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The opening ceremony of the Ibero-American Summit in Veracruz, Mexico on December 8, 2014. (Photo: SEGIB)
Monday, December 15, 2014
Perspectives

Ibero-American Summit: Missed Opportunity

The missed education policy opportunity at the Ibero-American Summit.

BY GABRIEL SANCHEZ ZINNY 

Last week Veracruz, Mexico played host to the 24th Ibero-American Summit, a bi-yearly summit that gathers the heads of state of the Ibero-American countries.  This year’s theme was Iberoamérica en el siglo XXI: Educación, Innovación y Cultura; education being a great priority in this context of slow economic growth that demands an increase in competitiveness and human capital.  However, urgent matters sidetracked the Summit, and it concluded without a specific proposal to address the human capital development challenges.

Twenty-two heads of state were invited to this year’s Summit, but there were some notable absentees including the President’s of Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba.  Unfortunately these countries are facing some of the greatest challenges in terms of quality of education, elevated high school dropout rates, and lack of access to higher education; their citizens could have benefited from their heads of state sharing ideas with regional and European colleagues.

In his speech inaugurating the Summit, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto focused on education’s role in creating better opportunities for Ibero-America’s children. He based his comments upon Augusts’ Education Ministers meeting where they formulated concrete education goals, namely: increasing student mobility within Ibero-America through a program based off of the Erasmus program in Europe and scholarships to study in other countries, increasing academics mobility, and creating a follow-up plan to the 2007-2015 Plan to Fight Illiteracy to be called the Ibero-American Plan to Fight Illiteracy throughout Life 2015-2021. President Peña Nieto closed the Summit by committing to these goals including 40,000 scholarships a year for students to study within the region over the next five years through the “Ibero-American Erasmus” program.

Even though these concluding goals are positive sentiments, much more could and should be done. Political, academic, business, and social leaders understand what is needed; however, moving from a broad goal to a specific action oriented agenda is difficult and complex. A broader regional agenda should include:

1) Government dissemination of more information about the quality of educational institutions at all levels, from early childhood to college, so that parents and students can make educated decisions.  Currently information on test scores and student employment post-graduation is either nonexistent or hard to access in most of Latin America.  Compiling this information and enabling access to it could help parents and government authorities make better decisions about where to send their children and about where to invest education funds so that it has the greatest impact. 

2) Making English language skills a regional priority; governments should dedicate policies and resources to teach technology and English to every student. As the last EF English Proficiency Index Shows, the majority of countries in Latin America are in the Low Proficiency and Very Low Proficiency categories for English skills as compared with the rest of the world- this is unacceptable because English is a critical language in today’s globalized economy. 

3) Making the Spanish language a global asset; encouraging Spanish language teachers to teach outside of Latin America in the US, Europe, and Asia either via travel or online education programs. Spanish could be one of the region best exports in coming years.

4) Emphasize the need for innovative practices to improve education quality while promoting the engagement of entrepreneurs, donors, investors and civil society actors. During regional summits the discussions and proposals are made and decided by government actors, but much more private sector involvement is needed if politicians are serious about bringing innovation to the system. This will require a deeper conversation about the balance between the government and the private sector, regulations, and assessments.

5) Education is a priority for the region and should be included in all summits and regional meetings, like trade, security, and drug issues. Education should be a part of the Latin American foreign policy agenda.

Enabling students and academics to study and work in other countries through facilitated visas and scholarships is an excellent start but government’s should come together to spread innovative practices and compare lessons learnt instead of leaving Veracruz as a one-off shot to harmonize regional education policies.  Hopefully the next Ibero-American Summit in 2016 in Colombia will lead deeper and more innovative policies. 

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is president of Kuepa.com, a Latin American Blended Learning company, working in incorporating technologies to reduce drop out rates.

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