Swedes beat the Swiss

December 12, 1997

Wastage and female enrolment are the main trends in the latest OECD education reports, says Mary Boland

This year's report provides a more complete picture of higher education in OECD member countries than ever before, and for the first time includes comparative data showing yawning gaps in educational attainment across all levels of schooling, with surprising results from third-level graduates.

Adults aged from 25 to 65 and of varying educational achievement across 12 countries were given an identical test. University graduates in Switzerland scored only marginally better than Sweden's upper-secondary school-leavers. Non-university tertiary education graduates in the United States had poorer scores than the Netherlands' upper-secondary school-leavers.

Albert Tuijnman, an OECD education expert, said: "Whether this has to do with university education or it is life experience following education, is not clear. It could perhaps also be that university graduates in certain countries have been losing their skills."

The indicator raises important questions on the links between third-level education and skill, and whether someone with, for example, six years of higher education really knows more than someone with only three years.

Alan Wagner, higher education specialist at the OECD, said: "It underlines what was said in the new Literacy Skills report, that educational attainment is a poor proxy for skill, and also reinforces the OECD's mandate to encourage lifelong learning to meet demands in today's labour market."

OECD officials say the quality of data has much improved since last year's education reports. New information this year details the demographic composition of those entering tertiary education.

The expected average years of tertiary education per person is two in Britain; 2.5 in France; just under two in Germany; nearly four in Canada; and just over three in the US.

A chapter devoted to tertiary education in Education Policy Analysis describes the rapid increases in the numbers availing themselves of third-level education in countries like France, Portugal, Norway and the US.

In France, the biggest growth from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s was in the 18 to 21 age group, whereas in the US it was mostly the mid-20s. Existing indicators on the financing of third-level education have been redesigned.

They include information on public subsidies to students and their families. There were, however, difficulties in calculating this because some countries included living expenses for students in their costings, and others did not, creating a large distortion in the figures.

There is still an almost complete lack of information on how students live: the number of seminars in a degree course; the size of groups; the number of library seats.

"Although we've made a lot of progress this year, there is still a great need for more information," said Mr Tuijnman.

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