not take a PhD to help your children succeed. Simple things go a long way, genuine interest is all it takes (quality rather than quantity). Show them you care, get involved!

First, let’s read them a story! Children who were read to when very young are better readers at fifteen (even compared to children with similar socio-economic backgrounds). As children enter primary school, some activities will help them become better (and happier) readers: activities that emphasize the value of reading and using words in context (e.g. reading books, talking about what mum/dad has done) rather than activities that treat words and letters as isolated units (e.g. playing with alphabet toys). Set an example by reading yourself – be it novels, newspapers or magazines. Volunteer for extra-curricular activities or at the library. And… eat meals with your children around a table.

Students are never too old to benefit from your engagement as a parent. “Fifteen-year-olds whose parents show an active interest in their lives and thoughts are more proficient in reading.” Discuss how well your children are doing at school or just spend time talking with them. Engage in debates about current affairs, books, films, etc. PISA data shows that students whose parents discuss social and political issues with them perform better than students whose parents do not. This also helps raise their awareness of effective learning strategies, e.g. how to summarise information. Last but not least, these discussions encourage students to develop informed opinions and become critical thinkers.

Children whose parents are involved in their education in these ways tend to be “more receptive to language”. They are also more likely to plan, set goals, initiate and follow-through in their projects. Having acquired these skills, they have learned something essential: how to learn – at school and well beyond.

Learning how to learn is key, and so is the joy that goes with it. What was striking in Race to Nowhere was the students’ utter absence of enjoyment. Don’t children need to play, explore and discover? The great pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott believed that playing serves as the basis for creativity and the discovery of the self and was the key to emotional and psychological well-being. He described all human culture (not only the arts, but also politics, economics, philosophy and culture) as highly developed forms of playing. Yet he warned: playing cannot happen when a person feels acute pressure to perform and it cannot involve too much anxiety. Feeling alive and real in one’s mind and body is what allows people to be close to others and creative. Let’s not lose this on the way as we rush ahead regardless.

Useful links

Read Marilyn Achiron’s article on “The Parent Factor in Education” at the OECD educationtoday blog

On 25th  September, the American Library in Paris is organizing an evening with Francesca Borgonovi of the OECD PISA programme and author and journalist Peter Gumbel whose latest book On achève bien les écoliers (“They shoot schoolkids, don’t they?”) looks at the French education system.

OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012-2021: Food security needs sustainability as well as productivity

Click to read the report

Nearly a billion people will go to bed hungry tonight, and if we can’t feed the current population, how will we manage with half as many again by 2050, especially if their diets shift towards resource-intensive Western-style foods? Climate change will complicate matters further, with the worst impacts likely to be on the regions the least well-equipped to deal with them. Moreover, agriculture could find itself in competition for land with biofuels and other non-food uses, notably urbanisation.

Such worries are not new. Ever since Malthus published his famous essays on demography at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries, there have been predictions that the world will face mass starvation if things go on as expected. As Malthus himself put it in his 1798 work An Essay on the principle of population: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”

Likewise, there have been critics of Malthusianism from the outset. Marx for instance argued that Malthus did not discover any kind of natural law of population, but was simply describing, extremely badly in Marx’s view, a particular moment in socioeconomic development. (In fact Marx dismissed the essay as “nothing more than a schoolboyish, superficial plagiary… [that] does not contain a single sentence thought out by Malthus himself”).

Malthus was also criticised for underestimating the potential for positive change, through scientific and technological innovation for example. The rate of progress in agricultural output over the past few decades has been phenomenal, even for long-established crops. Take wheat for instance. Farm records in England show that yields increased from around half a tonne a hectare before the year 1000 to 2 tonnes a thousand years later. To increase from 2 to 6 tonnes took only forty years. It would have been impossible to achieve this with the old ways of doing things, where to increase production, you increased the area under cultivation and pasture, either by expanding onto second-choice land or by conquering new territories.

If nothing had changed, Malthus would have been proved right as soon as the physical possibilities of extending production were reached. The answer was intensification, meaning producing much more from a given amount of land or number of animals. The global area under crops grew by about 12% over 1960 to 2000, but cereal production increased by over 100%, oil crops by over 300% and fruit and vegetables by over 200%.

Meat production shows a similar pattern. Permanent pastureland increased by 10% over this forty-year period, but bovine meat production grew by 90% and that of pigmeat by 240%. The increase in poultry production was even more spectacular, at over 650% in 1960-2000.

This increased production was made possible by scientific advances in the “inputs” farmers use – seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. and by new ways of breeding and caring for animals, and organising production, storage and distribution of agricultural produce.

Food production has not only kept pace with population growth, it has outstripped it. The world now produces more food than ever, and even countries that were once practically synonymous with famine have achieved self-sufficiency in staple foods. As we argued in this post, hunger is a problem of poverty, not scarcity.

Will that be the case over the coming decades? The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2012-2021 released today points out that agricultural production needs to increase by 60% over the next 40 years to meet rising food demand. That means an additional billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million more tonnes of meat a year by 2050 compared with 5 years ago levels, and that’s not including biofuel feedstock. Globally, the scope for expanding agricultural land is limited. Total arable land is projected to increase by less than 5% by 2050, so additional production will need to come from increased productivity, as it has for the past 50 years.

At the same time, the sustainable use of available land, water, marine ecosystems, fish stocks, forests, and biodiversity has to be improved. Around 25% of all agricultural land is highly degraded. Critical water scarcity is a fact for many countries, and as we said yesterday, 85% of ocean fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited or depleted.

The Outlook seems cautiously optimistic that “increasing productivity and improving sustainability of agriculture are not mutually exclusive” with the right mix of policies and practices. Actual yields for the main food crops are well below what could be achieved in many regions, with yield gaps in many developing countries of over  50% in 2005, and 76% in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although annual growth in global agricultural production over the next ten years will be lower than the previous ten years, it should remain ahead of population growth, and output per capita will continue to increase at the global level.

Useful links

OECD work on sustainable agriculture

OECD work on agricultural policies

Expo 2012 in Yeosu, Korea: The Blue Economy

Click to see the “Living Ocean and Coast” theme of Expo 2012

How much are the oceans worth? Somewhere between $16 and $54 trillion a year according to this report. It may be more, nobody really knows, although Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES), a global partnership of developed and developing countries, international organisations, NGOs and academics, is hoping to find out over the next few years.

The Global Partnership for the Oceans cites figures for some parts of the ocean. Coral reefs for instance provide services to humans worth $172 billion annually. Fisheries are even more lucrative, with seafood sales at $190 billion a year for the catches alone, before the value added by processing. You could add another $50 billion if the fisheries were managed efficiently, according to a World Bank study quoted in Rebuilding Fisheries, a new OECD publication launched this week during OECD Day at Expo 2012 in Yeosu, Korea.

One statistic you’ll see quoted in most discussions about the oceans’ importance is that they cover 71% of the Earth’s surface. What’s less well-known is that the oceans supply almost 99% of the “living space” for our planet’s creatures, far more than the vertical strip of soil and sky we usually think about when biodiversity is mentioned. Very few humans live for long in this space, but two-thirds of us are within 100 km of the sea,  so coastal cities feature prominently in discussions of the blue economy (and in the data visualization tool our colleagues at the OECD Factblog developed for the Expo).

The theme of Expo 2012 is the “blue economy” – the various activities taking place on, under or near the ocean. As one of the world’s leading shipbuilding, trading and fishing nations, Korea has a vested interest in using ocean resources in a sustainable way. However, the aim of the exhibition, and the OECD’s contribution to it, is to show that the oceans are vital for all of us. On a global scale, for example, they regulate the world’s climate and provide 16% of the animal proteins we consume. They are important sources of oil and gas, and increasingly of renewable energies too.

Unfortunately, our attitudes have changed little from earlier times when it made sense to talk of “the infinite oceans”. Now, 85% of ocean fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited or depleted. Fertilizer run-off and fossil-fuel use have created 405 oxygen-starved dead zones worldwide, compared with 49 in the 1960s, covering a total area the size of the UK. While we’re making geographical comparisons, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” drifting around the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, known as covers the ocean with plastic debris over an area as big as Texas. And according to some reports, just 15 of the world’s biggest ships may now emit as much pollution as all the world’s 760m cars.

None of these problems can be solved in isolation from the others, nor from a variety of external influences. Fisheries reform for instance can influence and be influenced by labour policy, regional development, environmental legislation, taxes, and tourism, and that’s just on a national scale. A similar list could be drawn up for any ocean-related issue, prompting OECD Deputy Secretary-General Yves Leterme to call for “a more holistic policy perspective to the management of the oceans, their uses and resources” in Yeosu. Leterme and the President of the Korea Maritime Institute (KMI), Dr.Hak-So Kim signed a Statement of Intent between the two organisations which underlines their intention to strengthen co-operation on work related to the future of the blue economy.

The Blue Economy – click to watch the video

Rio+20: Half full or half empty?

Click to find out more about OECD work of relevance to Rio+20

In today’s post, Simon Upton, head of the OECD Environment Directorate, founder and Chairman of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, and former New Zealand environment minister, gives his personal view of the Rio+20 summit

As with most large UN conferences, there is a “glass half empty and a glass half full” perspective on how the outcome of Rio+20 may be viewed, including the negotiated text, The Future We Want. As someone who left the Rio+10 conference in Johannesburg saying that the world didn’t need another mega-conference, I confess to having some instinctive sympathy with the former camp. 

That’s not to say that tricky issues were ignored. Every conceivable element of the sustainable development agenda was offered space. The environmental side was no exception. Water got six paragraphs, energy five, cities four, mountains three, transport two and so on. Oceans somehow seized 19 paragraphs including the only new commitment: “to take action by 2025 (!) … to achieve significant reductions in marine debris”. Not surprisingly, perhaps, issues that are the subject of negotiations in other fora received cursory attention.  Climate change was awarded three paragraphs which managed to express “profound alarm” and “grave concern” but not much else.

Fossil fuel subsidies, the hottest single issue in the Rio twitter-sphere, were nowhere to be found in relation to climate change or energy but were tucked away in a couple of paragraphs on sustainable production and consumption, including this example of the highly cautious, negotiation-speak of the document as a whole (italics added): “Countries reaffirm the commitments they have made to phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and undermine sustainable development. We invite others to consider rationalizing inefficient fossil fuel subsidies…”

Note the artful choice of verbs. One of our analysts, Andrew Prag did a quick analysis of the frequency with which key verbs were used in The Future We Want. Here is what he found:

In short, the closer the world got to action the shyer it got about agreeing to do anything and Andrew’s analysis of the ‘we will’ category reveals a fondness for process and political declarations rather than concrete implementation.

But what of the glass half full camp? Here the emerging story is that there are plenty of ‘hooks’ in the text on which to construct future engagements. The most significant of these is probably the agreement to develop ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. This was Colombia’s great mission and it is to their credit that they battled suspicion and some outright hostility to build a sufficiently broad coalition to get this initiative adopted. Colombia wanted the subject matter of the goals defined at Rio. This was a step too far, so a smaller, regionally balanced working group will be tasked with reporting the putative subject matter of these goals to the UN General Assembly in 2013.

The question has to be asked whether we needed the conference to secure the agenda. Because the best bits of it are happening anyway. Action by leading businesses far outstrips intergovernmental action. Those of us who attended the ‘Business Day’ events were struck by just how far some businesses have come in the twenty years since the 1992 Rio conference.

Changing Pace: Public policy options to scale and accelerate business action towards Vision 2050 is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s incredibly ambitious picture of where the world has to be by 2050: zero waste, near zero net energy buildings, low carbon mobility, doubled food production with much lower inputs, etc. But the big change is not so much in their aspirations as in their target audience. They used to explicitly exclude telling governments what to do. Now, governments are seen to be laggards and they are calling for a much more robust and transparent public policy framework.

They outline a policy accelerator which involves setting goals, communicating and educating, regulating, reforming budgets, investing, monitoring and coordinating. It is, for business, a radical message for governments. It is worth looking at the explanatory section of the document in its entirety, but here is a flavour: “Since the 80s, the notion spread that less government intervention is better for business and economic growth. Yet the resulting deregulated world, with its weak financial and multilateral governance, has a mixed record of progress. It also accumulates economic distress, social tensions and increased environmental risks. It deals badly with the magnitude, depth and urgency of our systemic challenges.”

This language would have been unthinkable at Rio 1992. We are not talking about minor companies here. And they are not without self-interest – large global food companies for instance need access to resources, so it is perhaps not surprising that they oppose subsidies that distort food and energy prices in favour of other businesses. I would be wary of suggesting that governments and businesses should sing in unison – they represent different constituencies and we shouldn’t try to conceal that. But the insistence by some of the biggest companies in the world that they need a coherent regulatory framework that recognizes resource scarcity and the fragility of ecosystem services is surely a milestone.

The references to inequality and social tensions are also significant. A number of business people observed the People’s Forum down the road which drew 35,000 attendees. They were struck by the anger and several made the point that if young people are left unemployed for years on end the anger will spread to political and extra-political action in a way that could be both nasty and unpredictable – and certainly not good for growth and stability.

So the verdict might be that while parts of the conference were seen as  empty, what occurred around it was full of promise. But as the business audience reminded us, whether that promise is fulfilled will depend on the response of governments.

Useful links

OECD’s contribution to Rio+20

Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, to the Rio+20 Session on Global Dialogue on Sustainability and Inclusion

OECD Environment Directorate

OECD work on green growth

Arab Spring: Repercussions and opportunities for education

Probably not celebrating his exam results

On the eve of the July 7th elections in Libya, today’s post is from Philip Hodkinson of Greys College in the UK

It would be hard not to be aware of the huge changes sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa these past two years, and with so many spectacular and dramatic events still unfolding, it’s no surprise that more mundane issues such as education never grab the headlines. Yet education will be one of the foundations of both democracy and a modern economy in the region.

As the OECD’s International Migration Outlook 2012 shows, education is now an international affair, with international students accounting on average for more than 6% of all students in OECD countries. In the UK, the figure is over twice that, 15.3% of tertiary-level students according to the Outlook. The turmoil created by the Arab Spring has seen many students losing their grants and other means of living, leading to the demise of a significant number of private colleges in the North of England whose clientele are mainly from these areas. My own college, Greys, is fortunate in having a slightly wider spread of students, but we’ve felt the impact too, so to see the situation for myself and to find out more about the education and training needs of the region, over the last six months I have travelled extensively to talk to people on the ground and map the changes in thinking by them and the new administrations.

Oman and Qatar have many highly-educated young people with degree-level achievement. They have also brought into being a new second tier of learning. It takes the form of accredited vocational training in both private and government supported training centres, closely following UK’s national Vocational Qualification (NVQ) system. Bahrain has also chosen this route and I was part of the support unit helping set up their National Institute for Industrial Training, in 2008/9.

From discussions I had with personnel at the ministries of those countries, they are pleased with the results of these programmes but are now aware of the lack of quality assurance within their systems. This needs to be addressed to give students confidence in the national validity of their qualifications. As well as the obvious reasons for this, another factor is that all these countries have historically bought in technical expertise, therefore this type of learning, and the jobs they lead to, are traditionally looked down upon and therefore retain a stigma.

Libya has all the assets of its Gulf neighbours but has been in something of a time warp for 40 years. Even those young people who have degrees, and there are many, look to the public sector for employment, the private sector being thought of as inefficient. That said, the major oil companies have well-established training programmes, designed by themselves to meet their individual needs. The Transitional government is very keen to change this and has already taken steps to support new training businesses. To develop their strategy, they are now looking to build a national framework of vocational training and education to meet the requirements of a growing private economy. The oil companies I think will have a major role to play in this, not least to standardise requirements.

Elections are to be held on the 7th July, and from sources within the administration, it is clear that although routes to higher education will still be supported, the main focus will be vocational training to provide that depth of opportunity for all. All sections of the political scene have this on their agenda, as like their Gulf neighbours, they understand one of the major gains will be a sizeable reduction in youth unemployment. The only option until now after leaving full-time education, was for Libyans to go on to university and gain a degree, which largely limited opportunities.

The other gain is less tangible although no less important. That is the sense of freedom for students to achieve the things they want to, make a living, and enjoy a good life.

The situation in Libya is changing, and although, like Egypt, still volatile, an acceptance that change will take some time is growing, but lots of people want to see some immediate results, a sort of image of things to come. Any government will have to balance the level of quick fixes to long-term improvements in daily life if they are to lead their country to lasting prosperity. One of the first things they may do, is form a government-sponsored training organisation, as has happened in some of the Gulf States. This could then be a springboard to contract with a range of suppliers, looking to gain high-quality training and education at a realistic market price. This mechanism can also be used to develop training around the country, producing tangible evidence of improvement and fairness.

It’s too early to say yet, and after the elections things will become clearer, but setting national standards of work will probably become an issue. Presently, as in the UK 50 years ago, the larger companies, which here means the oil companies, have their own training standards. Engaging these organisations in the process of unity would need to be a first step. One major oil company has already asked me to examine the UK training system for their industry, which would suggest they are at least open to change.

Libya has huge tasks ahead of it although none insurmountable if they are patient. But, with many people in positions they have never held before, education and training will, of necessity, be at the fore.

Useful links

OECD participation in the “Building Future Education MENA” conference

OECD work on higher education and adult learning

OECD work on conflict and fragility

OECD educationtoday blog