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

Engaging globally through joint and dual degrees: the graduate experience

carlin.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry has been kindly produced by Diana B. Carlin, Dean-in-Residence and Director of International Outreach, Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and former Dean of the Graduate School and International Programs, University of Kansas from 2000-2007. At Kansas she oversaw over 100 graduate programs on three campuses and the Offices of International Programs, Study Abroad, Applied English, and International Student and Scholar Services. During her tenure, Kansas developed joint and dual graduate degrees in France and Korea. She reported on trends in joint/dual degree development at an international conference (the “Strategic Leaders Global Summit on Graduate Education“) co-hosted by CGS and the Province of Alberta, Canada in August 2007.


Other postings on GlobalHigherEd (see ‘Engaging globally through joint and double degree programmes: a view from Singapore’ and ‘Engaging globally through dual degree programs: SUNY in Turkey’) have presented model joint/dual degree programs at the undergraduate level. Such degrees are gaining in popularity for graduate students as well (as are joint/dual graduate-level certificate programs). In fact, collaborative degrees have become one of the most popular session topics at meetings of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and other gatherings of graduate education leaders. Graduate school deans are discovering increased interest among faculty and administrators to both expand their institution’s international opportunities for domestic graduate students and attract international students through collaborative degrees. Additionally, as international research collaborations become more common, future faculty and non-faculty researchers can begin developing overseas connections. Students from all participating institutions also benefit from exposure to world-class facilities and faculty.

The federal government has also been encouraging development of collaborative degrees. Funding agencies’ grant programs such as NSF’s IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) and PIRE (Partnerships for International Research and Education), and Atlantis/FIPSE (a joint European-US program) in the Department of Education.

While graduate joint/dual degree programs share many of the same advantages and structures, and must consider many of the same steps in development, as undergraduate degree programs, there are also some unique issues that require consideration and collaboration among graduate programs, the graduate school, and international offices.

cgscover.jpgBefore considering the specific issues related to graduate-level dual and joint degree programs, readers might first be interested in knowing the extent to which current international collaborations exist and what the prospects are for future growth.

A CGS survey of graduate deans last summer found that 29% of the responding institutions had some type of collaborative degree or certificate arrangement with an international university. Respondents represented a high percentage of the U.S. universities that have the largest international student enrollment: nine of the ten institutions with the highest international enrollments responded, as did 84% of the largest 25. Nearly 56% of both the largest ten and the largest 50 institutions had at least one degree program, compared with only 22% of the institutions below the top 50. The top 50 institutions enroll approximately 41% of all international students. Thus, the results provide a relatively accurate trend among universities with high levels of international engagement.

cgstable5.jpgEuropean and Chinese universities headed the list of partners for master’s degree programs, with 39% and 24% of the collaborations respectively, while doctoral programs were primarily in Europe. Business degrees constituted the most popular field for master’s degrees with 44% of respondents reporting such collaborations; engineering was next with 35% of respondents. At the doctoral level engineering and physical science degrees were reported by 13% of the respondents. [The remaining responses can be found in the survey of graduate deans report.]

And it is clear that international collaborative degree programs are growing: when asked if the institutions had plans for new joint/dual degrees within the next two years, 24% answered affirmatively overall, and the percentages were even higher among the largest schools.

Now onto the unique issues alluded to above. The growing popularity of, and planned increases in, joint/dual degrees belies a set of concerns that faculty, graduate deans, and other administrators have. It is agreed that students, especially in business, engineering, and the sciences, will conduct their life’s work on a global stage and need preparation to do so. But it is also recognized that a program’s quality assurance and plans for long-term sustainability have to be considered during the initial planning stages.

Accreditation issues, especially for some professional degrees, become a factor as well (undergraduate programs in professional schools share some of these concerns). Collaborative program administrators have to learn how “memoranda of understanding” are prepared and how exchange agreements are structured. International offices have to become familiar with the aspects of a new graduate degree and its approval might differ from the institution’s practices for undergraduate programs.

The remainder of this posting presents some of the lessons learned by members of the graduate community who have worked through establishing joint and dual degrees.

The consensus of most graduate deans is that the best programs are those established with partner institutions that have existing relationships with the U.S. university or are familiar through long-term research collaborations among a group of faculty. Most agree that it is unwise to develop a degree program around the research interests of a single faculty member. In addition to regular program reviews, graduate degree collaborations would benefit from a review after two or three years and that the programs should have some type of “sunset” clause that the program is to be terminated if it does not produce the desired level of collaboration.

From my experience as a dean and from that of others, it is important to remember that no matter how long it takes to develop a program and how well it is conceived, there will always be issues that were overlooked and require negotiation or renegotiation. Something as simple as semester start and end dates can create problems, not to mention more difficult issues related to research projects and joint supervision of a thesis or dissertation. U.S. deans have discovered that it often takes scholarship funding to kick off a new program and to get the first cohort interested. They have also found that they often need to highlight successful existing programs to stakeholders in the approval process in order to allay concerns that could end a prospective alliance. Graduate degree programs often require a year just to work through various levels of approval; thus, program proponents need to be prepared to not promise anything until all of the agreements or memoranda of understanding are completed and signed.

Through sharing experiences at conferences, on list serves, and on blogs such as this, universities initiating their first collaborative graduate degree program can reduce the number of problems by knowing what to expect at the outset. The need for graduates who have collaborated with international partners or have spent some part of their careers outside the United States—regardless of what that career is—will only grow. As a result, study abroad is likely to grow at the graduate level and produce long-term relationships that will benefit students, the institutions, as well as society worldwide.

Diana Carlin