Here in Canada, we tend to take high quality, public education for granted. But the same cannot yet said of emerging economic powerhouses such as Brazil. Despite some very impressive gains in educational achievement, Brazil’s 2009 PISA scores still trail the OECD country average and East Asian countries by some distance. Two-thirds of 15-year-olds, for example, are capable of little more than basic arithmetic. Half cannot draw inferences from what they read, or give any scientific explanation for familiar phenomena. In each of reading, mathematics and science only about one child in 100 ranks as a high-performer; in the OECD 9% do.
In light of its educational problems, Brazil’s recent social and economic transformation is nothing short of remarkable. While most advanced industrial countries are enduring a period of economic stagnation, Brazil’s economy expanded by 7.5% in 2010 and by 3.6% in 2011, enough to see it overtake the United Kingdom to become the sixth largest economy in the world. If current trends continue, Brazil will become the world’s fourth-largest economy in 2030, behind China, America and India.
Indeed, for many ordinary Brazilians, economic success on the world stage has already translated into higher living standards, greater income equality and a dramatic reduction in poverty. Over the last two decades, thanks largely to government policy and a growing economy, the poverty rate in Brazil has halved. And income growth is faster among the poorest which means that Brazil could reach its Millennium Development Goal of poverty reduction by 2015, some ten years early.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that failing to address Brazil’s skills gap could fatally undermine the country’s hard earned economic and social gains. Companies already report facing significant difficulties recruiting minimally qualified manpower to fill vacant positions. Some 76% of Brazilian CEOs polled by PWC see the shortage of qualified labor as the greatest threat to the country’s growth prospects and many expect the skills crunch to get worse before it gets better. Over the next four years alone, Brazilian companies will need to hire 4 million professionals with technical education. Despite efforts by the government to boost enrolment in technical education, basic educational preparedness is often insufficient, particularly amongst the disenfranchised and those most in need of job opportunities. Many candidates seeking technical qualifications lack even the basic skills in language, math and science required to succeed.
What can be done address this gap in educational achievement? To be sure, reforms in the formal education system must proceed with greater urgency. And leaders of industry must get active in advancing solutions of their own. But what the team in Brazil concluded is that Brazilians cannot simply sit idly waiting for the reforms in the formal system of education to bear fruit. Now is the time to exploit the power of the Internet to revolutionize the educational opportunities available to all young Brazilians.
So it was with all of this context in mind that I was recently called in to work with a great team here in Brazil on a project we are calling Educacao Livre (or the Free Education Project): a project that we hope will ignite economic opportunity and promote social inclusion by providing digital skills training for some 2 million young people who are currently underserved by or excluded from Brazil’s education system. Together we are developing new strategies for ensuring that the next generation of workers in Brazil are not only equipped with the basics (reading, writing, mathematics and communications), but also the 21st Century skills demanded by knowledge-intensive industries: the ability to think analytically, ask critical questions, learn new skills, and operate with high level communications and interpersonal skills, including foreign language mastery, fluency with digital technologies and the ability to work effectively in teams.
The Free Education Project could be described as the Khan Academy for young Brazilians. This online portal will assemble world-class educational resources, including videos, games and interactive exercises that will build competencies in mathematics and Portuguese, while teaching digital skills and literacy at the same time. We will recruit a network of volunteer coaches and mentors from Brazilian companies, as well as successful entrepreneurs and public servants who will commit to spend a least one hour each week tutoring or mentoring students in need of encouragement, career guidance or assistance with the curriculum. There will be opportunities for students of the Free Education project to learn together through partnerships with cybercafés, community centers and libraries that will provide computers and classroom space for young people in the program. The project will also generate employment opportunities, with Brazilian employers offering jobs and internship opportunities to graduates of the project.
This free educational resource will not only speed progress on skilling the population, it will simultaneously expand the educational toolkit available to students and teachers in all aspects and all levels of the education, from formal to informal, and from primary education through to post-secondary technical training and university. It will encourage Brazilian employers to play a more direct role in training the next generation of workers. And it will help boost social inclusion and ignite economic opportunity for young Brazilians who take advantage of the portal’s services. I am very excited about the journey ahead and proud of the work we are undertaking together.