Officials seek a way to compare standards internationally, writes David Jobbins.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is looking into ways of comparing higher education quality internationally by assessing the students produced by each country.
Under the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), secondary school students take two-hour tests designed to gauge their knowledge as they approach the end of compulsory education. Three rounds have been conducted since the first in 2000, with the third in progress across 58 countries.
Although no formal decisions have been taken, officials believe that a parallel test for university undergraduates is a logical step from the comparative data on quantitative outcomes that the organisation has been publishing for a number of years in its Education at a Glance series.
They believe that the political climate has shifted sufficiently for the project to be given active consideration.
At a ministerial meeting in Athens in June, Angel Gurr!a, secretary-general of the OECD, offered to develop new measures of learning outcomes in higher education, drawing on its experience with Pisa.
Ministers were generally receptive to the idea; only a minority took the view that it was a matter for national governments alone. Other ministers favoured going full pitch for comparisons to be made now, while most appear to have acknowledged that it is inevitable - and desirable - in the medium term.
There is a recognition that devising a higher education Pisa would be more difficult, given the complexity and diversity of higher education systems. Pisa took five years from inception to its launch.
But Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD's indicators and analysis division, said this week: "We know virtually nothing about quality. There is no comparative picture of the quality of higher education outcomes.
"You could justify this in the past when universities selected the best and brightest. But you can no longer treat this quality as guaranteed."
UK expansion slowing
Comparative data from the OECD's Education at a Glance 2006 report show that the UK's rate of university expansion is slowing in comparison with other OECD countries.
The UK has significantly improved its relative share of adults with a first degree or higher over successive generations, but that progress has levelled off and the OECD warns that there is a risk that it will slip below the average for its 30 member states.
Its first-degree graduation rate in 2000 was the second highest across the OECD but was exceeded by eight countries (Australia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland) in 2004.
The UK experienced a 20 per cent rise in the number of university enrolments between 1995 and 2003 - below the OECD average of 38 per cent and behind increases ranging from 33 per cent to 169 per cent in Australia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Korea, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic and Sweden.
The proportion of school-leavers entering university in 2004 in the UK was 52 per cent, according to the OECD. In Australia, the comparable figure was 70 per cent, while both Iceland and Sweden achieved 79 per cent.
At 78 per cent, UK completion rates were among the highest across the OECD - above the average of 70 per cent and surpassed only by Greece, Ireland, Japan and Korea. Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, expressed confidence that the tuition fee regime introduced from September 2006 would encourage more young people to go to university.
Details: Education at a Glance 2006 , OECD www.sourceoecd.org/education/9264025316
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