College, or something like it

Your living room is your campus, thanks to the magic of MOOCs
Your living room is your campus, thanks to the magic of MOOCs

We take it for granted, but the fact that so many school leavers routinely go on to study in university is a relatively recent development. Back in 1900, it’s estimated  that there were just half a million students in higher education around the world. By 2010, Unesco estimates the figure stood at around 177 million.

Few countries did more to pioneer the expansion of higher education than the United States, and today its finest colleges and universities have a global reputation. Among OECD countries, only three – Canada, Israel and Japan – can boast a higher proportion of graduates among their total adult populations than the U.S.

But dig a little deeper, and you’ll spot an interesting trend: among younger adults (25-to-34 years old), the U.S. slips to just 14th  place among OECD countries for the proportion of graduates in that age group. Also worth noting: there’s very little difference – just a single percentage point – between  graduation rates of the total population (41%) and the younger age group (42%).

The implication is clear. In most OECD countries, younger people tend to be better educated than older ones, but in the U.S., as the BBC reported, that’s less and less the case. “It’s something of great significance because much of today’s economic power of the United States rests on a very high degree of adult skills – and that is now at risk,” commented the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher.

So why does the U.S.’s long love affair with higher education seem to be running out of steam? In a word, money. Tuition and fees for a four-year degree at a public university are now at least 3½ times higher than they were 30 years ago. Over the same period, the strong growth in income that American middle class families enjoyed in the post-war era slowed markedly. The result, in part, has been a rise in student debt, which is now reckoned to top a trillion dollars.  As one academic wrote in The Atlantic, “Even for the academically inclined, the value of college in this economic climate is increasingly subject to question.”

Is college still worth it? The answer for most people is yes. On average, university graduates in OECD countries earn 55% more than non-graduates, and the figure for the U.S. is over 80%. So, university still pays, but communicating that message can be difficult. Seeing a neighbour or a cousin struggling with student debt is likely to register much more strongly with a prospective student than a statistical average.

Other social and cultural influences may also be at work. As The New York Times reported, the stories of billionaire college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg seem to have struck a chord. “It’s inspiring that [Jobs’] dropping out basically had no effect, positive or negative, on the work and company and values he could create,” said Benjamin Goering, who quit college early to work for an Internet start-up.

But the 22-year-old also said something that may point to a changing attitude among his generation towards higher education: “Education isn’t a four-year program. It’s a mind-set.” The idea that there might be viable alternatives to trotting off to university for three or four years seems to be gaining ground, and that may be due in part to the growth in MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses, or, as Forbes described them, “free online college courses, designed by academic rock stars and ‘attended’ by hundreds of thousands of students from around the world”.

Like much that happens online, MOOCs may be the victims of “irrational exuberance”. While many have enrollment figures that justify “massive,” that’s not always true of their completion rates. Nevertheless, their growth is impressive. One operator, Coursera, now has 2.4 million students on its books, according to Thomas Friedman, and is drawing students from all over the world, including from developing countries.

And that, perhaps, is what’s most interesting about this phenomenon. At a time when full time education may be slipping beyond the grasp of some students in wealthy countries, while remaining stubbornly out of reach in poorer countries, MOOCs may offer an alternative and, argue some, a glimpse into where higher education goes next.

Useful links

OECD work on higher education

OECD educationtoday blog

Arab Spring: Repercussions and opportunities for education

Probably not celebrating his exam results

On the eve of the July 7th elections in Libya, today’s post is from Philip Hodkinson of Greys College in the UK

It would be hard not to be aware of the huge changes sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa these past two years, and with so many spectacular and dramatic events still unfolding, it’s no surprise that more mundane issues such as education never grab the headlines. Yet education will be one of the foundations of both democracy and a modern economy in the region.

As the OECD’s International Migration Outlook 2012 shows, education is now an international affair, with international students accounting on average for more than 6% of all students in OECD countries. In the UK, the figure is over twice that, 15.3% of tertiary-level students according to the Outlook. The turmoil created by the Arab Spring has seen many students losing their grants and other means of living, leading to the demise of a significant number of private colleges in the North of England whose clientele are mainly from these areas. My own college, Greys, is fortunate in having a slightly wider spread of students, but we’ve felt the impact too, so to see the situation for myself and to find out more about the education and training needs of the region, over the last six months I have travelled extensively to talk to people on the ground and map the changes in thinking by them and the new administrations.

Oman and Qatar have many highly-educated young people with degree-level achievement. They have also brought into being a new second tier of learning. It takes the form of accredited vocational training in both private and government supported training centres, closely following UK’s national Vocational Qualification (NVQ) system. Bahrain has also chosen this route and I was part of the support unit helping set up their National Institute for Industrial Training, in 2008/9.

From discussions I had with personnel at the ministries of those countries, they are pleased with the results of these programmes but are now aware of the lack of quality assurance within their systems. This needs to be addressed to give students confidence in the national validity of their qualifications. As well as the obvious reasons for this, another factor is that all these countries have historically bought in technical expertise, therefore this type of learning, and the jobs they lead to, are traditionally looked down upon and therefore retain a stigma.

Libya has all the assets of its Gulf neighbours but has been in something of a time warp for 40 years. Even those young people who have degrees, and there are many, look to the public sector for employment, the private sector being thought of as inefficient. That said, the major oil companies have well-established training programmes, designed by themselves to meet their individual needs. The Transitional government is very keen to change this and has already taken steps to support new training businesses. To develop their strategy, they are now looking to build a national framework of vocational training and education to meet the requirements of a growing private economy. The oil companies I think will have a major role to play in this, not least to standardise requirements.

Elections are to be held on the 7th July, and from sources within the administration, it is clear that although routes to higher education will still be supported, the main focus will be vocational training to provide that depth of opportunity for all. All sections of the political scene have this on their agenda, as like their Gulf neighbours, they understand one of the major gains will be a sizeable reduction in youth unemployment. The only option until now after leaving full-time education, was for Libyans to go on to university and gain a degree, which largely limited opportunities.

The other gain is less tangible although no less important. That is the sense of freedom for students to achieve the things they want to, make a living, and enjoy a good life.

The situation in Libya is changing, and although, like Egypt, still volatile, an acceptance that change will take some time is growing, but lots of people want to see some immediate results, a sort of image of things to come. Any government will have to balance the level of quick fixes to long-term improvements in daily life if they are to lead their country to lasting prosperity. One of the first things they may do, is form a government-sponsored training organisation, as has happened in some of the Gulf States. This could then be a springboard to contract with a range of suppliers, looking to gain high-quality training and education at a realistic market price. This mechanism can also be used to develop training around the country, producing tangible evidence of improvement and fairness.

It’s too early to say yet, and after the elections things will become clearer, but setting national standards of work will probably become an issue. Presently, as in the UK 50 years ago, the larger companies, which here means the oil companies, have their own training standards. Engaging these organisations in the process of unity would need to be a first step. One major oil company has already asked me to examine the UK training system for their industry, which would suggest they are at least open to change.

Libya has huge tasks ahead of it although none insurmountable if they are patient. But, with many people in positions they have never held before, education and training will, of necessity, be at the fore.

Useful links

OECD participation in the “Building Future Education MENA” conference

OECD work on higher education and adult learning

OECD work on conflict and fragility

OECD educationtoday blog

AHELO: Telling you what you need to know about higher education outcomes

Click to go to the AHELO website

Rankings of higher education institutions always grab the headlines, but they only include a small selection of the world’s colleges, and may not tell you what you’d like to know about what it’s like to study there.

We asked Karine Tremblay to tell us about AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes), an ambitious OECD project that could prove far more useful than simple league tables.

What is AHELO?

AHELO is the first attempt at measuring at international level what third-year undergraduate degree students have learned and are capable of doing. It will produce measures at institution or department level, not at national level, unlike other OECD studies such as PISA or PIAAC.

At this stage, we’re testing the feasibility of measuring learning outcomes in institutions in different countries, with different missions, languages and cultural backgrounds. In fact non-OECD countries make up nearly a third of the participants – Colombia, Egypt, Kuwait, Russia, and Saudi Arabia as observer.

We’re focusing to begin with on generic skills (the so-called 21st Century skills – critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving and written communication) and skills in economics and engineering.

When can we see the results?

We’ll be releasing the results of this feasibility study in 2012. These won’t be data products. The idea is to show that it’s possible to devise a set of test instruments applicable across a range of different institutions, cultures and languages and that the practical implementation of these tests is feasible.

We’ll provide feedback to the institutions who helped us with this part on how their students perform relative to international benchmarks if the data proves comparable across countries, but we won’t be going public with these results.

If a main study is launched, we would publish performance data on learning outcomes, along with context information to interpret performances – type and mission of institution, selectivity, characteristics of student intake, and so on.

How will you rank institutions?

We won’t. Current rankings like the Shanghai or Times Higher focus on inputs such as libraries or faculty characteristics and research performance, measured by numbers of citations, number of Nobel prizes, and the like. That’s fine if you’re picking a PhD programme for instance. For prospective undergraduates or employers though, it’s highly misleading to use such measures as proxies of higher education quality.

But in the absence of any better information, we see higher education institutions all over the world in a race to research excellence to make it to the top of the rankings, to the detriment of their teaching mission.

So, how is AHELO more useful than rankings?

AHELO data will allow a much more accurate assessment of higher education quality, focusing on one of the key missions of institutions: teaching. And in fact, thanks to the context data, it will be possible to analyse what is distinctive about high-performing institutions and spot best practices.

That makes it possible to identify what works, for which students and in which contexts. There is a huge potential for reducing dropout rates and enhancing more equitable outcomes. Remember that across the OECD, 3 out of 10 students entering higher education will drop out without a degree. With $53 000 spent per higher education student on average, the costs of failure are huge. The social costs for those dropping out are equally high.

Who will use AHELO results?

Anyone  interested in higher education. Students can make better informed decisions. Institutions can improve their teaching and learning processes. Governments can effectively account for public expenditure on tertiary education. Employers are better informed as to the capacities and capabilities job candidates.

Are you optimistic about progress so far?

Yes. All the insights from our work so far suggest that AHELO is feasible, and interest is growing steadily. We’ve reached our target of 15 participating countries in the feasibility study, and received expressions of interest from twice as many, which is very promising for a main study.

One reason for this is that we’ve tried to involve as wide a range of participants as possible. Governments, institutions and academics serve on our expert groups. Students are at the core of the feasibility study, and we consult stakeholders regularly to report on progress and seek their feedback.

Interest is particularly high in the MENA region as well as in Latin America. Egypt for example remains highly committed despite the political turmoil. We’re also pleased to have Colombia with its strong track record in national assessments of higher education.

How have teachers and students reacted?

One of the big surprises was that obtaining agreement on frameworks and instruments was easier than we expected – getting academics from different countries to agree on what to measure in the disciplines, and to agree on a test. We included economics to see if agreement was possible in a social science.

Students have taken the generic skills test in their own language and provided qualitative validation that the test is meaningful and relevant to them. Students are now validating the disciplinary assessments as well. Here, initial feedback suggests that the tasks stimulate students’ interest and desire to participate. 

What comes next?

AHELO seems feasible, and we’re moving to phase 2 with larger groups of students. The goal is to deepen our analyses and provide a quantitative proof of concept – demonstrate that practical implementation is feasible and that the tests yield relevant and statistically acceptable results.

Useful links

UNESCO Global Forum: Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses, Paris, 16-17 May 2011, organised with the OECD and World Bank, will address university rankings in light of their impact on policy and decision-making at institutional, national and regional levels.

OECD work on education