OECD’s Education at a Glance 2008: a ‘problem/solution toolkit’ with problems?

Last week, or to be precise – on the 9th September at 11.00 Paris time, the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), launched its ‘annual snapshot’ of the sector, Education at a Glance 2008. Within hours, the wheels of the media industry around the globe were pouring out stories of shame, fame, defeat and victory, whilst politicians in their respective countries were galvanized into action – either defending their own decisions or blaming a previous regime.

As previous entries in GlobalHigherEd (see here and here and here, as examples) argue, global indicators increasingly matter, not because they are always able to tell us much that is useful, but they work as a powerful disciplinary tool on nations. This, in turn, provides the issuing agent, in this case the OECD – ostensibly a ‘collective learning machinery’ – with an important mechanism for influencing the form and scope of education policies and programs around the globe. This is the tangible stuff of globalization – but this problem/solution toolkit is not without its own epistemological problems. Let’s take a look at two countries reported on this week – which headlined the OECD’s Report in the following way.

In the UK, the BBC and the Telegraph focused on the graduate league table, and the fact that the UK has not fared particularly well. The evidence? In 2000, the UK ranked 4th in the world in the number of school-leavers going to university. By 2006, this had plummeted to 12th.

Graeme Paton of the Telegraph reported on an interview with Andreas Schliecher, the OECD’s architect of Education at a Glance. According to Dr. Schliecher, the UK has major problems in producing school leavers with sufficient quality of credentials, whilst other countries have managed to sort out these problems and were already in the fast lane, leaving the UK behind.

Ministers canvassed by the Telegraph, however, insist that they were tackling the shortfall by encouraging more pupils to go to university and by pointing out the OECD good news story for the UK, that university graduates in the UK aged 25-64 earned 59 per cent more than other people – well above the national average.

In Canada, the influential Macleans magazine reported that in the OECD Education at a Glance comparisons, Canada was one of the few countries with the highest percentage of its population having completed post-secondary education. However, we are also given another statistic, and that is that the earnings advantage gained from completing post-secondary education in Canada had decreased in recent years and was quite low compared to other OECD countries. This is reflected in the lower average private rate-of-return on investment in post-secondary education relative to other nations in the OECD.

Let’s dwell, and not just ‘glance’, at these figures for a moment, and ask what is being reported here by the OECD:

  • competitive economies need a more highly educated workplace to perform more demanding work;
  • all countries need to encourage their young people to go to university and complete a degree; and
  • the incentives for this expenditure (which is increasingly being paid by families) are that there will be a higher rate-of-return to the student than if the student had not gone to university.

However, as we can see from our example above, countries with high levels of graduation (which the OECD says is good) report increasingly lower returns to graduates (ah…and is this not bad?).

Now, this is where the underlying human capital/homo-economicus rationale underpinning the OECD’s Education at a Glance begins to falter – for it cannot explain why it is that following the OECD’s prescriptions – of a high level of enrolment in higher education – reduces the overall earnings to the individual rather than increasing it.

While not one that is acknowledged in the repertoire of the OECD’s ‘problem/solution toolkit’ approach, this is where a sociological analysis is particularly helpful. As sociologists of education (see Phil Brown and Simon Marginson) have shown using Fred Hirsch’s insights on ‘positional goods’ tied to social status in his book The Social Limits to Growth, an advantage will only have economic value when no-one else has it. That is, its value depends on its scarcity. In other words, if we all have a graduate degree, then its value is diminished in the marketplace compared with when only half of us have one. This is part of the dynamic, for example, underlying degree inflation.

There’s also another issue, and this is the assumption that jobs in the ‘new knowledge economy’ will require us all to have graduate qualifications. However, the Confederation of British Industries (reported in the UK Guardian newspaper on the 17th Sept), disagrees, arguing that universities were producing far too many graduates leaving more than a million people in jobs for which they were overqualified. They argue that there are currently 10.1 million graduates in the UK, but only 9 million graduate jobs.

The deeper, and more tricky, question for policymakers now becomes: do we encourage everyone to hop onto the same credential treadmill with fewer and fewer returns and potentially higher levels of indebtedness? To be sure, there are important outcomes for individuals of a university education. However this experience is becoming more and more expensive, and the promised lifetime earnings are likely to be less and less. And who will shoulder the cost? Families? Employers? The State? And, how might the state and interrnational organizations, like the OECD, legitimate more and more credential inflation when the current ‘knowledge economy’ discourse is showing it to be somewhat hollow?

Or, ought we not think through what a range of trajectories might be that distributes talent/skills/training and investments over a wider portfolio of education/training/career options than is currently being presented to us?

Susan Robertson