I recently spent a couple of weeks travelling around India and the Middle East. Two impressions stood out: the commitment of young people to securing a good education and the willingness of government to invest in the next generation.
Attitude and investment are the twin beacons that we must ignite in our society in order to spread a new urgency about raising skill levels. The need is critical. Children are being born today with a life expectancy of 100 years and our ageing, unskilled workforce will clearly be unable to compete in sophisticated international markets.
Everywhere I went in India I saw young people ready to put in the hard yards to acquire skills. The UK's education system must instil this attitude of determination in our own children. In this era of austerity, we in the West are hobbled by huge national debt. In the UK it stands at more than 80 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with debt levels of 30-40 per cent in most emerging economies. So, the politicians ask, how can we afford to invest more in the education of young people?
The answer is that we have no choice. There has been far too great a focus on funding problems, regulatory problems and curriculum problems, and not enough talk about needs and opportunities.
A key priority is to start early. Most educationalists will tell you that primary schools are where the main drive needs to be. The expectations for our changing society rest on investment in reading, writing, and thinking and communication skills for four- to 11-year-olds. In one of India's many initiatives targeting young people, some 100,000 teachers have been recruited to teach advanced mathematical concepts to infant schoolchildren. As a result, children don't grow up fearing numeracy. We shouldn't be afraid to copy such ideas.
But we must talk about further education, too. There is a tendency in the UK (probably as a result of the education system being forever used as a political football) to rely on government to provide leadership and direction in skills development. In other countries, the business and education sectors engage in national, regional and local skills initiatives and then look to government to support them with tax incentives and funding. It's time for businesses in the UK to take up this challenge; we understand the skills requirements and we can see what is happening on a local and global scale. We know, too, that lack of mobility of skills will result in huge costs down the line.
One way that business is shaping change is through apprenticeship initiatives. My own insurance broking company has taken on a number of apprentices this year with a minimum qualification of two Bs and a C at A-level. They are a truly excellent intake. Apprenticeships offer an alternative route to university qualifications, often to those who don't want to be saddled by the daunting debts incurred in higher education.
Of course, creaming off the best A-level students does very little to tackle the underlying social and educational problems relating to learning and skills, but it does provide an alternative for self-starting young talent. The apprenticeship agenda has the support of government but it needs and deserves more dynamic action from large multinationals who can take the initiative to another level.
If businesses and schools and FE colleges and universities can come together to set the agenda, we will be able to approach government with schemes that use taxpayers' money much more wisely. We will also be able to embark on longer-term projects, regionally appropriate initiatives and more inspirational enterprises.
And I mean truly inspirational. The Indian space mission to Mars has succeeded where others have failed. Even more remarkably, it cost less than the Hollywood blockbuster Gravity. The mission has been kept simple. One of its main focuses has been to safeguard the future by recruiting an army of students and trainee engineers to engage with the leading scientists and technicians.
Copying is no shame. We should be prepared to adapt good ideas to our own situation. In the UK, we have the educational infrastructure, high-quality universities and excellent skills training and apprenticeship schemes in business and industry. But we're not so good at bringing them together through engagement and communication. That is the key to unlocking the appropriate skills.
At the Chartered Insurance Institute, for instance, we are now reaching out to more and more schools and colleges to give students an overview of what exactly a career in insurance has to offer them. Our members know that professional training and development is essential to the sector's future and we already have a lot of excellent initiatives with universities and through the establishment of corporate academies. But we also know we need to extend these. Any young person considering a future in insurance must be able to see the educational opportunities and the pathway to career progression.
So let's forget the election, forget austerity and set the agenda. The stakeholders, including the students, must take responsibility for skills development. Leaving it to government is not an option. But if colleges and business can together lay down a successful and popular matrix for developing skills, no government would dare dismantle it or starve it of funds.
Ashwin Mistry is chairman of Brokerbility, a group representing independent insurance brokers