Data bank with blind spots

April 14, 1995

The third set of education indicators to be published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has grown yet again to meet what it calls "the increasing desire among OECD countries to understand how their education systems work and how they might be made to work better".

Education at a Glance, which covers 1992, carries more data on public and private funding and control for the benefit of policy makers seeking "better value for money". It aims to "illustrate potential alternatives" and allow governments "seeking to redefine the balance of responsibilities" to consider a range of existing models.

The OECD stresses that an understanding of the relationship between educational expenditure and educational outcome is "particularly important" at a time when education is receiving increased priority but often faces limited public funding.

Yet while it continues to broaden and fine-tune the figures collected, inadequate sources of data leave a number of grey areas. For example, under the definition used by the OECD, UK universities are regarded as Government-dependent private institutions, deflating its figure for public funding and inflating the figure for public and private sources. For the second year running, the OECD has dropped the indicator on the university student completion rate due to a lack of comparative information.

It has also proved difficult to gather consistent information on subsidies for student living expenses and to break down the research spending component of expenditure at tertiary level.

For the first time, seven indicators on public attitudes to education, based on public opinion polls, are provided. These enable public expectations to be tied in with actual provision, one example being curriculum content.

The survey shows that foreign language learning is considered to be "very desirable" everywhere except in Britain and the United States. One of the strongest similarities between OECD member states concerns the earning disparities associated with educational attainment and gender.

Male university graduates in all countries earn, on average, between 45 per cent and 70 per cent more than men with an upper secondary education, while women earn on average 60 per cent of the salary of men with the same level of education. Women in the UK and Portugal gain the greatest financial advantage from a degree with women graduates in the UK earning twice as much as women with an upper secondary education.

Data on student outcomes, based on the proportion of graduates within an age group, shows the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan again well ahead with between a quarter and a third of the age group holding a bachelor's degree or equivalent. The UK, with 20.4 per cent, has lost its first place within the European Union to Denmark which had 22.1 per cent, but nevertheless shows an increase of 2 per cent on last year's figures.

In its next publication of education indicators, the OECD plans to include data showing disparities within and across countries. All the current indicators are based on overall country averages, which, says the OECD, "provide less than a full picture".

But the number of indicators is due to fall. The OECD wants a balanced transition from its development of new indicators to regular collection on a longterm basis.

Another development expected to improve the quality of data on higher education is the revision of the taxonomy of education programmes used by ISCED, the International Standard Classification of Education.

Education at a Glance, third edition, OECD Publications, 2 Rue Andre-Pascal, 75775 Paris CEDEX 16, price $65.

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