From education to employment

What does the OECD Think of the State of Educational Affairs?

With two major reviews of the Further Education sector on the horizon ““ in November, the much anticipated Foster Review will report on reform in the sector, whilst in March of 2006 the Treasury ““ backed Leitch Review will detail the anticipated skills required for a successful Britain in 2020 ““ the education system and the service it provides have rarely come under stricter scrutiny.

It has emerged that a great many Members of Parliament have lost faith in industry’s ability to determine the skills required for the future, which calls into doubt the drive to bring more employers into the formulation of strategy. In addition, the Government’s various skills initiatives, and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) strategy statement over the summer, have served to further develop the sector.

But what really needs doing? How far have we come? And how far do we still have to go in order to be all that Britain both wants and needs to be? In the second instalment of this two ““ part series, FE News reporter Sara Hashash looks at the OECD’s report on the state of education and skills training.

Growing Trends in Education

The growing trend for education also extends to university education. More students than ever are studying for degrees in OECD countries although the growth has followed an erratic and inconsistent pattern that does not correlate between nations and is highly dependant on factors such as the flexibility of degree structures available in certain countries, the amount of competition, the number of universities in that country.

The growth in numbers of university students is hardly surprising in the UK, where the government has been placing pressure on students and schools to reach high targets of students studying for degrees. Some, however, would argue that far from improving opportunities and career prospects for a large number of people, such “forced” education may even have a negative impact on the value of a degree leaving graduates faced with greater competition and meaning that more attention is paid to issues such as the academic reputation of the institution attended.

Although today women account for 57% of university level graduates this figure varies significantly when seen in the context of the degree subject studied. Far greater numbers of women undertake degrees in humanities, health and welfare related issues, with 30% or fewer women graduates in mathematics and computer science, engineering, and manufacturing or construction.

The Profit for All Education Sector

Despite rises in university education levels, the report declares that investments in tertiary education are still extremely profitable both for the individual and society concerned. This extends from financial benefits as well as wider social and economic implications such as increased labour productivity for society, and improved mental and physical health for the individual. All but 4 of the 22 OCED countries with available data witnessed an increase in the earning premium for people who had undergone a university education compared with those who had merely completed secondary education.

Education is through its very nature a continuous process of development. Completing education to any level, whether secondary or tertiary, is a guarantee of greater success and employees must constantly supplement their education with further training and skills development courses. In order to maintain employability and a high quality of skills and services, post-employment training is provided for more than 40% of people in the labour force in the US, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. However it is not deemed to be as high a priority in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Hungary, where rates of employee training reach just 10%.

Problems Remain

However, problems remain concerning those to whom post-school education and training is least available. Although such opportunities are generally equally accessible to women as to men, it is the unemployed or people in low skilled or low income jobs that still face difficulty entering the sector. In all OECD countries, research shows that it is the higher skilled employees who work in large firms, the public sector and business services, banking or finance that are most likely to receive such training and education opportunities. Arguably these people are those who need it the least.

Accessibility to such courses and training sessions may also be determined by aspects such as the type of contract the worker has, the worker’s age, rank within the company, and initial level of qualifications. Access is often limited for part time or temporary workers in a company, for employees in non-executive or unskilled roles and for older workers.

Yet another cause for concern is the large proportion of young people with low levels of qualifications who are currently neither working nor studying. This constitutes more than 10% of 15-19 year olds in France, Italy, Mexico, the Slovak republic and Turkey. OECD countries spend an average of around $7,343 per student per year throughout their progression from primary to tertiary education but these figures are not evenly spread.

In fact, a great imbalance exists between countries such as the US and Switzerland who spend around $11 per student at one end of the scale, contrasting starkly with the meagre $2 per student expenditure in Mexico and the Slovak Republic. A breakdown of the expenditure, however, varies greatly among the 5 countries with the highest spending levels per student. While the US and Switzerland provide the highest teachers” salaries in secondary level education, Denmark and Austria are among the countries with the lowest student to staff ratio.

Not Just About the Numbers

However, it is not all down to financial capability as there is no evidence that a higher level of spending will necessarily result in any improvements in the quality of education provided. Countries with moderate expenditure on education such as Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands and New Zealand, still record high levels of performance by 15 year olds in key subjects.

Often success comes as the result of effective spending and investment. The way in which the costs of education are divided between public and private sectors is changing in several countries, with tertiary level educational institutions moving towards private rather than public sources of funding such as tuition fees. However, it is often the case that public and private shares in the funding of education do not correspond to the public and private benefits. A great example of this phenomenon is in Norway. Denmark, Germany and Austria, where there is a great disparity between private investments in the cost of early childhood education in comparison to that of tertiary level education despite its clear benefits to the private sector.

The OECD “Education at a Glance” report uncovers valuable and variable statistics prompting essential government policy discussions and reform. Most notably, progress needs to be made on improving access to education for those for whom it is still least available in order to ensure that every member of society has the opportunity to maximise their learning and skills potential.

Read the first part of Sara Hashash’s excellent review of the OECD report right here at FE News.

Sara Hashash

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