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Education without Borders

February 11, 2009


In a recent post, I discussed the travails of Muslim girls who are trying to obtain an education in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan [Schoolgirls in Afghanistan]. In that post, I reported how members of the Taliban have done all they could to stop girls from getting an education — everything from personal attacks to destroying school buildings. Developing human capital is one of the essential things a developing country must do in order to create a foundation upon which it can build a better future. Developing only half of the available human capital (the male half) is not enough. That is why in my discussions of Development-in-a-Box™ the topic of training and education almost always comes up. Education is often the subject of articles in The Economist as well. For example, last June it published an article about how a Swedish firm “has worked out how to make money running free schools” [“The Swedish model,” 14 June 2008 print edition]. Sweden, of course, is known for being liberal and the policies that permit profit-making from running free schools are about as liberal as they come.

“Reforms that came into force in 1994 allow pretty much anyone who satisfies basic standards to open a new school and take in children at the state’s expense. The local municipality must pay the school what it would have spent educating each child itself—a sum of SKr48,000-70,000 ($8,000-12,000) a year, depending on the child’s age and the school’s location. Children must be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis—there must be no religious requirements or entrance exams. Nothing extra can be charged for, but making a profit is fine.”

The magazine reports that even in Sweden such reforms were met skepticism and concern. However, nearly 10 percent of Sweden’s children are now educated privately.

“At the time [the reforms were initiated], it was assumed that most ‘free’ schools would be foreign-language (English, Finnish or Estonian) or religious, or perhaps run by groups of parents in rural areas clubbing together to keep a local school alive. What no one predicted was the emergence of chains of schools. Yet that is where much of the growth in independent education has come from. Sweden’s Independent Schools Association has ten members that run more than six schools, and five that run ten or more.”

The reason that I bring up “the Swedish model” is because it appears to hold some promise for developing countries. As you read the article’s description of how some of these schools are run, you’ll understand why.

“The biggest [member of Sweden’s Independent Schools Association], Kunskapsskolan (‘Knowledge Schools’), opened its first six schools in 2000. Four more opened last autumn, bringing the total to 30. … Like IKEA, a giant Swedish furniture-maker, Kunskapsskolan gets its customers to do much of the work themselves. The vital tool, though, is not an Allen key but the Kunskapsporten (‘Knowledge Portal), a website containing the entire syllabus. Youngsters spend 15 minutes each week with a tutor, reviewing the past week’s progress and agreeing on goals and a timetable for the next one. This will include classes and lectures, but also a great deal of independent or small-group study. The Kunskapsporten allows each student to work at his own level, and spend less or more time on each subject, depending on his strengths and weakness. Each subject is divided into 35 steps. Students who reach step 25 graduate with a pass; those who make it to step 30 or 35 gain, respectively, a merit or distinction. Again like IKEA, no money is wasted on fancy surroundings. Kunskapsskolan Enskede, a school for 11- to 16-year-olds in a suburb of Stockholm, is a former office block into which classrooms, open-study spaces and two small lecture-theatres have been squeezed. It is pleasant, but basic and rather bare. It rents fields nearby for football and basketball, and, like other schools in the chain, sends pupils away to one of two specially built facilities for a week each term for home economics, woodwork and art, rather than providing costly, little-used facilities in the school.”

In many developing countries, building infrastructure (including schools) is difficult because of the cost. The cheaper such infrastructure can be built the better. In many poor communities, especially in Africa, transportation systems are non-existent and children, if they are lucky enough to go to school, often have to travel great distances on foot to reach it. A system that allows students to do most of their work at home and travel only occasionally to meet with other students and teachers could prove to be a viable and cost-effective model to explore. Of course, the key to such a system is ensuring Internet connectivity. Although that may sound far-fetched, you must remember that there are groups already at work trying to ensure just that [see my posts Connecting the Poor and Laptops in Peru]. The other reason I think this might be a good model for the developing world is that it is a system based on standards, which fits the Development-in-a-Box™ approach.

“‘We do not mind being compared to McDonald’s,’ [Per Ledin, the company’s boss,] says. ‘If we’re religious about anything, it’s standardisation. We tell our teachers it is more important to do things the same way than to do them well.’ He then broadens the analogy to hotels and airlines, which make money only if they are popular enough to maintain high occupancy rates. One selling point that any parent of a monosyllabic teenager will appreciate is the amount of information they will receive. Each child’s progress is reported each week in a logbook, and parents can follow what is being studied on the website. And the braver among them will be keen on the expectation that the children take responsibility for their own progress. ‘Our aim is that by the time students finish school, they can set their own learning goals,’ says Christian Wetell, head teacher at Kunskapsskolan Enskede. ‘Three or four students in each year may not manage this, but most will.’ Performance monitoring is also important within the company: it tracks the performance of individual teachers to see which ones do best as personal tutors or as subject teachers. It offers bonuses to particularly successful teachers and is considering paying extra to good ones from successful schools who are willing to move to underperforming ones.”

I believe that encouraging students to “set their own learning goals” could help stimulate the next generation of developing world entrepreneurs. Imagining and achieving goals is great for building self-esteem and confidence. I’m also willing to bet that when illiterate parents of students in the developing world learn that they can monitor their child’s progress online, they will ask their children to help them learn to read, write, and master the computer. As a result, the confidence and skills of both parent and child could be improved. The system also encourages good teachers through performance bonuses.


At the moment, Kunskapsskolan has no plans to export its system outside of the developed world (it may be opening schools in Britain), but I think the model holds promise. It also holds some danger. Operators of private schools fear government meddling; but in developing countries some safeguards would have to be put in place to ensure that private schools don’t become pits of unrest like the madrassas in Pakistan.


Of course, Web-based education need not stop at the primary or secondary levels. There is a growing online higher education system being developed in many developed countries. It is another model that might be explored for developing countries. In another article, The Economist examines more traditional methods of higher education, but suggests that the world would be a better place if colleges were considered just another commodity in the global marketplace. “A world of colleges without borders,” the magazine insists, “should benefit everyone, including students who stay at home.”

“Just a few decades ago, students at universities outside their home countries formed a tiny elite. Some gained scholarships with famous names like Rhodes or Fulbright; others were sent by governments, grooming them for top jobs in academia or public service. A few were born to cosmopolitan parents who searched for the best schooling money could buy. That picture has changed. The 20th century saw a surge in higher education; in the early 21st century, the idea of going abroad to study has become thinkable for ordinary students. In 2006, the most recent year for which figures are available, nearly 3m were enrolled in higher education institutions outside their own countries, a rise of more than 50% since 2000. One reason is the growth of the global corporation; ambitious youngsters sense that a spell studying abroad will impress multinational employers. But for school-leavers in the developing world, the poor teaching and lack of places at home are stronger factors.”

Institutions of higher education still cling to the belief that diversity is good and that exposure to many cultures is part of a good education. Of course, students from developing countries aren’t looking for a broadened educational experience as much as a way out of poverty. Leaders from developing countries look at China and believe that sending their best and brightest students abroad to study is one of the keys to a better future at home.

“China, the biggest ‘sending’ country, with around 200,000 students currently in higher education abroad, has university places for less than a fifth of its 100m college-age youngsters. In June 2008 around 10m sat the gao kao, the state university entrance exam. There were places for two-thirds of them. … In the 1990s, China began pouring money into research at around 100 of its 1,800-odd higher-education institutions, hoping to create an elite tier of universities. But the country has yet to register on the global education scale: a ranking by Shanghai Jiao Tong University puts no Chinese institution in the world’s top 200 universities; Britain’s Times Higher Education magazine puts Peking University 50th and only six Chinese institutions in the top 200. For Chinese youngsters who can raise the cash, study abroad looks attractive.”

For countries sending students abroad, there is a risk that they will never return. When that happens, the best they can hope for is that the expatriates will remit money back home. On the whole, however, monetary transfers from abroad are not a good trade for a brain drain.

“Ideally, ‘sending’ countries can benefit as much as those who take students. Taiwan urges its students to leave, although with 164 universities for a nation of 23m, there is no clear need. ‘We push them out, especially [doctoral] students,’ says Ovid Tzeng, a government minister. ‘Otherwise everyone works on the same problems.’ A wise view—though the benefits of exporting brains can be slow to materialise. Once again, China’s history is instructive. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping decided to send 3,000 scientists to foreign universities each year for training. Even if 5% did not return, he said, the policy would be a success. In fact, only a quarter of the students who left China as a result ever returned. So by 1990 China had a brain drain, and this prompted a row within the government, notes David Zweig, a Hong Kong-based scholar. Some wanted to make students return; others saw little point, since China lacked facilities to make use of the students’ training. Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party chief, said it would be more far-sighted to ‘store brain power overseas’. His ideas prevailed: a new policy urged Chinese people living overseas to ‘serve their nation from abroad’ as consultants, investors or scholars. The dream of bringing well-trained Chinese minds home is having some success. Some of the cash earmarked for elite universities is being used to lure scholars back to the motherland. Both the Academy of Sciences and private donors such as Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong-based billionaire, are dishing out money to make conditions attractive for returning Chinese scholars.”

With so many people living in developing and emerging economies, chances are that some brilliant minds are just waiting for opportunities that will unleash their potential. Going overseas is probably out of the question for most of these young people — which is why I urge leaders in developing countries to work with multinational corporations to establish local training and education facilities. Universities and colleges in the developed world are also trying to understand how they can gain access to both the minds and money of “overseas” students.

“This sort of global contest for grey matter certainly makes for a bracing environment. … Here too, China offers interesting case studies. Under a law passed in 2003, foreign universities were permitted to set up campuses, or whole universities, inside China, if they partnered with a local body. In the short period before the government called a halt to take stock, two British universities moved in. Nottingham University opened a campus in Zhejiang province, in 2005; the British institution recruits students and faculty, sets course content, conducts exams and confers degrees. A year later Liverpool University, in partnership with Xi’an Jiaotong, one of China’s best colleges, opened a new university 100km (60 miles) from Shanghai. The first few cohorts will get degrees from Liverpool; the new university will soon award its own degrees. Neither British university put up any capital; what is at risk in such ventures is mostly reputation. Both universities, respected in England, but not world-famous, have decided that risk is worth taking in the hope of boosting their global profile. Meanwhile, some campuses that already flourish in the global market want to go further. Spain’s IE business school ranks among the world’s top ten. It now plans to go into undergraduate education—and, in the words of Santiago Iniguez, rector of IE’s new offshoot—to ‘re-invent the university’. All courses will have close ties with the hard school of real life. Would-be psychologists will see how organisations work; art students will learn how to run auctions; architects how to deliver on time and on budget. The ethos will be thoroughly global, with teaching in English and up to 80% of students from outside Spain.”

The problem for developing countries is that such institutional partnerships offer little in the way reputation-building for outside universities and so attracting the attention of such schools is nearly impossible. The benefits, of course, could be enormous for developing countries because the students who graduate locally are likely to stay in country and help build a brighter future. That is why a Web-based educational partnership might prove more beneficial than a physical campus-based relationship. In a profile of Sergy Brin, one of the founders of Google, The Economist noted that Brin “believes that knowledge is always a good thing — and that more of it should be shared” [“Enlightenment man,” 6 December 2008 print edition]. As the developed world becomes more connected, so should its students. There are still a number of countries that are trying to censor Web content because they are afraid of the potential consequences of access to unfettered information. Eventually they must learn to regulate downstream behavior rather than restrict upstream content. When that happens, the possibilities of Web-based education will be opened up. As The Economist wrote, “Throughout history, the prospect of greater access to knowledge has frightened some people. But those are not the people that Sergey Brin mixes with in Silicon Valley.” Brin is a true entrepreneur and, therefore, an optimist. Helen Keller may have said it best, “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” Education is the first step to opening doorways for the human spirit.

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