UK: IM SOUNDING BOARD - A GLOBAL CHALLENGE FOR EDUCATION. - I am a product of the British education system and I have no doubt that it was my British schooling that equipped me, in the 1960s, for a career with The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporati

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I am a product of the British education system and I have no doubt that it was my British schooling that equipped me, in the 1960s, for a career with The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) which has allowed me to work around the globe.

During my 30 years overseas I was lucky enough to spend 25 years in Asia, during which time I witnessed the transformation of educational standards in the region - to the point where they now threaten to outpace those in the West (especially in preparing the young for the practicalities of the workplace).

Although my own three children were educated internationally - in Hong Kong, Indonesia, the US, Scotland and England - I speak not just as a parent.

Many years ago, the HSBC Group, one of the largest financial services organisations in the world, decided that education should be the main thrust of its worldwide community policy. Last year, the group donated over £7 million in support of more than 100 educational projects and schemes around the world - ranging from the endowment of a Chair in Asian Business Studies at a Canadian university to the provision of lunches for needy school-children in rural Thailand.

We believe that education is the life-blood of our business. In today's global markets, international competition isn't merely a matter of products and services - it is about highly trained staff with world-class skills developing, promoting and delivering those products and services worldwide.

Our group employs more than 100,000 staff around the world and we are, therefore, consumers of education from more than 60 different education systems. We recognise that we can only succeed if our staff are better educated and better trained than those of our competitors.

elping develop skills and promoting educational excellence is all-important. Nowadays, the revolution in communications, transport and technology tends to concentrate jobs - in financial services or light industry - anywhere in the world where the appropriate skills are best developed.

For example, our group computer development operations are currently located in Buffalo (New York), Sheffield, Hong Kong and Vancouver - places which offer high-quality people as well as cost-effectiveness. This suggests that, in order to create or attract jobs, a country now needs to offer standards of education - in its schools, colleges and universities - that are internationally competitive. If British education doesn't perform adequately, then many of the jobs - and the prosperity which such jobs generate - will go elsewhere.

The argument that British education, like British business, must compete internationally has yet to become orthodoxy in this country.

Already, we are seeing the economic centre of gravity beginning to shift, perhaps irreversibly, from west to east. There are many reasons for this but I am convinced that education has played a major part. In Southeast Asian countries, such as Singapore, teachers are accorded a special place in society and parents make enormous sacrifices to ensure their offspring receive the very best education they can afford. Government, business and the media all demonstrate a missionary zeal for education - a zeal rivalled, perhaps, only by that of our own Victorian forebears more than a century ago.

The results are there for everyone to see. They were acknowledged during a recent debate in the House of Commons where one member of parliament remarked: 'From the schools of Hong Kong and Taiwan and perhaps even from schools in parts of China ... a generation of children are emerging who are better educated and equipped than many of our own children to deal with the information age and the high-technology future'.

Now we all know that education is about a lot more than just the information age. British education has a great deal to be proud of. Almost one in three of our young people now enters higher education, we have the highest graduation rate in Europe and more school-children are leaving school with qualifications than ever before. In addition, real attempts are at last being made to remedy our traditional neglect of vocational training.

However, we live in an era of unprecedented change and we need to match the dedication, enthusiasm and resources given to education by our Asian competitors if we are to keep ahead in the race.

This doesn't mean pouring money into ivory-tower academic research. A World Bank report published last year made the critical point that the successful Asian economies are those that have invested most in primary and secondary education; by and large, the less successful are those that have invested more in tertiary education.

It would be wrong, however, to be completely downhearted about the state of British education. On the contrary, I am confident that, if we adopt the right approach now, British children will have nothing to fear in a world where communications and technology are changing at a pace so fast that even business leaders have trouble keeping up.

Business needs to work more closely with teachers. Business needs to articulate more forcefully its experience and convey the pressures under which it operates. Parents need to work with teachers and employers to make sure British education equips their children properly for the challenges they will face during their working lives.

I know that the best of British education remains second to none. The challenge is for British education to keep pace with the rapid changes in the world, to rise to the global competition and, in particular, the growing challenge from Asian countries.

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