Andreas Schleicher: ‘we will live through time’ when universities are judged on graduate learning

OECD head of education insists emulating Pisa school tests will improve teaching and lower fees

December 13, 2015
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Popular demand: the Pisa test of national school systems is well respected; could a higher education version catch on too?

Universities around the world will one day be compared on what their graduates learn and will “compete for superior approaches to teaching”, just as schools do thanks to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests.

That is the firm view of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s director of education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, who said its Pisa ranking of school systems was now seen as hugely important around the globe, despite initial fierce opposition from governments. 

Mr Schleicher, whom former UK education secretary Michael Gove once called “the most important man in the British education system” owing to Pisa’s clout, spoke to Times Higher Education on a visit to London to deliver the Higher Education Policy Institute’s annual lecture earlier this month.

The lecture attempted to revive interest in the principles behind the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (Ahelo) plan for international graduate tests. Ahelo went through a lengthy feasibility study, but failed to win backing from OECD member nations to proceed to the next stage.

“There’s been a lot of attention to measuring the success of universities by research outputs,” Mr Schleicher told THE. “But at the end of the day students pay high fees. I think we owe them a fair assessment of what they get in return for that.”

He continued: “This is a long road. I am pretty confident we are going to get there. Because I don’t think there’s any way you can bypass this. We are a lot further than we were five years ago. Today we can demonstrate the technical feasibility of doing this.”

Describing teaching quality “proxies” as a poor alternative to “what is it that students actually learn”, he suggested that “if it’s not the OECD doing it, someone else will”.

On the subject of Pisa, he asked: “Can you imagine a time when we didn’t have any comparative evidence on the skills of young people in school? We take it for granted. I think we will live through that time when we see the same thing in higher education.”

On Ahelo, Mr Schleicher said the “opposition is clearly coming from those institutions that have most to lose, in part from the countries that have most to lose. But anti-competitive behaviour has never been a recipe for long-term success.”

The notion of a standardised Ahelo test across universities from different nations with vastly differing curricula drew flak from critics.

But Mr Schleicher, who envisages comparing institutions in higher education rather than national systems as Pisa does, talked about letting “institutions decide for themselves” how they want to be compared.

He argued that as well as measuring disciplinary knowledge, tests should also evaluate “transversal skills” that universities say they teach, such as “critical thinking” and “intellectual curiosity”. “If those transversal skills are an important outcome of university education…we should actually measure those qualities as best we can,” he added.

A system of measuring learning outcomes had the potential to disrupt established hierarchies in higher education, Mr Schleicher suggested.

While at the moment newer universities “like in East Asia” find it harder to show their worth, he added, “they will probably win from any comparisons. And they are very keen proponents of this. They are desperately looking for a level playing field.”

He continued: “But at the end of the day, everyone will probably benefit. You will have fewer monopoly rents extracted by universities. We will have more reasonable tuition fees. I think it’s going to be harder for universities to charge students for outcomes that they do not deliver themselves.”

Mr Schleicher said he had been at meetings of education ministers prior to Pisa where all had maintained they had “the best” school systems in the world. “There was no dialogue across countries,” he added.

But now there is a “global dialogue and discourse”, Mr Schleicher said, highlighting the way that schools in England are hosting teachers from Shanghai in an attempt to emulate the city’s success in maths education.

“My hope is these kinds of metrics could create something similar in the field of higher education,” he continued. “That we do not just compete for graduates, but we compete for superior approaches to teaching and learning.”

Mr Schleicher also felt Ahelo could have gone ahead if England had given its backing.

“It was important to get one of the countries that wouldn’t necessarily win with Ahelo, in the short run, on board. That would have sent a very important signal,” said Mr Schleicher, adding that two former universities ministers, Greg Clark and David Willetts, had been “very supportive of the concept” before England finally declined to take part.

He added: “If you only get support from Japan, Korea, China – that’s insufficient.”

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