Education and forecasting the future

by Ian Bremmer

Globalization has created unprecedented opportunities for new investment in education within dozens of emerging and frontier-market countries -- by providing new generations of students with the information and resources they need to compete in the global economy.

As with everything else related to globalization, there's a downside. Upwardly mobile elites in volatile developing states often choose to apply what they've learned in the more lucrative job markets of the West. In many countries, this chronic problem discourages state spending on education: Why commit substantial capital for a long-term investment in people who may simply take their gifts elsewhere -- especially when near-term results can be achieved by spending on something more tangible? Yet, failure to invest in education lowers the arc of a country's development.

For a glimpse of the future of a state's economic growth and its political stability, a look at its education system can provide useful insights.

Commitment to global standards, particularly in higher education, is becoming one of the biggest advantages for Persian Gulf states. Governments throughout the region have devoted much more time and resources to it in recent years-Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi especially-both in terms of building infrastructure, attracting top talent, and leveraging partnerships with other institutions of higher learning. But the most important change comes in the form of new opportunities for young women, empowering a massive untapped resource. At the same time, we're likely to see a growing development gap within the United Arab Emirates as the less developed emirates-Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, etc-are burdened with well-entrenched elites who fiercely resist the social liberalization that comes with radical improvements in education standards.

The Gulf stands in marked contrast with most of North Africa, where government policy reflects the preferences of an older generation that still sets the curriculum and rejects western-style training in favor of a focus on nationalist and, in some cases, socialist principles. Budgets are also a problem. That's a particular issue in Egypt, where younger urban lower and middle classes are increasingly frustrated with the quality of local schools. Growing emigration rates for the most talented young people create risks of increasingly brittle economic growth.

In sub-Saharan Africa, top students traditionally studied in public boarding schools. Strong economic growth has generated rising demand for better educational standards, but state governments haven't been able to keep up. To fill the vacuum, the private sector is stepping in to build private day-schools, which are located in neighborhoods that can afford them-unlike the boarding schools, which mix students from different class and tribal backgrounds. As a result, the private sector is giving a generation of Africans a much stronger sense of tribalism-with fewer opportunities to meet students from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. These changes will help to heighten long-term risks of increased tribal and ethnic polarization.

India and Brazil have similar structural challenges and proposed solutions. To overcome lagging local education spending, they're bringing in the private sector and foreign direct investors to bridge the gap. Brazil is likely to have more success with this strategy, in part because the political system is more centralized and the country is less culturally diverse than India, where more than two dozen languages are each spoken by at least one million people. The most useful parts of a program that works in one area-like special schools sponsored by Embraer, an enormous Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, with advanced science and engineering-can be implemented in other regions of the country. In India, charter schools tend to function like special economic zones. They're effective, but their programs aren't easily transferable to another region of the country where different languages are spoken and cultural values respected.

In Russia, government has reinserted itself into school systems in a big way, both in terms of textbook content (in history and social sciences), as well as a broad effort to improve the quality of military training. Spending on culture and the hard sciences has lagged considerably. Combined with the extraordinary demographic crisis looming in Russia (with 0.5% negative population growth annually, Russian demographics are unmatched globally in any country not ravaged by war or famine), the longer-term trends look especially worrisome.

As with so many social developments, China's educational problems create competing internal pressures. The Chinese government has long been committed to vastly improved education standards for an enormous (and largely illiterate) rural population. It has succeeded. To maintain social order, Beijing must now create jobs for many more graduates than it did a few years ago. More than 20 percent of Chinese university graduates today are unemployed, while Chinese stimulus spending continues to focus mostly on energy-intensive (and not high-value, labor-intensive) industry. That's a problem that's likely to increase over time, in part because of the skepticism of Chinese leaders over more intangible non-industrial production, and in part because of the top-down, more rote nature of education in the Chinese system.

Then there's the leadership's strategy of nurturing nationalism in Chinese universities. The state has invested in the promotion of party loyalty within many institutions, including by creating so-called 50-cent gangs, students who receive small payments for each positive posting they write on behalf of the Communist Party on university web bulletin boards. A point of related tension: Increasing numbers of foreign students (including a growing number of Americans) are attending universities in China's fast-growing, increasingly prosperous eastern cities. Thus far, they've been relatively isolated from the general student population, but that's likely to spark conflict in coming years.

On the subject of education and nationalism, Western European schools have dramatically scaled back the teaching and promotion of national identity in recent years. But with growing immigration from Eastern Europe, the Muslim world, and elsewhere -- and a sharp economic downturn -- these governments are now struggling to cope with the rise of new ethnic, religious, and regional enclaves within their states. As a result, we're likely to see a serious backlash toward conservative state-sponsored promotion of national identities-some of which will be exclusionary, fueling intensified domestic social tensions.