Posted tagged ‘OECD’

A graduate world

March 26, 2013

Recently I took a taxi to get to the airport; it doesn’t matter right now where this was. As is often the case, I got into a conversation with the driver. Having discovered what my job is, he told me that he was a graduate of two different universities: he had a BA in a humanities subject, and an MSc in a branch of social science. Did he need these degrees to drive his taxi? No, not really. So was the taxi business not his first choice? Well actually, it was, and he was sticking with it. And he was thinking about another degree.

Of course my driver’s thirst for knowledge was wholly admirable, and from the conversation I was able to conclude that he performed well at university and received significant intellectual stimulation from his studies. I could not for a moment argue that he shouldn’t have gone to university. But still, I couldn’t help wondering about it; perhaps this was someone who should be making use of MOOCs (to pick up a discussion we have had on this blog recently).

To be honest, this is a topic I struggle with, in part because there really isn’t a general understanding of how many should avail of higher education. It is easy and right to argue that the old system in which universities just educated a social elite was fundamentally wrong. It is also easy, indeed necessary, to emphasise that higher education must be available to talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds with the same ease of access as enjoyed by those who were born relatively privileged. But once we have agreed that, how far do we take this? What percentage of our population do we expect to be graduates?

In most developed countries, the percentage has been moving steadily upwards. According to OECD statistics (which however only take us as far as 2006), the proportion of the population between the ages of 25 and 64 with tertiary degrees in most countries is now well over 25 per cent. In some countries it is significantly higher: in Canada it is 47 per cent, and in the United States and Japan it is around 40 per cent. In Ireland and the UK it is around 30 per cent. In most of these countries the percentage had grown by somewhere between 5 and 10 points over the previous decade.

If you look at the proportion of those at the typical graduation age who have a degree, the numbers are also interesting. The largest percentage is in Iceland, at an amazing 63 per cent. Poland and Finland manage nearly 50 per cent. Ireland has an impressive 45 per cent, significantly beating the United Kingdom at just under 40 per cent. Outside of the OECD, the proportion in China is at around 20 per cent, but in 30 years this has shot up from a mere 1.8 per cent.

So where should all this be going? What are we trying to do with higher education? If it is mainly about careers and employment, what impact might very high participation levels be having on professions that involve significant skills not taught in universities? What future do we want to have, or not have, for apprenticeships? If higher education is not about vocational preparation, should we then logically want to have everyone go to university? No country has ever really addressed these issues. Some (for example, Ireland) set more and more ambitious targets for higher education participation, but without any real debate on the implications. If universities are, quite properly, not intended to accommodate social elites, should they also not be host to intellectual or knowledge-based elites?

Some have argued that high levels of university participation compromise standards and increase drop-out rates. I think we should treat such arguments with care, in case they mask social elitism. But perhaps the time has come for a much more explicit debate about higher education, what it is for and who should be encouraged to participate.

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PISA: dangerously unbalanced education

December 9, 2010

PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment), as some readers will know, is an assessment of 15-year old students carried out every three years by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 65 countries and regions (where a region is considered a distinct ‘economy’). The results of the 2009 test have just been released, and they don’t necessarily make for very comfortable reading, either in Ireland or in Scotland.

Ireland is ranked in 21st place. For comparison, the top performer is Shanghai in China, followed by Korea and Finland. The United States is at number 17, Germany is at number 20, and the UK at number 25. At the bottom of the table we have Azerbaijan and Krygyzstan.

The UK gets more specific comments in the documentation, and what stands out is the apparent conclusion that its only middling performance is not the result of under-investment. The report points out that the UK is one of the top education spenders measured per pupil, and Britain’s parents are amongst the most educated, and yet the country under-performs. But interestingly, while literacy in the UK is relatively high, proficiency in mathematics and science is below average.

Ireland’s performance in mathematics is also below average (the country fares better in science). And overall, Ireland’s standing in educational terms has declined significantly over the lifetime of these tests since 2000.

The worrying thing about PISA is that we know that our education systems in these islands are in decline, but there is a remarkably inadequate sense of urgency in our countries about this and not much of an understanding why this is so. We conduct our education debate around the issue of resources (as we know from current excitements), but while these are of course important they are not everything, and we need to get a much better grip on what it is that we are doing wrong. We are seriously at risk of being seen as educational under-performers, and we cannot afford that if we are to return to better and more prosperous times.

Taking higher education reviews seriously

August 29, 2010

Yesterday’s Irish Times contained an editorial comment on higher education funding. In fact, amidst the deepening crisis facing Irish universities and colleges, one thing that has been positive is the amount of attention given to the topic by the media. The Irish Times editorial makes some useful points about the funding gap and the importance of a successful higher education sector if Ireland is to achieve its ambitions for a ‘smart economy’.

The editorial refers to the OECD reportĀ on Irish higher education, also commissioned by the government and published in 2004. The international experts working on that report took some considerable time and effort to complete their work, and put forward a number of key recommendations. Six years later, almost none of these have been implemented, and indeed that whole report was put away within months of its publication, and it has not been referred to by any minister (at least in my presence) since then. Instead the government commissioned another report (the Hunt report), covering pretty much identical territory, and making at least some recommendations which are the same as those in the OECD report.

Policy review papers are perhaps sometimes seen as a substitute for action rather than the cause of action. They are commissioned, published and forgotten. In that setting higher education begins to drift, as has manifestly been happening in Ireland.

It is now too late for the OECD report. But work should begin on ensuring that the Hunt proposals do not attract the same fate, but are made the subject of an implementation plan. I also still hope (but without much optimism) that our politicians will understand and accept the crisis facing third level institutions. Declaring strong and committed support for higher education, but withholding the funding to secure it, is not a good idea. It is not a state of affairs that should be allowed to continue.

Higher education strategy – recommendations coming up?

July 22, 2010

One of the themes of the ten years of my presidency of DCU has been the strategic review of higher education nationally. The first exercise of this kind was conducted on behalf of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the (then) Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU, now the IUA) by Professor Malcolm Skilbeck; this was a review of trends and developments internationally and their significance for Irish higher education. This was followed by a review carried out by the OECD at the request of the then Minister for Education, Noel Dempsey TD. The very substantial report, written by a highly prestigious group of international experts, was published in 2004 and contained a large number of recommendations.

No action of any kind was taken to consider the findings and implement the recommendations of these reports. However, in 2009 another review process was initiated by then then Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, with no indication as to why this review was necessary at all, given the previous exercises. This was to be concluded by the end of 2009, but in the event no report has yet been issued, amidst media reports that there have been difficulties in reaching a consensus on the final document. But while we are waiting for this, a number of decision-making processes are stalled in anticipation of a report that may, in the end, not provide a clear direction for the sector.

In yesterday’s Irish Times the paper’s Education Editor, Sean Flynn, reported that the current review’s chair, Dr Colin Hunt, is suggesting that the group will recommend the reintroduction of either tuition fees or a graduate tax (the latter having also just been suggested in the UK).

There is, I believe, little doubt that Irish higher education needs reform, both from within and at the level of the national regulatory framework. However, there are few signs that the system is prepared to take on board a coherent strategic view. Rather, reviews are conducted not as a precursor to action, but as a substitute for it. Once completed they are shelved. The current review is further handicapped by the excessive representation on the group of senior civil servants and the absence of any international expertise in the deliberations. It is also unclear whether the group has conducted the necessary empirical work to collect evidence that can provide a proper basis for its recommendations.

I believe that a major strategic report is needed, but I am not at all confident that the current process will provide it. There may be a case for the sector commissioning its own review with the participation of international experts and with a view to setting out an agenda for strategic change.

Doing it all over again – and again – for the very first time!

February 5, 2010

I do hope it was a slip of the tongue! On RTE’s programme Morning Ireland on Thursday, the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, was very positive about the potential impact of the higher education strategy review currently under way, where I understand that the steering group will report in a month or two. This, he said, was so important because it was ‘the first time ever’ that a comprehensive review of higher education had been undertaken. Really? ‘First time ever’?

I’m afraid it’s not even nearly the first time. The last occasion was only very recent – the OECD review of Irish higher education commissioned by the then Minister, Mr Noel Dempsey TD. It reported in 2004 and made a number of very important recommendations, which were widely discussed. But not implemented. And now forgotten, at any rate as we see in the Department of Education. We must all hope that in, say, 2016 the Minister’s successor will not be announcing that a comprehensive strategic review of Irish higher education was to be set up for the first time ever. But just in case, I’ll be there, and will certainly be referring back to 2010.