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

International students in the UK: interesting facts

Promoting and responding to the globalisation of the higher education sector are a myriad array of newer actors/agencies on the scene, including the UK Higher Education International Unit. Set up in 2007, the UK HE International Unit aims to provide:

credible, timely and relevant analysis to those managers engaged in internationalisation across the UK HE sector, namely – Heads of institutions, pro-Vice Chancellors for research and international activities; Heads of research/business development offices and International student recruitment & welfare officers.

The UK International Unit both publishes and profiles (with download options) useful analytical reports, as well as providing synoptic comparative pictures on international student recruitment and staff recruitment on UK higher education institutions and their competitors. Their newsletter is well worth subscribing to.

Readers of GlobalHigherEd might find the following UK HE International Unit compiled facts interesting:

  • In 2004, 2.7 million students were enrolled in HEIs outside their countries of citizenship. In 2005-06, six countries hosted 67% of these students (23% in the US, 12% in the UK, 11% in Germany, 10% in France, 7% in Australia, and 5% in Japan). (UNESCO, 2006)
  • New Zealand’s share of the global market for international students increased more than fourfold between 2000 and 2006. Australia’s increased by 58% and the UK’s by 35%. (OECD, 2006)
  • There were 223,850 international students (excluding EU) enrolled at UK HEIs in 2005-06, an increase of 64% in just five years. There were a further 106,000 EU students in 2005-06. (HESA, 2006)
  • International students make up 13% of all HE students in the UK, third in proportion only to New Zealand and Australia. For those undertaking advanced research programmes, the figure is 40%, second only to Switzerland. The OECD averages are 6% and 16%, respectively. (OECD, 2006)
  • UK HEIs continue to attract new full-time undergraduates from abroad. The number of new international applicants for entry in 2007 was 68,500, an increase of 7.8% on the previous year. The number of EU applicants rose by 33%. (UCAS, 2007)
  • Students from China make up almost one-quarter of all international students in the UK. The fastest increase is from India: in 2007 there were more than 23,000 Indian students in the UK, a five-fold increase in less than a decade. (British Council, 2007)
  • The number of students in England participating in the Erasmus programme declined by 40% between 1995-96 and 2004-05 – from 9,500 to 5,500. Participation from other EU countries increased during this period. However, North American and Australian students have a lower mobility level than their UK counterparts. (CIHE, 2007).

Susan Robertson

Interregionalism and the globalization of higher education: new Euro-Asia initiatives

One of the interesting aspects of change in higher education systems is how they are being denationalized; reshaped, as it were, by forces and actors that are thinking at, and operating at, scales other than the national. In social science terms (e.g., see the work of Neil Brenner) this is often deemed the “relativization of scale”; the process whereby actors operating at the global scale, the inter-regional (e.g., Europe-Asia) scale, the supranational regional (e.g., European, Asian) scale, the national scale (e.g., Germany), the subnational regional (e.g., Silicon Valley) scale, and the urban scale, all come to play increasingly important roles in shaping a “multiscalar” development process. See, for example, these two recent reports by the European University Association (EUA) and the OECD on higher education for regional development in a globalizing era:

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In this case we have a regional stakeholder organization (the EUA), and a multilateral organization (the OECD), both framing development processes simultaneously at the urban, regional, and global scales, with the national scale present, though clearly not dominant. Don’t forget, as well, that the OECD is a creation of member states, and its global thinking is therefore animated by, and mediated by, the nation-state. This is a point Saskia Sassen has insightfully driven home, most recently in Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press, 2006).

On the higher education and research policy front one emerging phenomenon worth taking note of is interregional dialogue. For example there is a now a decade long series of formal Transatlantic Dialogues, anchored by the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), and the European University Association (EUA). These meetings are always framed by ‘global’ thinking, but focus on achieving interregional objectives and enhanced understandings of what is going on on both sides of the Atlantic.

In this context the EUA announced, on 21 February, that it is partnering with the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education (Nuffic), to “establish an EU-Asia Higher Education Platform for European and Asian academics and policy makers”. This initiative is being facilitated by the European Commission’s Asia Link programme. As the EUA puts it, the purpose of the two-year project is to:

  • Provide a means for enhancing information exchange, dialogue, and cooperation in higher education and research between the two regions;
  • Develop best practices for institutional development and cooperation, and foster mobility of students and academics between the two regions;
  • Draw attention to the role and situation of universities in developing countries.

Throughout the course of 2008-9, a series of workshops and round tables in Asia and Europe will be organised, targeting institutional development and cooperation issues. Amongst the themes that are expected to be covered will be higher education governance and management, decentralisation, cooperation in graduate education, and interregional and inter-institutional cooperation in quality assurance.

While this is a complement to other forms of engagement also underway, and it is only targeted at parts of Asia, it is a noteworthy one.

First, and most importantly, there is much to learn in Asia about European developments over the last ten years given that Europe is grappling with the ‘modernization’ of its higher education system at a regional scale, though in a manner that blurs scales of action and intent, and takes into account national sensitivities and differential capacities for statecraft.

Second, it differs from the nature of North America-Asia and Australasia-Asia engagement, both of which tend to be relatively more person to person (e.g., the Australian Scholarships, the Fulbright awards) or event-oriented (e.g., student recruitment fairs, the US University Presidents’ Delegation to Southeast Asia).

In contrast, the EU-Asia Higher Education Platform is a truly post-national/interregional initiative, of a programmatic nature, and with an associated development agenda that focuses on systemic change.

In addition, and tying back to the start of this entry, note the presence of the nation-state in enabling EU-Asia relations to be forged, both directly and indirectly. This initiative is one that will also inevitably be forced to grapple with huge national variations in Asian higher education systems, and the lack of institutional capacity to operate at a regional scale in Asia, with respect to higher education. Yet while nation-states in Asia have not (yet) prioritized the construction of a regional higher education imaginary, it is only a matter of time given the structural forces that are reshaping Asian societies and economies. The complexion of the changes that will eventually emerge, and the nature of the intra-Asia and Asia-Other dialogue(s) facilitating them, have really yet to be determined.

Kris Olds

OECD ministers meet in January to discuss possible evaluation of “outcomes” of higher education

Further to our last entry on this issue, and a 15 November 2007 story in The Economist, here is an official OECD summary of the Informal OECD Ministerial Meeting on evaluating the outcomes of Higher Education, Tokyo, 11-12 January 2008.  The meetings relate to the perception, in the OECD and its member governments, of an “increasingly significant role of higher education as a driver of economic growth and the pressing need for better ways to value and develop higher education and to respond to the needs of the knowledge society”.

OECD’s science, technology and industry scoreboard 2007

oecd.jpgEvery two years the OECD publishes a Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard. Yesterday it released its 2007 assessment of trends of the macroeconomic elements intended to stimulate innovation: knowledge, globalization, and their impacts on economic performance.

GlobalHigherEd has taken a look at the major findings of the report and highlights them below. These indicators of ‘innovation’ presumed to lead to ‘economic growth’ reveal a particular set of assumptions at work . For instance:

  • Investment in ‘knowledge’ (by which the OECD means software and education) has increased in most OECD countries.
  • Expenditure on R&D (as a % of GDP) in Japan (3.3%) and the EU (1.7%) picked up in 2005 following a drop in 2004. However, in the US expenditure in R&D declined slightly (to 2.6% in 2005 from 2.7% in 2001). China is the big feature story here, with spending on R&D growing even faster than its economy – by 18% per year over the period 2000-2005.
  • Countries like Switzerland, Belgium and English speaking countries (US, UK etc) have a large number of foreign doctoral students…with the US having the largest number. About 10,000 foreign citizens obtained a doctorate in S&E in the US in 2004/5 and represented 38% of S&E doctorates awarded.
  • Governments in OECD countries are putting into place policy levers to promote R&D – such as directing government funds to R&D through tax relief.
  • Universities are being encouraged to patent their innovations, and while the overall share of patents filed by universities has been relatively stable, this is increasing in selected OECD countries – France, Germany and Japan.
  • European companies (EU27) finance 6.4% of R&D performed by public institutions and universities compared to 2.7% in the US and 2% in Japan.
  • China now ranks 6th worldwide in their share of scientific publications and has raised its share of triadic patents from close to 0% in 1995 to 0.8% in 2005, though the US, Europe and Japan remain at the forefront. However, the US and the emerging economies (India, China, Israel, Singapore) focus upon high tech industries (computers, pharmaceuticals), whilst continental Europe focuses on medium technologies (automobiles, chemicals).
  • In all OECD countries inventive activities are more geographically concentrated – in an innovation cluster – as in Silicon Valley and Tokyo.
  • There has been a steady diffusion of ICT across all OECD countries – though take up if broadband in households varies, with Italy and Ireland showing only 10-15% penetration.
  • Across all OECD countries, use of the internet has become standard in businesses with over 10 employees.

These highlights from the Scoreboard reflects a number of things. First, it is a particular (and very narrow) way of looking at the basis for developing knowledge societies. Knowledge, as we can see above, is reduced to software and education to develop human capital.

Second, there is a particular way of framing science and technology and its relationship to development – as in larger levels of expenditure on R&D, rates of scientific publications, use of ICTs.

Third, it is assumed that the combination of inventions, patents and innovations will be the necessary boost to economic growth. However, this approach privileges intellectual property rights over and above other forms of invention and innovation which might contribute to the intellectual commons, as in open source software.

Finally, we should reflect on the purpose the Scoreboard. Not only is a country’s ‘progress’ (or ‘lack of’) then used by politicians and policymakers to argue for boosting investment and performance in particular areas of science and technology, as in recruiting more foreign students into graduate programs, or the development of incentives such as the promise of an EU Blue Card to ensure the brainpower stays in the country, but the Scorecard is a pedagogical tool. That is, a country ‘learns’ about itself in relation to other players in the global economy and is given a clear message about the overall direction it should head in if it wants to be a globally competitive knowledge-based economy.

Susan Robertson

“Higher Education and Regions: Globally Competitive, Locally Engaged”

The OECD has recently published the report Higher Education and Regions: Globally Competitive, Locally Engaged. Prepared by OECD’s Programme for Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE), this publication builds on two related OECD publications concerned with the role of universities and regional development, namely Response of Higher Education to Regional Needs (1999) and Cities and Regions in the New Learning Economy (2001).

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Based on the IMHE’s objective to evaluate and enhance higher education’s contribution to local economic competitiveness in the face of a globalizing knowledge economy, the report synthesizes the experiences of initiatives in 14 regions across 12 countries. As the report writes, the lessons learned draw from various regional projects that had one common goal: “to transform each [higher education institution (HEI)] into an engine for growth” to respond at the local level to the global economic challenge (p. 16).

The report therefore examines and assesses the capacity for universities and colleges to effectively contribute to regional economic development through their multiple dimensions and activities: knowledge creation through research and technology transfer; knowledge transfer through education and human resources development; and, cultural and community development, which they argue can contribute to the conditions in which regional innovation thrives. The project aims to identify the internal and external barriers and constraints that prevent universities from furthering this regional economic agenda, and provides general recommendations for higher education institutions as well as regional and national governments to overcome these obstacles, particularly in terms of governance, management, and capacity building for innovation. The figure embedded in this entry is reflective of the general tenor of the report.

Unlike other recent higher education policy documents that seek to balance the multiple missions of the sector, this report unequivocally frames the purpose of higher education as primarily – if not solely – serving an economic objective. The report identifies and endorses a shift it feels has begun in policy circles and within higher education institutions to move away from national interests and the pursuit of knowledge in favour of engaging with regional economic needs in the face of “global competition.” Yet despite endorsing a regional focus, this report seems to represent renewed interest in comparing the “outcomes” of higher education systems and institutions in terms of international standards of quality, relevance and impact.

Kate Geddie

Has audit culture in higher education, at least at the national scale, not (yet) come to Canada?

Has audit culture in higher education, at least at the national scale, not (yet) come to Canada? This is an issue that caught the eye of the Chronicle of Higher Education today; one that ties back to our 17 September posting on internationalization in Canada, and the perceived (according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada) lack of a “coherent” national strategy on this front. It is noteworthy that institutions as diverse as the OECD, the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Council on Learning, and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada have all expressed concern, over the last few weeks, about the national higher education data gap; a gap that limits the capacity for analysts, advocates, and policy-makers to understand what is going on within the country’s higher education system (see also our report this week on how it affects Canada and international student mobility strategies). This data gap then makes it difficult to compare the Canadian system on an international scale. These two tables from the recent Education at a Glance 2007: OECD Indicators report provide striking examples of what the above institutions are concerned about (“m” = data is not available).

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Note: the OECD report (p. 54) states that a “traditional university degree is associated with completion of “type A” tertiary courses; “type B” generally refers to shorter and often vocationally oriented courses”.

The creation of new forms of internationally comparable data is a foundation of national and increasingly global governance (witness the power of the OECD to frame debates and policy shifts), including for the restructuring of higher education systems. International comparative data also provides the fuel for institutions as diverse as faculty unions through to boards of trade to create pressure on governments and other stakeholders to reshape higher education systems. It will be interesting to see how these debates unfold in Canada, complicated as they are by provincial jurisdiction over education, but in a context where global competition is becoming a mantra and force for change, for good and for bad.

Kris Olds