Unesco raises the profile of statistics

August 27, 1999

PARIS. A British academic is in charge of transforming Unesco's statistics division into a semi-autonomous institute that will give world leaders data to aid decision-making.

Denise Lievesley, former director of the UK Data Archive and professor of social research methods at Essex University, is the institute's first director. She will report to Unesco's director-general through a governing board.

Professor Lievesley was elected president of Britain's Royal Statistical Society last June, becoming only the second woman out of 100 presidents since 1834.

She said the change of status of statistics showed their growing importance. "Board members will be prominent people in statistics, representing users and producers and different regions of the world, governmental and non-governmental; it is a balancing act."

While the institute will still collect data and report them through publications, it will give more priority to work in developing countries. It will also work with other organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and Eurostat.

"They are much more active. There are new actors with very different demands on countries. It's critical to ask what it is we ought to be doing and how we should be working with countries and international agencies."

Based initially at the Unesco headquarters in Paris, the institute will be allowed to raise its own private finances as well as receiving a grant for basic services.

Professor Lievesley said the institute would seek to improve the quality of statistics and their use. "We must make sure they are policy-relevant," she said.

But the fledgling institute has urgent priorities. The first is the next round of World Education Indicators, jointly produced by Unesco and the OECD.

The second is ISCED (International Standard Classification of Education). "We need to review what problems countries have had and how to adapt," said Professor Lievesley.

Third is the yearbook. "If we continue with yearbooks we should be collecting this year's data, but I should like to stop and think whether resources devoted to it are justified by the use being made of it," she said.

So she believes it is urgent to review whether all the institute's publications are producing the right output or whether they should cut down material and put it on CD-Roms, disks and the internet, "which would be more timely and take less work". A smaller number of publications could also be a solution.

But the most immediate priority is the mammoth education assessment being carried out in 161 countries by the Education for All Forum, of which Unesco, together with Unicef, the World Bank and other United Nations organisations, is a partner.

A landmark conference will take place in Dakar in Senegal next April to review progress since the first conference ten years ago in Jomtien, Thailand, targeted six areas for action from pre-school to adult education.

This is where the institute's credibility will be put to the test. It will be responsible for receiving, processing and presenting country data of widely varying quality. "It will be absolutely critical to the world in terms of reviewing what we have achieved since 1990 and deciding where we go from 2000. We want the best-quality data for the review looking backwards, and best quality for the benchmark for the future," said Professor Lievesley.

She also has to set up for the next millennium "a robust information system to collect data that will be relevant over time and flexible to address new issues".

"There were lots of new issues in the past decade - the rising role of the private sector, increasing use of technology in delivery of education systems, fluidity in terms of age structures, for example adults. I don't know what the new issues will be; we'll have to get information from the policy-makers and people on the ground," said Professor Lievesley.

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