Launch of Education at a Glance 2016 - Main Takeaways


The OECD published its Education at a Glance report today presenting findings from primary education to adult learning (OECD (2016), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.187/eag-2016-en ). It is welcome to see the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets linked to potential OECD contributions, a gender dimension and a detailed assessment on the situation of migrants and people with a migrant background throughout all indicators, as well as a focus on school-to-work transitions, labour market outcomes and the learning environment.

Here is a brief assessment of the most pertinent findings:

- SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS: The fact that the OECD countries have a high rate of progress towards achieving the SDG 4 on Education highlights the responsibility of all developed countries to increase the share of their international development budgets to support developing countries in creating successful public education systems. As the EAG says the public benefits of education outweigh the costs. Stable, educated and democratic societies are far less likely to be involved in destabilising internal and external conflicts and make faster progress towards economic growth. The proposed OECD involvement on data collection is thus a valuable contribution towards the achievement of SDG 4. As the ILO's "World Employment and Social Outlook 2016: Trends for Youth" ( http://www.ilo.org/global/research/global-reports/youth/2016/lang--en/index.htm ) displays, the situation of youth in developing and emerging economies is alarming with 156 million of those employed still living in extreme or moderate poverty this year.

- EDUCATION SPENDING: The decline in the average percentage spent on education of the GDP of about 1% is worrisome. It is now 5.2% even though the EAG claims that education spending has been protected post the 2008 crisis as 20 out of 28 countries increased the share spent on education. While country GDPs may now be growing, it is still an alarm bell. Education must remain a top priority in terms of spending for social mobility and inclusive growth. Especially when, the level of educational attainment is still mostly determined by the socio-economic background of students (pp. 46-48) – or as the OECD puts it: a ‘cumulative risk of low performance’.

- VOCATIONAL EDUCATION AND TRAINING (VET): Given the evidence that vocational upper secondary education leads to a lower unemployment rate compared to a general programme, countries need to strive towards its effective provision. 46% graduate from VET programmes on OECD average. Yet, 1 in 5 25-34 year-olds (15%) did not complete any upper secondary qualification (p. 32). Also, VET coverage varies considerably across countries and work-based programmes with social partner inputs to their design are deemed more successful (p. 52). As discussed in the TUAC paper on ‘Trade Union and Skills’, there is a vast amount of evidence to support union inputs to VET systems ( http://www.tuac.org/en/public/e-docs/00/00/12/72/document_doc.phtml ).

- HIGHER EDUCATION (HE): The report focuses extensively on the benefits of tertiary education calling for incentives to expand higher educational attainment – as of now 72% of those enrolled in HE programmes complete a bachelor degree, 12% a master’s degree (p. 60). Evidently, there needs to be more public investment as expenditure has not proportionally increased with higher participation rates (p. 180). The EAG analysis claims that governments find it hard to keep up with such increased demand, which would legitimate more external providers – disregarding educational quality, accountability and access issues. The share of private expenditure in the tertiary sector is quite high and grows (up to 50% in Australia, Chile, Japan, Korea and the US, p. 199), while all other educational levels are mostly publicly funded (with a slight exception of Chile where it is only 80% compared to 91% on average, p. 210). A key point not to miss that leads back to the question of equity is that most of the private expenditure comes from households. 10 out 25 countries have changed the levels of their tuition fees in-between 2010-14 alone. Support for students in HE systems is moving from grants to loans. At the same time, subsidies for students can be destabilised in economic downturns as the EAG rightly points out (pp. 234-235). This bears the question if students' equity of access is being undermined and whether students from low- and middle income backgrounds are exposed to higher levels student debt. The key question is whether the shift from grants to loans has diversified student populations in terms of socio-economic background.

In claiming that “countries with a low level of tuition fees do not appear to achieve better access to tertiary education” (p. 234), it disregards other factors. Although in some countries (Korea, Russia and Singapore), upward mobility has increased, in others it is very limited (Chile, Italy) across all education levels. In these countries, there needs to be targeted support including financial incentives (e.g. tuition waivers) for those groups at risk – with a focus on bringing students into upper secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary education (p. 78).  The EAG in listing the main items leading to higher public expenditure including decreasing class sizes and employing new teachers should also underline the value of such investments in the same breath (p. 181).

- LABOUR MARKET OUTCOMES: the EAG analyses labour market outcomes in relation to educational attainment. 12.4% of those unemployed only have completed a degree below the upper secondary level against 4.9% with tertiary degrees. However, the level for the latter is still high (only 82% employment rate for those with a bachelor degree) and both cannot be compared as they fill different labour market segments. On income inequality, the authors rightfully point out that aside from educational attainment level, other factors come into play and thereby acknowledge the role of trade unions, collective bargaining and minimum wages (p. 115): “Variations in earnings also reflect factors, including the demand for skills in the labour market, the supply of workers and their skills, the minimum wage and other labour market laws, structures and practices, such as the strength of labour unions, the coverage of collective bargaining agreements and the quality of working environments.”

- YOUTH NOT IN EDUCATION, EMPLOYMENT OR TRAINING (NEETS): The average number of 20-24 year old NEETS still remains shockingly high (17%) with the highest in Italy, Turkey, Greece and Spain. Strongly tied to the failure of austerity driven recovery policies, OECD members should recalibrate their focus on NEETs. The EAG herein encourages public investment (p. 246), however channelling it to employers to encourage them to hire young people is a one-sided solution. EAG data shows that the skill levels of NEETs might not always be the determining factor as gaps in literacy proficiency vis-à-vis employed youth are not as high in European crisis countries, or Turkey and Russia – showing that youth unemployment rates are affected by other factors including low growth, lack of aggregate demand and a persistent jobs gap. While the 2015 peak in youth unemployment is behind us, 14.5% (2016) and 14.3 (2017 predictions) will still remain unemployed in developed economies (ILO, 2016). This is more due to labour market conditions than to skills levels and will affect earnings and employability of these young people in the long-run. It should also not be disregarded that 25 % of employed youth in OECD countries were in temporary or part-time employment. Their lack of access to training (aside from lower wages) will eventually result in greater problems.

- FUTURE SKILLS NEEDS: the EAG predicts that competencies will be more knowledge based. The report’s findings show that the employment rate is higher for those working in engineering, manufacturing and construction and Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields (p. 90). However, only around 22% graduate in STEM related fields as of today (p. 61). Related to this, there is an increasing need for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills that are linked to better job opportunities. In this respect, employers need to assume an active role as skills providers not “expect” competencies to already be acquired elsewhere (p. 91) or be in need for public financial support such as incentives for hiring younger workers (p. 346) as the OECD alludes to.  As of now, there is still much room for manoeuvre: findings of the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) show that only 62% of employed 25-64 year-olds participated in employer-sponsored education, falling to 26% for those working in elementary occupations (OECD, 2015b). Thus, employers have to invest more in the competencies of their workers to enhance their productivity to keep up with technological change and get trade unions involved in determining the right conditions and design of the training. The EAG confirms that there is an inequality of opportunity in work-based training: “most adult learning takes the form of participation in employer-sponsored formal and/or non‑formal education. Participation in employer-sponsored formal and/or non-formal education is higher among people working in highly skilled occupations than among those working in low-skilled occupations, and higher among those with higher proficiency levels in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments, and higher educational attainment than among those with lower proficiency and educational attainment. It is also higher among those with full-time jobs and indefinite contracts than among workers with part-time jobs and fixed-term contracts” (p. 368). 

At the same time, especially when one of the main factors driving expenditure on education and training currently is the expansion of digital learning and internationalisation at the tertiary level, more public investment needs to be channelled into teachers’ training.
- GENDER GAPS: One key message in the EAG is the gender divide in education both in terms of teaching staff, employment and earnings outcomes. While there are now more women than male graduates, tertiary educated women still earn 27% less than men and their employment rates are lower (p. 64). The OECD needs to deepen its focus on the barriers which are still there for women in earning the same including the economic penalty of having children. For example, more 20-24 year old women are inactive NEETs (18.5%) against 15.5% male NEETs, who are in turn mostly unemployed (p. 346). As EAG data shows, women are still under-represented in science and engineering, which needs to be met with promoting STEM studies and engineering, manufacturing and construction (only 12% as of now) in VET programs for women. The EAG's evidence on gender inequalities confirms the success and growth of pre-primary education including the massively positive effect of pre-primary education on the children of immigrants. Fifteen year olds who attend at least one year of pre-primary education perform better according to PISA than those who do not. In more general terms, as the report points out, a more gender-balanced labour market participation across sectors and disciplines as an outcome of formal education would lead to economic growth (p. 51). The gender divide is also evident in who teaches. Despite there being more women teaching than men, more men still take the top jobs such as being principals.

- MIGRATION: The focus on immigrant children in the EAG is welcome and as stated above the evidence on the benefits of pre-primary education (immigrants who receive pre-primary education score 49 points higher in PISA than those who do not which is great proxy for indicating how important universal pre-primary education is) and the need to encourage parents’ participation in upper secondary training is welcome but should be extended to more varied and concrete policy proposals for migrants, and especially refugees and unaccompanied minors and young adults – which is not covered sufficiently in the report. The EAG shows that the share of those with low educational attainment levels is higher for migrant families (p. 74-76): “approximately 16% of non-students adults aged 25-44 have both parents foreign born”. Examples from Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden show that action plans and efforts to ease access to language training, formal education and adult training fare better in their integration efforts.

- TEACHERS’ SALARIES: The EAG's finding that teachers' salaries have been frozen up until very recently coupled with an aging workforce means that increasingly young people are not being attracted into education professions because of comparatively poor salaries.

- ROLE OF TRADE UNIONS: Beside the role of trade unions and collective bargaining in addressing income inequality, the EAG does not analyse the role of unions much further apart from mentions regarding VET programme development and as providers of non-formal education (p. 52), and of teachers’ unions in finding agreements on non-teaching tasks of teachers (p. 434). This is not unexpected seen as the OECD has not done much statistical work and analysis on the role of trade unions in skills development and provision – but should do so in the future as the EAG’s results confirm rising gaps in inequalities of income and opportunity.