Businesses around the world are being urged to double their financial donations to education over the next year, after research revealed that companies give 16 times more money to health-related projects.
The organisers of Business Backs Education, which is supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), argue that the private sector must do more to help close an annual $38 billion (pound;23 billion) school funding gap and defuse the "ticking time bomb" resulting from tens of millions of uneducated children.
The campaign, being launched this weekend, warns that failing to heed the call could jeopardise the "social and political stability needed for business to thrive".
"Everyone says that education is one of the most critical areas of policy, yet companies do little to further that," campaign leader Vikas Pota said. "If they are going to talk about not having a skilled workforce then it becomes very difficult to make that argument when actually they are not willing to invest in it."
Mr Pota, chief executive of the Varkey Gems Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the international Gems Education chain of private schools, said Unesco research had shown that corporations were donating around $548 million to education programmes a year, and the aim was to increase that to at least $1.1 billion by March 2015.
A number of big corporate names will be unveiled as backers of the campaign at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on Sunday. They will agree to commit 20 per cent of their philanthropic budgets to education by 2020, in line with the 20 per cent of government domestic budgets and overseas aid that the United Nations has said should be spent on education.
The list of corporations had not been released as TES went to press, but multinational companies with board members due to attend the forum include Samsung, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Air Asia.
The call for business to do more comes after the Global Partnership for Education warned that the amount of international aid earmarked for education in developing countries fell by more than a third between 2009 and 2011.
An extra $38 billion a year is needed to provide primary and lower-secondary education for all the world's children, according to Unesco. The Brookings Institution, a respected US thinktank, reported last year that "corporate giving to global health is 16 times what it is to global education".
Mr Pota claimed that greater private sector involvement would not only help education financially, particularly in developing countries, but also lead to more innovation.
But teaching unions are concerned about the damage that greater private sector input could do to state education. John Bangs from Education International, a global federation of teaching unions, said that education should not be dependent on the "whims of big business".
"Although I recognise the altruism involved in this initiative, it is totally misguided," he said. "The idea that business can substitute for proper taxation, proper governance and proper conception of a public education system is a myth."
Mr Pota said the mismatch between business donations to health and to education could be explained by media coverage. "In health, what happens is that you turn on the TV and you will see famine, you will see people dying, those very emotive things. And therefore we get behind it.
"In education we don't have people dying on the street. But if you look at some of the startling statistics you can't call it anything but a crisis.The world needs 7 million new teachers to hit our Millennium Development Goals in a year's time. How is that going to be funded?"
The campaign intends to release a list of the 30 companies making the biggest investment in education for every major stock exchange. It is also planning summits in London, New York, Hong Kong, Johannesburg and Dubai to spread the word to business leaders over the next year.
Mr Pota is confident that companies will respond positively. "People do want to engage," he said. "They are startled by the numbers."
But UK business organisation the CBI said it was wary of targets being set. "We agree that business has an important role to play in the education system," said Rob Wall, the body's head of education. "But individual companies are best placed to determine the level and nature of their engagement - taking account of the needs of local schools and communities."