G8 education ministers end first summit with cooperation

Education ministers from the Group of Eight major countries wrapped up a two-day meeting Sunday by agreeing to cooperate in the use of information technology in education, promoting lifelong learning, and international student exchanges.

The meeting, the first of its kind, held discussions on the theme of “Education in a Changing Society” at Tokyo National Museum, in Ueno. The G8 education ministers adopted the chairman’s summary as a followup to last year’s G8 summit in Cologne, Germany, which took up education as one of its main themes for the first time.

The ministers said in the summary that lifelong learning is increasing in importance as high skill and knowledge levels have become necessities in today’s labor market. They agreed to expand opportunities for all people to learn “anywhere and anytime throughout their lives.”

Citing rapid progress in information-communication technology as a powerful tool for lifelong learning, ministers agreed to encourage universities to collaborate in using the Internet and satellite communication for teaching, training and research.

At the same time, ministers also addressed the need to pay attention to the “dark side” of information technology, which is dividing society into those who have access to IT and those who do not.

“Care must be taken to adopt policies that reduce the ‘digital divide’ between the more and less advantaged members of society,” ministers said.

For that goal, ministers agreed to share effective practices to lower barriers to access to educational technologies, including offering educational services using IT to universities in developing countries.

Education ministers from Japan, the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Russia took part in the meeting, which was joined by delegates from the European Commission, UNESCO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It was the first gathering of education ministers from G8 nations, and participants said further meetings may be held “as the need arises.”

On promoting international exchange of students, teachers, researchers and administrators, the ministers noted that increasing interdependence of the world economy is placing higher values than ever on international exchange and cooperation in various fields.

They agreed to “explore ways to substantially increase the overall level of exchange among G8 countries and with other countries, with the goal of doubling the rate of mobility over the next ten years.”

The chair’s summary used the wording “mobility” because not all the countries keep track of exact number of outgoing and incoming students and researchers, according to education ministry officials.

Education Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, who chaired the meeting, said at a joint press conference that Japan plans to substantially increase the number of foreign students studying here. According to ministry officials, Nakasone told the meeting that the Japanese government aims to double the number of overseas students from the current 56,000 by 2010.

German Education Minister Edelgard Bulmahn told reporters that closer international cooperation between universities is important for expanding mobility, and that the use of the Internet is useful in developing cooperation.

To increase mobility, ministers agreed to enhance credit transfer system among education institutions in different countries.

In one session, participants discussed educational challenges that each country is facing, such as tackling dropouts and truancy, raising students’ academic performance, and providing better connections from school to workplace.

But they came short of making any concrete agreement for cooperation because each country needs different prescriptions to tackle respective problems, ministry officials said.

“The countries of the G8, in their different ways, are committed to tackling these problems so as to provide a brighter future for their youth,” they said in the joint statement. But the only point they agreed on was to “encourage research, dialogue and international links . . . on effective approaches to problems of educational disadvantage.”

Nakasone said he will report the outcome of the education ministerial meeting to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi for further discussions at the G8 summit in Okinawa in July. He said he expects the summit to take up such issues as the importance of increasing the international mobility of students.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley said the ministerial meeting was “really a preparation for the G8 summit.”

“We must now realize that economic issues are totally depending upon educational issues,” he said at the press conference.

Education ministers agreed to review the progress of the agreement by making use of existing international forum, such as OECD, while failing to agree to make their meeting an annual event.

Most of the participants will hold a free discussion forum in Okinawa today.