According to the Learning Curve report, which includes tertiary graduation rates in its methodology, the UK sits sixth in the list of education superpowers, behind the top two, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. The USA is ranked 17.
The global study, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and published by Pearson, draws on existing data from international organisations, as well as figures on literacy rates, school attendance, and university graduation rates.
In the educational attainment category, which is based solely on literacy and graduation rates from both school and higher education institutions, the UK jumps to second overall, behind South Korea. Finland, Poland and Ireland complete the top five.
The report suggests that promoting a culture that is supportive of education is more important than the amount of money invested, while high-quality teaching is seen as the most crucial factor in securing good educational outcomes.
In the study, Robert Schwartz, Francis Keppel professor of practice in educational policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, criticises some countries for tailoring their education system too strongly towards producing tertiary graduates.
“Having a system focused entirely on preparing students for four-year colleges and universities is a major problem.
“Only 30 per cent of young Americans actually get a four-year degree by their mid-twenties, and many of those wind up in jobs that didn’t require a degree,” he says.
“The consequence of not having a strong post-secondary vocational system is that most young Americans reach their mid-twenties without the skills and credentials needed for success in a technology-driven economy.”
The report also concedes a number of problems with its data, including the use of higher education graduation rates.
Canada’s graduation rate, for example, appears modest because the report draws only on university results, and not graduates from the country’s community colleges, as the data were not available.
Chester Finn, president of US policy think tank the Thomas Fordham Institute, tells the report that the use of graduation rates to assess educational performance is “complicated” because it is possible to “raise your graduation rate by lowering academic expectations”.
However, Denis McCauley, the EIU’s executive editor for business research, says he hopes the report will serve as “a catalyst for further collaborative efforts by academics, practitioners and policymakers to deepen our knowledge about what contributes to better education performance and outcomes”.
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