Lack of safety in numbers

November 8, 1996

Next month the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development will publish the latest edition of Education At A Glance: OECD Indicators. It will shed new light on United Kingdom education spending data.

The Labour Party has recently latched on to the OECD's current statistics about expenditure per student in its member states. There are separate tables for spending at pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary levels.

On the basis of these figures, Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking and a governor of the London School of Economics, has argued for a change in how public spending on education in the UK is allocated. She has written: "We spend more than any of our OECD competitors on each student in higher education - $15,060 compared with $6,550 in Germany and $11,850 in Japan - but we spend less than them on nursery education. We need to reassess our education priorities."

The same theme is reflected in the Labour Party's Lifelong Learning document: "I improved access to higher education cannot be allowed to undermine standards or divert resources from other priority areas." And Labour's Road to the Manifesto says: "Our aim is to guarantee nursery education for all three and four-year-olds." The money for that has to come from somewhere. It is not surprising higher education is concerned.

But how strong are the grounds for a "reassessment"? What Ms Hodge does not say is that the OECD figures are in fact for parts of further as well as higher education. A closer look at Education At A Glance shows there are three figures for UK spending per tertiary student in 1992 (all figures exclude public subsidies for student living expenses). They are: $15,060 for public institutions (former polytechnics which had not become universities at the time of the survey); $9,400 for government-dependent private institutions (including old universities, new universities, other higher education institution and franchise courses); and $10,370, a figure which combines the two categories.

Which statistic should we use? The Department for Education and Employment, which supplied UK data to the OECD, advises that the last figure gives a more reliable picture. This puts UK spending per student below the United States, Switzerland, Canada and Japan, and only just above the OECD average of $10,030.

The OECD itself advises caution in using data on tertiary spending. The data, it says, "do not always reflect variations in the real resources provided to the students", such as staff: student ratios. They are "affected by certain problems in comparing expenditures among countries", such as differing definitions of enrolment numbers. Some countries include all spending on research, while others do not.

Also, between 1992 and now the numbers of full-time equivalent students increased, while the unit of funding per student decreased sharply. The next set of OECD statistics is believed to show that UK tertiary spending per head is below $10,000. There are also reservations about, for instance, the pre-primary information supplied by the DFEE to the OECD which is based on estimates.

Labour politicians are not the only ones to be muddled by international statistics. Ministers are fond of quoting favourable figures, such as the UK's rising tally of international students (164,000 in 1994-95); healthy graduation rates (higher than Spain, Greece, Germany, Belgium, France, Ireland and the Netherlands, but lower than Denmark, Japan and the US); and relatively low drop-out rates. They are less fond of explaining, for example, why the UK's public expenditure on tertiary education, as a proportion of GDP, is comparatively low. Or why, according to the OECD's main science and technology indicators, we were behind Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the US in higher education research and development spending in 1991.

The Future of Britain's Universities, a report this year by the Conservative Political Centre, argued for the need to increase central funding. It said: "Compared to the rest of the developed world, British public spending on tertiary education is very low indeed: UK 0.1 per cent GDP, US 1.6 per cent, France 0.9 per cent."

These figures are the same as those in Education At A Glance for 1992, but for public (ie former polytechnic) tertiary institutions only. The OECD shows that when public and Government-dependent private institutions are combined, the GDP proportion rises to 0.8 per cent (the US to 2.5 per cent, and France to 1.0 per cent). For what it's worth, Education Statistics for the United Kingdom (1995 Edition), published by the Government Statistical Service, said the UK in 1992 spent 1.1 per cent of GDP on higher education (ie above secondary), the US 1.3 per cent, and France 0.9 per cent.

Hopefully the new OECD figures will clear up some of these problems. But knowing politicians and statistics (it was, after all, Disraeli, who told us about the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics), that is unlikely.

Stephen Court is a researcher at the Association of University Teachers, and writes in a personal capacity.

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