Education: The dinosaurs have it

Education in every sense is one of the fundamental factors of development. No country can achieve sustainable economic development without substantial investment in human capital. Education enriches people’s understanding of themselves and world. It improves the quality of their lives and leads to broad social benefits to individuals and society. Education raises people’s productivity and creativity and promotes entrepreneurship and technological advances. In addition, it plays a very crucial role in securing economic and social progress and improving income distribution.

During the twentieth century, education, skills, and the acquisition of knowledge have become crucial determinants of a person’s and a nation’s productivity. One can even call the twentieth century the “Age of Human Capital”, in the sense that the primary determinant of a country’s standard of living is how well it succeeds in developing and utilising the skills and knowledge, and furthering the health and education, of the majority of its population.

Every economic and social discussion in Malta usually starts with the statement that our manpower is the only real resource we have. But how well is Malta doing in improving its human capital?

But how well is Malta doing in improving its human capital?

A recent paper by Tiziana M. Gauci, senior search analyst at the Central Bank of Malta, reports on an analysis of educational attainment in Malta over the last 15 years. Using data from the Labour Force Survey, Gauci concludes that the workforce has significantly improved its educational level, but still falls short of EU benchmarks in some respects.

It is not for the lack of the resources being applied to the sector. Expenditure on education has risen by 19% over the last three full calendar years. Reaching €676m in 2020, it is the fifth largest expenditure heading in ten categories. Its share of total government expenditure has dropped by 0.7 p.p. over the period, though this is due to the greater resources applied in such other sectors as social protection, economic affairs and health during the COVIDpandemic.

Looking at the bright side of the education spectrum, a bigger share of the population now has a tertiary level of education, trebling to 28% of persons aged 25-64 in 2020, even though mainly among younger persons aged 25-34. This is all for the good, considering that better educated people have better job prospects, earn something like 40% more than the median gross income, and are at less risk of becoming unemployed. Not to mention that, in times of rapid technological change as we are living today, graduates are more able to cope with changing conditions.

One proviso is that the number of graduates in the population is likely to be inflated by the number of qualified third country nationals who tend to leave Malta after a period of years working in Malta.

This trend has been accelerated considerably by the share of females pursuing tertiary studies, which has more than tripled over 15 years. The empowerment of women has been driving a major societal change, with positive consequences for both society and the economy. Unfortunately, better-educated women tend to have less children and, when they do, they have them later in life. So, it will not help so much change the situation where women with a low level of education tend to have children with an equally low level of education.

However, we are still failing at the other side of the spectrum. As many as four-fifths of the younger generation are not even achieving a basic, upper secondary, level of education. Even worse, though the rate of early school-leaving has been halved over 15 years, we still have some 17% of children leaving school too early. This means that they will lack the necessary employability skills and be destined to earn an inadequate income. 

It is rather disappointing, given that over the last seven years, we have had the second highest growth rate in expenditure on education in the EU. One problem is that, though we are getting our money’s worth at the primary level of schooling, the system is not equally effective at the secondary level.

The dichotomy is best illustrated by plotting secondary education expenditure against OECD-PISA scores, which Gauci does.

Though Malta has the third-highest expenditure as a percentage of GDP per capita in the EU, it has the fifth lowest average core in reading, mathematics and science. Gauci suggests that a more efficient investment in teacher’s professional development could help enhance students’ performance. This would seem highly desirable, given that in 2020 the percentage of teachers and academic staff having a tertiary level of education was just 21.5% and has hardly changed in three years. Compare that with 31.5% who only have a pre-primary or primary level of education themselves.

It is quite strange that the educational system itself seems to frown on highly-educated personnel. Another aspect of this is the low percentage of school management personnel who have a high degree of education. Only 14% of them have a tertiary level of education, and fully 61% have less than an upper secondary level of education. This is probably because just under half the non-teaching staff are teacher aides who would not have a high level of education.

My personal opinion about the education system as a whole in Malta is that it needs a thorough shake-up. Many employers complain that, all too often, the system is producing people who, despite their academic qualifications, are not suited to the world of work. It is particularly worrying when one considers that we are aiming to venture into the new technologies of The Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and such like. 

I myself am disappointed that the policy-makers and the system resist innovation in teaching methods and philosophies, preferring to tinker with small-time changes on which they spend thousands of man-hours, giving them the false illusion that they are making a difference. Any suggestion of adopting some of the better features of Scandinavian education, which is universally acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best, in the world is frowned upon. The typical reaction is a long list of reasons why not to do it, defending the status quo as if their whole existence depended on it.

To the bureaucrats in the Education Ministry, innovation seems to be measured by how many tablets or computers you have in the schools. Forget it. It’s like putting new wine into old bottles. The world is changing. We are still teaching and learning in a way that was invented in the Industrial Revolution. It doesn’t work anymore.

Innovation in education is about how you can use technology to empower students to become lifelong learners who are agents of change.

Innovation in education is about more than just technology. It’s about how you can use technology to empower students to become lifelong learners who are agents of change. Learning experiences need to be redesigned to be far more relevant to student interests and career paths, personalised to their aptitudes and abilities, and responsive to their culture and identities.  

Schools which are in the forefront of education outcomes in other countries believe that the application of project-based learning is a vital approach for spurring innovation and creative thinking. So, for example, instead of working on a single project in a math class, project-based learning combines multiple disciplines in one project. It promotes active and deeper learning. Such approaches combine many disciplines: writing, maths, social studies, science and art. In doing this, students think through everything it takes to create a project and carry it out to successful completion. It is surely more interesting than teaching ABCs and 123s.

Yet, dinosaurs resist updating the outdated processes and approaches which define our schools. In some areas, it’s not simply that we do not adopt the Scandinavian approach, but that we are behind some African countries! One example I know of comes from Nigeria, where they are introducing StanLab ─ a cloud-based, 3D virtual laboratory platform that provides near real-life laboratory experience for students, without the need for very expensive traditional laboratories.

There are other countless innovations all over the world which are equipping students with the skills they need for the real world of tomorrow, raising a generation of critical thinkers, youngsters with entrepreneurial mindsets, and thousands of pupils in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math).

Minister Caruana, stop listening to the same, old set of people. Start giving innovators a real say in giving us an educational system for tomorrow.

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