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In his introduction to the most recent edition of the OECD’s yearly compendium of international education statistics, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría points out that this is the first edition that includes data on the world’s education systems since the “full onset of the global recession.”  The report finds that from 2008 to 2010, unemployment rates among OECD countries increased from 8.8 percent to 12.5 percent for people with less than a high school education.  The rate of unemployment for people with a college degree only increased from 3.3 percent to 4.7 percent which goes to show that, no matter where in the industrialized world they lived, those with higher levels of education fared better in the global job market.

Indeed, economists know that deep recessions are typically occasions for transformations in national economies, and it looks as though this one is no exception.  Companies facing stunted demand and plenty of cash have used the opportunity to make major investments in automation.  That means that many of the jobs requiring relatively routine skills are never coming back and many of the jobs that are created as demand comes back will call for considerably higher skills.  This was the general direction before the Great Recession, but that trend, it seems, as been greatly accelerated by those events, ratcheting up skills requirements considerably.

The 2012 issue of Education at a Glance focuses, in particular, on the relationship of compulsory and higher education investments by nations to their economic outcomes noting that, despite the financial constraints on governments because of the recession, spending on education (both public and private) has, in many cases, increased across OECD countries.  The OECD considers secondary education to be the “baseline” qualification needed in today’s economy, with many of their indicators measuring the proportion of the population who hope to achieve or have achieved education beyond this baseline.

There are also a host of new indicators included in this year’s Education at a Glance.  Two are specifically directed at the relationship between the global economy and the education level of a population: how education influences economic growth, labor costs and earning power; and the extent of social mobility in each country studied.  The former supports the growing body of evidence about the importance of workers having some post-secondary education:  the OECD found that labor income growth among highly educated people has contributed to more than half of GDP growth in OECD countries, whereas workers with less than a secondary education actually serve as a drag on labor income growth.

As policymakers around the world have turned their attention to increasing post-secondary education attainment rates, students, too, seem to grasp the increasing importance of higher education in most OECD countries, with educational attainment levels on the rise across the board.  Across all OECD countries, an average of 31 percent of adults have completed a post-secondary education.  Canada is the only country where more than half of all adults (people aged 25-64) have some higher education.  While many countries have steadily increased their percentage of adults with a college degree, some have increased at a much faster rate.  From 2000 to 2010, Canada’s average annual growth rate was 2.4 percent, the United States’ was 1.3 percent, and Finland’s was 1.8 percent.  But, during the same time frame, Ireland, Luxembourg, and Poland experienced growth rates ranging from 6.9 to 7.3 percent. The OECD average growth rate is 3.7 percent.  South Korea is also moving up fast with an average annual growth rate of 5.2 percent and they lead the world in higher education attainment rates for their young adult population, with 65 percent of their people aged 25-34 years completing post-secondary education.  In other high performing countries, like Japan, students who hope to enter higher education are hobbled by high tuition and low student supports.

Another new indicator in this year’s edition of Education at a Glance asks to what extent does parents’ education influence access to tertiary education?  Not surprisingly, the data shows that if at least one parent has completed post-secondary education, students are more than twice as likely than the average student to attend higher education themselves, while students whose parents did not complete upper secondary education have a 44 percent chance of attending post-secondary education.  Some countries are better than others in creating a pipeline to post secondary education even for students whose parents did not complete upper secondary school. Students whose parents have low education levels have greater chances of attending higher education in Iceland, Turkey, Portugal, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden, where the odds of attending are greater than 50 percent.  While not all students in this group who attend higher education actually graduate, some of these countries are also adept at ensuring fairly high rates of completion.  In Australia, the tertiary attainment rate of students without highly educated parents is more than 40 percent; in Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland, about 30 percent of students from this group attain tertiary degrees.  The OECD average for this group is just 20 percent.  Many of these countries employ a number of strategies to strengthen the educational pipeline for students whose parents are less educated including providing equal access to high-quality K-12 educational experiences, offering robust student support systems such as college and career counseling, and maintaining reasonable college and university tuition costs.  Australia, perhaps the most successful country when judged by the metrics of both the participation and attainment of students whose parents have low levels of education, has annual tuition fees at public institutions of $4200 US per year (fairly high compared to other OECD countries, though not as high as in the United States or the United Kingdom), but more than 75 percent of students receive financial aid.  Sweden, which also has high rates of tertiary participation among students whose parents have low education levels, and a fairly high rate of completion among this group, takes a different tack, not charging tuition fees at all.

In the United States, the odds of a student going on to college if his or her parents have not finished high school is just 29 percent.  The odds are lower in just two countries, Canada and New Zealand (figure 2).  However, the figures may not be as dire as they seem at first reading.  In his webinar presentation prior to the launch of this year’s report, Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General of the OECD, points out that the OECD did not count associate’s degrees in their analysis. When the definition of higher education is expanded, the United States most certainly will improve in this category; however, this still brings into question the quality of the post-secondary credentials that many young people in the United States acquire compared to those in other OECD countries.

Schleicher also mentioned that OECD researchers had initially hypothesized that high tuition would be a barrier to disadvantaged students attending higher education.  However, the evidence shows this is not always the case.  In countries with high tuition rates and strong student support systems (for example, widespread access to loans and grants and manageable debt repayment plans), high tuition does not generally seem to prevent students from pursuing higher education.  Schleicher highlighted the system in the United Kingdom, which bases student loan repayments on salaries.  If former students do not meet a certain income threshold, they are not required to repay their loans.  Therefore, pursuing higher education is less of a gamble for low-income students; when students do not have to worry about repaying their loans if they cannot find a job, more students are willing to continue their studies.  This is a notable lesson for other countries with high tuition rates and less forgiving repayment programs – Schleicher stated that the UK government has found that the social returns of investing in getting more students into higher education are worth the risk.

Other new indicators ask:

  • What is the difference between the career aspirations of boys and girls and the fields of study they pursue as young adults?
  • How well do immigrant students perform in school?
  • How do early childhood education systems differ around the world?
  • Who makes key decisions in education systems?
  • What are the pathways and gateways to secondary and tertiary education?

A few highlights from these new indicators tell us that key decisions in education systems are least commonly made at the intermediate level of governance; 16 of 36 countries allow schools to make key decisions (and half of those decisions are made within a framework created by a more centralized structure), and 12 countries fall at the other end of the spectrum, with key decisions made at the central level.  The Netherlands is the most autonomous system in the OECD, with 85 percent of decisions made at the school level.  However, school autonomy does not necessarily predict student performance; the top performers are scattered across the spectrum.

Another indicator looks at secondary and post-secondary gateways in education systems.  Twenty-three of the 36 OECD countries require students to take examinations at the upper secondary level and 22 make those examinations a requirement for passing a grade, graduating from school or earning a certificate.  Very few, however, require national examinations in elementary school, with the United States, Indonesia and Turkey being the only exceptions.  This suggests that most OECD countries value mastery of content and skills at the upper secondary level as an essential component of their education systems.

Some of the top-performing countries in primary and secondary education seem to be slightly behind the curve when it comes to early childhood education – at least early childhood education supported by government expenditures – a point which was driven home in three of the four country notes.  Three countries rely on private investment to drive their systems.  In South Korea, for example, more than 80 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in a preschool program, but the vast majority (79 percent) attend private preschools, whereas across the OECD, just under 16 percent of students attend private ECE programs.  In Japan, preschool attendance for four-year-olds is nearly universal (97.2 percent), but spending on ECE is among the lowest in the OECD, and household spending makes up nearly 40 percent of all spending on ECE.  In Australia, both enrollment and spending lag; enrollment is the fourth lowest in the OECD at just 52 percent, and spending on ECE as a proportion of GDP is also among the lowest.

The annual publication of Education at a Glance once again serves as the go-to source for up-to-date information on the measurable features of education systems in OECD countries.  New indicators on higher education certainly make this year’s issue the most comprehensive yet.