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OECD’s Education at a Glance 2010: what can unions learn?

published 25 March 2011 updated 25 March 2011

In its new report Education at Glance 2010, the OECD presents a vast array of statistics relating to education in its 33 member countries. The report should be given close scrutiny by education unions as it has traditionally been used to argue for more efficient spending and further strengthening of market mechanisms in public education. Paradoxically, the economic crisis seems to have strengthened this belief, even if unrestrained markets were a fundamental cause of the crisis. Unions can also use the statistics in the report to tell another story about the sort of education system we want to have.

Improving efficiency of education

The report argues that improving the performance of education systems and raising value for money is the main task of public policy. Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary General, states in his foreword the‘future will measure the success of education systems no longer by how much countries spend on education or by how many individuals complete a degree, but by the educational outcomes achieved and by their impact on economic and social progress.’ While it is hard to deny accountability of education professionals towards society, unions can present a different framework for the main goals of public policy, based on quality education and social benefits.

‘Social’ outcomes of education

A strong emphasis on the social outcomes of education is certainly the most welcome and helpful part of the report. The report suggests that it would be of interest for policy-makers working on education, health and social welfare to take into account the social outcomes of education. The report finds that educational attainment is positively associated with self-reported good health, political interest and inter-personal trust.

Voice and exit in public education

The OECD makes a strong case that both school choice and parent voice can draw attention to a decline in school quality. ‘Exit’, the fact that parent can withdraw their child from the school, can serve as a signal of dissatisfaction or decline, while ‘voice’ can provide specific details about the nature or reason for the perceived decline. This raises the key question about the relationship between a community and its school – is ‘loyalty’ an old-fashioned concept of hierarchy or does it show commitment and responsibility? Unions should reject the underlying notion of schools as a commercial services’ enterprise and vigorously defend them as common good and institution. There must be ‘voice in’ but no ‘exit from’ public education.

Turing around the story on higher education

The data finally paints a more nuanced picture of the problems of access in higher education by including data on both access and completion. The report admits that tuition fees do not have a positive impact on completion rates. A deeper analysis can also show that those countries that recently introduced high tuition fees have a negative effects on domestic enrolment. For example, data shows that more than 20 per cent of Australia’s students come from abroad, and that the enrolment figure for domestic students is in fact lower than in many other OECD countries.

By Guntars Catlaks and Koen Goven

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 36, December 2010.