Good figures that portend bad news

April 21, 1995

Gareth Williams decodes the latest OECD education statistics which hint at UK higher education cuts

According to a news release from David Blunkett the latest volume of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development education statistics shows that "Britain is bottom of the class when it comes to education" while a press release from the Department for Education on the same document claims that the "United Kingdom tops Germany and Japan for education investment". Both are right: so long as you realise that Blunkett is concerned about nursery education while the DFE is drawing attention to the proportion of our (low) public expenditure that goes to education.

The two important things to remember about information published by international organisations are first that they are inevitably out of date and second that no matter how technically competent and dispassionate the statisticians, and the OECD is better endowed than most in this respect, they are ultimately dependent on figures supplied by national authorities.

The OECD statistics show what national governments want to show. If the UK appears to be low on a particular indicator, as it is on nursery education, we may surmise that this is preparing the ground for it to have greater political priority. If on the other hand we are apparently doing well, as we are on some of the higher education indicators, in particular expenditure per university student which is the highest in Europe, we may expect to see Treasury ministers use the figures as an excuse for cuts.

Such reservations apart, the OECD is to be congratulated on this third volume of comparative international indicators of education performance. It is the biggest and best yet and is certainly the most comprehensive and the best quality set of international indicators available.

A new table this year shows the education location of young people from the age of 17 to 24. Britain's performance here is lamentable: lowest in OECD, apart from Turkey, in the percentage of 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22-year-olds experiencing full-time education: only Switzerland and New Zealand have lower percentages entering higher education, though the figure of 36 per cent does not lag quite so far behind as in earlier years. Most OECD countries have achieved mass higher education, though whether the university is doing more than serving as a parking lot for young people who would otherwise be unemployed is not revealed by the statistics.

The policy question arising in much of the OECD area is what lies beyond. The good news for Britain is that her output of bachelor degrees remains among the highest in Europe, surpassed only by Norway and Denmark. What may be a less satisfactory omen for the future, is that the number of young Britons obtaining degrees at masters level is well below most of our major competitors in Europe.

The picture is complicated by the fact that in many of them the masters degree is the first real university qualification. The crunch will come if European employers begin to ask questions about whether our mass-produced bachelors degree is really equivalent to qualifications at masters level and above, produced by universities in France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Spain. It is a pity that it has not yet been possible to compile a table showing doctorate-level qualifications.

Another useful innovation is comparative figures of participa- tion in continuing education and training by adults. In most of the countries for which information is available between a third and a half of all employed adults took part in some training during a 12-month period in the early 1990s.

Unfortunately, the UK collected its figures on a different basis from most other countries so, apart from saying that it did better than Spain and Ireland but less well than Denmark, it is impossible to compare the UK with her OECD partners on this increasingly important indicator. In all OECD countries' higher education remains a worthwhile private investment. Male British graduates earn 70 per cent more than secondary school-leavers: in other countries the difference ranges from 18 to 80 per cent.

With a number of important exceptions (France and the Scandinavian countries) the relative benefits of higher education are greater for women than for men. In Britain the average earnings of women with degrees in 1992 was more than twice as much as those with secondary education qualifications only. This may help to explain the rapid expansion of women's enrolments. Graduates are also less likely to be unemployed: less than 6 per cent in 1992 compared with more than 14 per cent for those who left school at the earliest opportunity.

The pattern is similar in nearly all countries but the biggest differential of all was in Britain where less than 4 per cent of graduates were unemployed compared with 21 per cent of early school leavers.

A useful new feature is the annotated organisation charts of national education systems. It is a pity the compilers were not able to draw the diagrams to scale. At present they rather exaggerate how well the UK is doing in the masters and doctoral degrees league and they make further education look like the dominant post-18 sector.

Gareth Williams is head of the centre for higher education studies at the Institute of Education, London.

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