So the OECD’s Education at a Glance was published yesterday. It’s taken a couple of months longer than usual because of the need to convert into the new International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) system. No, don’t ask; it’s better not to know.
I won’t say there’s a whole lot new in this issue that will be of interest to PSE-types. One point of note is that Statscan has – for no obvious or stated reason – substantially restated Canadian expenditure on tertiary educational institutions, downwards. In last year’s edition, you may recall that they claimed 2011 spending was 2.8% of GDP, which I thought was a tad high (I couldn’t get it to go over 2.43%). They are now saying that last year was in fact 2.6% of GDP, and this year is 2.5%. That still puts Canada well ahead of most countries, and more than 50% ahead of the OECD average.
Figure 1: Selected OECD Countries’ Spending on Tertiary Education as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product
Next, the shift to the ISCED system has produced a slight change to the way attainment data is presented. Basically, they make it easier to tease-out different levels of attainment above the bachelor’s level; but this makes no difference for Canada, because we can’t actually measure these things. The problem is our Labor Force Survey, which has a very vague and sketchy set of responses on educational attainment (basically, you can only answer “college” or “university” on attainment, so our college numbers include all sorts of weird private short course programs, and our university numbers make no distinction between types of degrees). Still, for what it’s worth, here’s how attainment rates for young Canadians (age 25-34) stack up against other countries.
Figure 2: Selected OECD Countries’ Tertiary Attainment Rates, 2012
Those of you familiar with the “Canada’s number 1” rhetoric that accompanied previous EAG releases may do a double-take at this graph. Yes, certainly, Canada is still close to the top if you include all of post-secondary education. But it used to be that we were also at – or close to – the top on university education, as well; now, we’re actually below the OECD average. What the heck is going on?
Well, it helps to look back a decade or so to see what the picture looked like then.
Figure 3: Selected OECD Countries’ Tertiary Attainment Rates, 2003
Much of what has changed is the way this data is presented. First, the old 5A/5B excluded attainment at the doctoral level, which the new system does not. Since European countries tend to have slightly higher doctoral degree award rates than we do, this cuts the difference a bit. A bigger issue is that fact that post-Bologna, a lot of European countries simply did away with short-cycle degrees from polytechnics and fachochschule, and re-classified them as university degrees. Finland thus went from a system with 23% attainment at 5A (university) level, and 17% at 5B (college or polytechnic) level, to a system that is now simply 40% degree level, or above. In other words, tertiary attainment rates are exactly the same in Finland as they were a decade ago, but credentials have simply been re-labelled. Something similar also happened in Germany.
While reclassification explains part of the change, it doesn’t explain it all. Some countries are genuinely seeing much bigger increases in university attainment than we are. There is South Korea, where attainment rates ballooned from 47% of all 25-34 year olds in 2003, to 68% in just a decade (30% to 45% at the university level alone), as well as Australia, where university attainment has gone from 25% to 38%.
Those are some quite amazing numbers. Makes you wonder why we can’t do that, as well.