« International rankings of universities do not tell you anything about the quality of education»

Richard YellandOn the 11th and 12th of January 2008, OECD Education Ministers met in Tokyo to discuss the possibility of an OECD-led international assessment of higher education quality. Richard Yelland, head of the Education Management and Infrastructure Division at the OECD attended this informal ministerial meeting. He comments on the necessity and feasibility of such a project.

Many international assessments of higher education already exist. Why then should the OECD produce one?

The most well known international assessment is the Shanghai ranking of the world’s 500 best universities. This classification made a great impression in France when it first came out in 2004. Indeed, France’s first university in the ranking appeared at the 65th place, a fact that was largely commented in national newspapers. But the problem with this ranking, as well as other international assessments, is that it does not tell you anything about the quality of education. It is a ranking about research, taking into account major awards such as Nobel prizes, the number of articles published, citations, etc. What it really measures is therefore the impact of universities’ scientific output and not the quality of teaching and learning. Some people understand that, but others will just look at the ranking and think that if a university is badly ranked, it means that its teaching is not good. Sciences-Po for instance is a very good university, but it wouldn’t appear high in such a ranking. Our strong feeling at the OECD is that we need to evaluate rather better what universities do.

And how concretely would you do that?

What we presented at the Tokyo meeting is a proposed study to make an international evaluation of higher education learning, inspired to some extent by the PISA project . The distinguishing feature of PISA is that it actually takes a sample of students from each country involved (in the case of PISA, 15 year-old-secondary school students), and sits them down to take a written test covering mathematics, science, and literacy. These tests are then marked and comparative results between countries are produced. What PISA does is that it produces comparable information between countries of what secondary school students know and can do. And our idea is that we might be able to do the same thing with higher education.

Is it really feasible?

The feasibility of such a study is not obvious, because higher education is more complicated. Indeed, in higher education there are different degrees of selectivity in the system, and both a selection of students and by students of what they are going to study. How can you possibly compare journalism with engineering? There is a matter of age as well. Most Australians have completed their first degree by the age of 22, whereas most Swiss won’t start until they are 22. Is it actually possible to devise instruments where university students in different countries can sit down, answer a set of questions, and produce results that can be graded and compared? That is not certain. On a practical sense, feasibility of such a study is not a given either. To get any meaningful information, you need to have students spending two hours on this, which is not negligible. How do you motivate students to take part in a study towards the end of their bachelor degree? And how do you motivate institutions to go to the effort of getting a sample of students and organising it? Feasibility is all but certain, but we think it’s worth trying.

You recently made recommendations to the Attali commission about France’s educational system…

Our recommendations concerned both school and university levels. On the school side, we suggested more individualization of learning, notably through making the formal program lighter. France is the world champion of grade repeating. By the time students get to 15, more than one in three repeated a year. In the French system, if you’re really good you can skip a grade, but if you don’t keep up, you will repeat it. And there is not much in between. It is something that just wouldn’t happen in other countries. The explanation for that is that French approach to school does not take enough account of the individual needs of pupils. In France, it is a question of fitting the pupils into the program rather than the other way around. We therefore recommended more flexibility in the educational approach. When it gets to university level, it appears that France spends very little money on its higher education system. Its expenditures are below the OECD average. Curiously, France is the only country where there is less money spent on a university student than on a secondary school student. No other country is split between selective well-resourced Grandes Ecoles on the one hand and non-selective poorly resourced universities on the other hand. And this system creates many problems. To name a few, France has a very high dropout rate, and experiences consistent mismatches between the job market and education. We therefore called for a rebalancing of spending between Grandes Ecoles and universities, to the benefit of the latter.


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