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Literacy, If It Was Important Then, It’s More Important Now Than Ever Before

Literacy, If It Was Important Then, It’s  More Important Now Than Ever Before
The Fiji National University’s (FNU) Derrick Campus, Samabula.
September 13
10:00 2018

Below is an analysis by Fiji National University Vice Chancellor Professor Nigel Healey in  commemoration of the annual International Literacy Day celebrated this month.


Why is literacy so important?

Most obviously, it is the key to living and functioning effectively in society.

As a young academic, I was seconded to work for the Belarusian Prime Minister as an advisor in the early 1990s.

Belarus was newly independent, one of the former 15 republics of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR).

Arriving in Minsk, I realised I could muddle by in the street with my basic spoken Russian, but I could not read the Cyrillic alphabet.

Checking a bus timetable, reading a café menu and understanding my utility bills were all initially beyond me.

I instantly regressed to the status of a dependent five-year-old, constantly stopping strangers to plead for help.

Twenty-five-years later, literacy is even more important as a survival skill, since so much more of our communication in today’s virtual world involves reading and writing, rather than listening and speaking.

Ask any child today a difficult question like “What is the capital of Belarus?” and they will Google the answer: “Minsk”.

But having good literacy is about far more than day-to-day functioning.


In 1970

In 1970, only about 10 per cent of the world’s 18-year olds entered tertiary (post-secondary) education.

Today the figure is 37 per cent (UNESCO data for 2016).

Note that this figure is not the tertiary enrolment rate for developed countries like South Korea and Japan, but for the world as a whole, a world that includes countries like Eritrea, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mozambique with vanishingly low enrolment rates.

This means that over a third of today’s global youth is destined for tertiary education.

The reason for the spectacular increase in tertiary education is structural economic change.

Since 1970, the world has transformed itself from a subsistence agrarian society into a globally-integrated knowledge economy.


Era of Robotics

In the era of robotics, artificial intelligence and the “Internet of Things”, succeeding in the labour market means not only being highly-educated, but being able to upskill and reskill as technology eliminates jobs like car assembly workers and creates new jobs like “Big Data” analysts.

Being literate is the entry ticket to tertiary education and the opportunities that lie beyond in the new knowledge economy.

Poor literacy locks individuals out and keeps them on the margins of society, in unskilled manual jobs at best, or in unemployment, crime and drug abuse at worst.

Of course, there are much wider benefits from good literacy than purely functional or economic advantages in society.

Literacy allows access to a people’s history and culture.

All human knowledge and wisdom, distilled over the centuries, is available to those who have the skills to decode the writings of those who have gone before.

The pleasure of reading a classic novel cannot be replicated in a movie theatre.

The insight gained from reading an incisive analytical essay cannot be approximated by a YouTube video or a Fox News broadcast (although the YouTube video is probably more politically balanced).


In Fiji

For economies like Fiji, there is an additional twist.

By a quirk of fate, Fiji was (in the bigger historical picture) fleetingly colonised by another small island, whose own language had been derived from those of earlier Roman (Italian), Anglo-Saxon (German) and Norman (French) invaders.

By the time of independence in 1970, English was Fiji’s common second language, spoken by citizens whose first languages were mainly Fijian and Hindi.

The globalisation of business, and the hegemony of US  corporations and culture, have subsequently transformed English into the world’s dominant second language, used by Koreans to speak to neighbouring Chinese and Greeks to speak to neighbouring Turks.

Having English as a common second language gives Fiji, sitting on the 180th longitude, a formidable commercial advantage.

The world is digitally connected 24/7.

It is as easy to conduct business online from Suva as it is New York, London or Tokyo – and immeasurably cheaper in terms of both labour and real estate costs.

With a literate, educated workforce, Fiji sits on the International Dateline, with the opportunity to virtually serve markets in both the eastern and western hemispheres.

Literacy generally, and English literacy especially, are crucial to the future of Fiji’s citizens, economy and society.


Fiji National University

As Fiji’s national university, we feel the burden of responsibility for maintaining and enhancing literacy standards particularly acutely.  FNU is a vocational, dual sector university.

We educate the country’s doctors, dentists and nurses; its mechanics, carpenters and engineers; its accountants, lawyers and chefs; its veterinary scientists and farm workers; and, of course, its early childhood, primary and secondary teachers.

We need to ensure not only that all our graduates leave university with strong literacy skills – the ability to read and write critically and cogently – but  also that our teachers have the training and empathy to educate tomorrow’s generation so that they can take their place in society, succeed in the global knowledge economy and appreciate their historical and cultural heritage.

At FNU, we have instituted an English Diagnostic Assessment for Learning (EDAL) for all incoming students to identify their strengths and weaknesses and campus-based language hubs to support the develop of critical English reading and writing skills.


About Literacy Day

The day gives thanks to the power of literacy to unlock opportunity, access our cultures and fulfil our potential.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared September 8 as International Literacy Day in October 1966.

The goal was to highlight the critical importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies.

Almost 50 years later, its sister organisation, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), announced its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aimed at “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

Tellingly, Goal 4: Quality Education promises to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

It was inspired by the stark statistic that, despite the progress made in improving access to education, over 100m young people worldwide still lack basic literacy skills, with women making up over 60 per cent of this group.


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