OECD warns of unequal access to education
by Daniel Mason
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has warned of "stark differences" between developed countries in the opportunities they provide for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to successfully complete their education – even as public spending on education rises.
In its Education at a Glance 2012 report, the OECD highlights the success of Finland, Ireland and Sweden, plus Australia, in offering young people with poorly educated parents the chance to get a tertiary-level qualification.
But according to the study, in Italy and Portugal – as well as Turkey and the United States – more than 40 per cent of children from low educational backgrounds did not complete their upper secondary schooling, while fewer than 20 per cent went on to gain a further or higher education qualification. Across the OECD, young women are more likely than men to become better educated than their parents, the report says.
The OECD urged governments to invest more in early childhood programmes, ensure that the cost of higher education is reasonable, increase social mobility, and boost employment prospects for young people. It said having schools made up of students from mixed social backgrounds, and putting children into formal education early, had more impact in improving equality than parental support or the cost of tuition fees.
"Countries need an increasingly educated and skilled workforce to succeed in today's knowledge economy," said Angel Gurrķa, the OECD's secretary general. "Investing from an early age is crucial to lay the foundations of later success. High quality education and skills have to be among the number one priorities for governments, for economies and for societies. Supporting the poorest and ensuring equal access is another important pillar in an inclusive education policy strategy."
The OECD is a group of some 34 of the most advanced economies, including all European Union countries except Bulgaria, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Romania. As well as the 34 OECD members, the study assessed data from Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
The disparities in equality of access come despite spending on education continuing to rise. Between 2000 and 2009, expenditure per student rose by at least 16 per cent in 24 of the 29 countries for which the data was available. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Slovakia and the United Kingdom – along with Brazil and South Korea – saw a more than 50 per cent increase.
There were exceptions, though. Spending was up by 10 per cent or less in France, Italy and Israel. And in the EU countries covered by the research, annual spending per student from primary through to tertiary levels was still slightly lower than the OECD average of $9,122. However, EU countries beat the OECD average on the proportion of young people expected to complete upper secondary education, by 86 per cent to 84 per cent.
Teachers' salaries are also rising. In Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Portugal and Scotland they were up by at least 20 per cent between 2000 and 2010, while in the Czech Republic, as well as Turkey, pay doubled. The only countries where teachers' salaries fell were France and Japan, in both cases by more than 5 per cent.
The study identifies a number of other issues facing Europe's education systems. In Germany and Italy more than 50 per cent of secondary school teachers are aged 50 or older, while in Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, the Netherlands and Sweden the figure is 40 per cent. In addition, across the OECD two-thirds of teachers and academic staff are women, with the proportion ranging from 97 per cent at pre-primary level to 41 per cent at tertiary level.
Meanwhile the benefits of higher education continue to grow, according to the report. A European graduate is expected to benefit from a net gain of $176,000 over the course of their working life – compared with the OECD average of $162,000. In addition the public long-term benefits, such as higher tax payments by graduates and other savings, are almost three times the size of the public costs of providing higher education.
"This report is an invaluable tool for national and European policy-makers," said Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture Multilingualism and Youth. "Member states recognise that investing in education is a requisite for Europe's future and long-term prosperity. The data clearly shows that the cost of education is far-outweighed by the returns. But we must not be complacent: the report also shows that reforms are needed to modernise education and make it more attractive for both students and teachers."
Europe remains the favoured destination for studying abroad – with the EU hosting 41 per cent of international students. Some 10 per cent of those enrolling in higher education in Austria, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom are international student, along with 20 per cent of those applying for advanced research in Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden and the UK.