England will not take part in OECD's 'Pisa for universities'

Doubts now raised over future of project billed as having potential to shake up hierarchy of world higher education

July 15, 2015

England will not take part in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s project to measure learning outcomes of university graduates around the world, delivering a blow to the plan.

The OECD had described the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project, seen as a potential university-level equivalent of the organisation’s Pisa tests in schools, as having the potential to transform the hierarchy of world higher education.

Earlier this year, the OECD asked member nations to indicate whether they wished to take part in a full “main study”, following a pilot of the project.

But the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has declined the chance to take part and will instead prioritise work in England to develop measures of learning gain, likely to figure in the teaching excellence framework.

David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, had previously suggested that Ahelo could potentially be used by government as a metric to help judge teaching quality at universities.

A BIS spokesman said: “We have responded [to the OECD] and won’t be taking part in the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project.

“We felt that progressing our current national programme of work on measuring learning gain provides a more efficient and focused approach for this country. Introducing a teaching excellence framework is one of the government’s top priorities for higher education and developing a set of robust measures of learning gain and value added will be an essential element of that, helping us to understand and so incentivise high quality teaching.”

BIS decision applies to England only. The devolved nations will take their own decisions on Ahelo.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has commissioned a number of pilot studies on learning gain measures.

Following the Ahelo pilot, the OECD opted to switch from a test focused on individual disciplines to one looking at “transferable skills”.

Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education and director of its new Centre for Global Higher Education, said Ahelo had “looked like it would fail for some time”.

He said there had been “too much opposition from elite universities and their organisations, and too many countries with cold feet, and difficulties with the assessment itself”.

But Professor Marginson added: “Its an age of global comparisons and they wont stop. I do think we need international comparisons of learning, otherwise research overwhelmingly dominates the credible global comparisons. So the question is, what will be the post-Ahelo development and where will it come from?”

Earlier this year, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills, told Times Higher Education that, globally, Ahelo “would just open up so many possibilities to have a more level playing field that is less influenced simply by past reputation and those kinds of things”.

Mr Schleicher predicted that Ahelo could mean that “you will see institutions that may not be as expensive, that may be a bit in the shadow, but delivering superior learning outcomes”.

He also said that the nations “most strongly in favour of this are the countries that have most to gain, like the countries in East Asia, who basically have no chance to compete on traditional rankings which are valuing history and tradition and past reputation”.


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