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The OECD 50th Anniversary Forum was very good this week, and maybe their best annual meeting yet (in which I have attended), and I particularly enjoyed the interactive “Getting Ready for the Jobs of Tomorrow” brainstorm session, where we were able to work in groups, and to get down to the level of the individual. Because that is where the abstract notion of ‘skills’ really begins to matter. It’s not just about ‘skills for jobs’, it’s about ‘skills for an empowered life’ – including financial literacy, self-confidence and an entrepreneurial spirit.


And it is in this way, of course respecting the mostly government to government interface mission of OECD, that I would like to push the organizers to go a bit further in their planning.  As with all high-level forums such as this, with this level of senior leader engagement, it is expected that there must be a certain level of decorum and what I would call steady, analytical left brain thinking.  That said, we must all be careful not to venture too far into the analytical so that we forget we are ultimately talking about people, the citizens of the OECD member and non-member economies, that live with the outcomes we discuss.  And so, our approach must always be practical, focused not just on what we at Operation HOPE call the “Ph.D argument,” but the “Ph.Do outcomes” too.


It is for this reason that I am always honored to be invited to OECD meetings, and I try always to respond and participate. 

Because what you do matters.

Because I believe you invite me and Operation HOPE, in part, because of our on-the-ground impact with real people, and real communities, in real time (more than 1.5 million low wealth people served, more than 14,700 HOPE Corps volunteers, 5,000 partners from government, community and the private, the largest urban delivery system for financial literacy empowerment in the U.S., and several other countries, and having directed more than $1 billion in lending and investment capital in under-served neighborhoods since our founding 19 years ago.

Because we bring, maybe, a unique and fresh perspective.

Because we always have a way for OECD members to “ do something.”  Even today, OECD supported Operation HOPE as we formally introduced into the OECD member country community our new Wikia-HOPE Global Money Initiative (, which is the world’s first international financial literacy empowerment curriculum, free and online.  It is our strong hope that several new Wikia-HOPE country rollouts will happen, because we made strong relationships here at the OECD Forum.  After all, life is about relationships, and OECD helps to “reconnect our fractured world.”


And so, while there is much more I believe OECD can and will do, including always ensuring a level of “practicality and engagement” around all of its work, let me end by saying this also; “I like what you are doing, much more than what others are not doing, to make our world a better place.”


John Hope Bryant
Founder, Chairman & CEO, Operation HOPE
Founder, Chairman & CEO, Bryant Group Companies, Inc.
Member, U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability

Everyone knows being skilled is an advantage: skilled workers are more productive and therefore tend to earn more and have better employment prospects. Greater productivity, in turn, is the foundation for sustainable economic growth in countries, and failure to ensure a good skills match has both short- term consequences (skills shortages) and becomes a longer-term drag on growth and equality of opportunities.


Most governments have got that message, and public spending on education and training alone represents 13% of total public expenditure in OECD countries. The trouble is that there is nothing automatic about these relationships: skilled workers do not automatically earn more; nor does having a highly skilled workforce guarantee sustained economic growth.


In some countries, up to 33% of workers consider themselves over-skilled for their current jobs, another 13% believe that they are not skilled enough. Indeed, even at the height of the crisis in 2009, more than 40% of employers in Australia, Japan, Mexico and Poland reported difficulties in finding workers with the appropriate skills. And a lot of people are out of the labour market not using their skills at all.


Success with converting skills into jobs and growth will depend on:

  • whether we have a sufficient understanding of which skills drive strong, sustainable and balanced economic outcomes;
  • whether the right mix of skills is being taught and learned in effective, equitable and efficient ways;
  • whether economies and labour-markets are able to fully utilise their skill potential; and
  • whether governments can build strong coalitions with the business sector and social investors to find sustainable approaches to who should pay for what, when and where.


So how can this be achieved? To provide practical answers, the OECD has set out to develop a Skills Strategy with the aim to:

  • mobilise and develop comprehensive intelligence on building, maintaining and improving skills;
  • help countries prioritise investment of scarce resources in education;
  • foster peer learning (skills systems differ but many challenges are common); and
  • contribute towards building strategic partnerships for the implementation of effective public policies in this area.


At a time of severe budget deficits and cutbacks in spending, the OECD will work hard with countries to identify and develop a set of good practices to make investing in learning cost-effective for individuals and their employers. This will involve not only identifying good practices in financing programmes to develop skills, but also examining the role of tax systems and other measures to encourage individuals and firms to invest in skills.


The idea is to develop a whole-of-government approach to formulating and implementing sound skills policies, involving ministries of education, migration, family, science and technology and employment. Trade unions, employer organisations, chambers of commerce, non-governmental organisations, universities and other interested partners will also be engaged. The end result will be a blueprint for designing and applying policies that make the most of each country’s human capital by nurturing – and using – the skills of its citizens to foster economic growth and social inclusion.


These are, of course, just words and the value of a Skills Strategy will ultimately depend on the extent to which policy recommendations can be backed up with sound data. But that is precisely where the strength of the OECD lies which, building on the success of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), has just launched  PIAAC, the world’s first comprehensive international assessment of adult competencies. PIAAC compiles and analyses data measuring skills and their utilisation. Through PIAAC we will be able to investigate such issues as the value of occupation-specific versus basic and generic skills, the extent and impact of a mismatch between available skills and those needed in the labour market, the need to improve skills among the unemployed to bring them back into the labour market, and the value skills provide for individuals and economies.


The OECD Skills Strategy is scheduled to be launched in early 2013. To see the action plan and follow up on its progress, please visit:

In the current push for involving stakeholders in vocational education and training, there is one group who are often forgotten – the students themselves. Amongst the business leaders, SME’s, parents, teachers and ‘wider society’, it can be easy to miss out those at the very centre of education. OBESSU believes it is vital that we directly involve VET students in the decision making process - after all, we are the experts in education.


After consultation with our 24 Member Organisations, OBESSU realised that whilst there are VET success stories, there are many common issues that affect VET students throughout Europe. These were especially relevant when it came to opportunities after education, the skills students felt their education gave them and access to the job market.


What does OBESSU see as the major issues affecting VET students?


Active stakeholder involvement and the social role of VET

Actively involving young people in VET is of paramount importance and is one the clearest ways to improve the desirability and attractiveness of a vocational education. We have found that through bad or lack of counselling, students who are labelled as ‘low achievers’ are often pushed into VET, whilst students labelled as ‘high achievers’ are discouraged from taking this route. It is vital when taking decisions regarding their education that all students are able to do so with information that is based on facts, figures and what is the best choice for them. OBESSU believes that this has a detrimental effect on youth unemployment, as school students leave education without a passion for the profession they have been pushed into.


Quality in VET

VET students are being left behind on several counts when it comes to quality in their education. Firstly, teachers must be both experts in their fields and in different pedagogical methods. Secondly, the learning environment must be up to date and in line with the technology used in the market.  Finally, a VET education must be seen by society, universities, employers etc as of equal value to a general education. OBESSU believes for this to happen, we must ensure that young people leave education not only with the necessary skills to practise a certain profession, but also with the expectation to continue learning and exploring. In short they must leave VET as innovative, entrepreneurial and questioning lifelong learners.


Representation in the workplace

School students can be amongst the best employees- enthusiastic, exciting and creative thinking. However, they can also be the most vulnerable; OBESSU is concerned about the lack of representation of VET students. Students must be informed of their rights in the workplace, there must be a clear back up plan for when things go wrong and students mustn’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to their employers.


So, in conclusion, what do we need? Well, along with the usual (but no less vital) demands for up to date technology, teachers who are experts in their fields and well trained pedagogically and a funding system that ensures no young person is left out. We also need to have an equal say in decision making in our education. We need decision makers to remember that ‘stakeholders’ doesn’t just include SME’s and corporations but most importantly- the students. Vocational Education and Training must remember that it is not just about the ‘end product’, but that the process to get there is as equally important. An education that involves, asks and listens to students is vitally important to improving the quality and attractiveness of VET.


Jessie Seal is the OBESSU Board Member with responsibility for vocational education and training (VET). Since leaving full time secondary education in summer 2009, Jessie worked running two different programmes for young people who were not in education, employment or training (NEETs)- ‘Young Advocates’ and ‘Real Talk’.  In June 2010, she was elected onto the Board of OBESSU and has taken over Chairing of the VET working group. Jessie plans to take up a University place in September to study International Development.


OBESSU – The Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions is a platform for cooperation between the national school student unions active in secondary VET and general secondary education in Europe. It was founded in April 1975 in Dublin, Ireland and brings together member and observer organisations from more than 25 European countries. All member-organisations are independent, national, representative and democratic school student organisations.


Download OBESSU’s position paper on the Copenhagen Process


Managing and matching skills

Posted by 565478 24-May-2011

An adequate supply of the right kind of skills in the workforce is key to boosting economic growth, especially now in this post-crisis climate of high unemployment



You’ve seen it in the news. Young grads everywhere are having a hard time getting jobs. Seemingly at odds with this fact is the existence of a global skills shortage. A recent article in the Financial Times reported that 34% of employers worldwide reported a lack of qualified job applicants, up from 31% last year, and at the highest level since 2007. What is causing this labour-market mismatch and what can countries do about it?


Collaborating across directorates and programmes, the OECD is about to release a Skills Strategy in an effort to facilitate a cross-government approach to effective skills policies and address the global dimensions of the supply and demand for skills. We sat down with OECD Senior Analyst William Thorn to hear his thoughts on the strategy and his work on the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, PIAAC.


The new OECD Skills Strategy will build on existing OECD programmes. How does PIAAC fit in?


WT: PIAAC is an international assessment of the “foundation” skills of literacy, numeracy and problem solving – the cognitive skills that provide a basis for effective participation in a modern economy and society. At the same time as directly assessing these skills, PIAAC collects information on the use of these skills in the workplace and other settings, as well as on the use of other “generic” skills, such as communication skills and teamwork at work.  This is complemented by data on the background of respondents, their education and training, their labour-market situation, as well as their state of health and social participation.

Right now, 25 countries are implementing the assessment. When results become available in late 2013, PIAAC will represent a unique and comprehensive source of data regarding the skills of the working age population in participating countries as well as on questions of the development and maintenance of human capital over the lifecycle, and the impact of skills on labour-market and other outcomes.



How have policy makers benefited from the information gained from PIAAC in the past, and how do you foresee governments being able to use this data in the future in the context of a larger OECD Skills Strategy?


WT: Unfortunately, policy makers will have to wait a bit longer to make use of data from PIAAC as the assessment is just about to enter the data collection phase. Data from PIAAC will not be available for analysis until late in 2012 and an initial report on the findings from the assessment is planned to be released in October 2013. However, there have been two previous international surveys of adult skills with which the OECD has been associated – the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL). Information from both these surveys has been influential in making governments aware of the fact that there are quite large proportions of the adult population in advanced countries that have poor literacy skills. In a number of countries, the results from IALS in the second half of the 1990s constituted something of a “policy shock” and led to the introduction of strategies for the improvement of adult literacy. More recently, in its most recent budget, the Australian government announced a Foundation Skills Package to tackle gaps in adult foundation skills largely in response the findings of the ALL survey.

When available, data from PIAAC will constitute a particularly rich evidence base for policy-relevant analysis both in terms of the breath of issues it covers and the number of countries participating. In particular, it will allow us to investigate the links between key cognitive skills and a range of demographic variables, economic and other outcomes as well as the use of skills in the workplace and other settings.



What makes PIACC unique?  


WT:  PIAAC has a number of innovative features. Firstly, it is a computer-based assessment. Apart from people who have little or no familiarity with computers, respondents take the test on a laptop computer. This is the first time that this has been done in the context of a large-scale testing programme. Secondly, the fact that the assessment is computer-based allows us to assess respondents’ capacity to read and solve problems within a digital environment, and their ability to negotiate the features that differentiate the digital world from the world of print, such as following hyper-text and searching through websites.  The experience of the PIAAC field trial has been that computer-based testing has had real benefits in terms of the quality of data and the speed of processing data. It has also demonstrated that we can get really interesting information regarding the cognitive skills needed to manage in digital environments.


Sounds very exciting - watch this space! And for more on PIAAC, see:

When your grandmother tries to give you advice, what’s your reaction? Do you giggle behind your hand? Do you gently tell her to mind her own business? Do you smile dismissively, turn and walk away?


What if your grandmother—or someone else’s grandmother, for that matter—came by to talk to you, perhaps over a steaming cup of tea, about solar-electrifying your village?


Well, grandmothers in developing countries around the world are doing just that: they are being trained—and are, in turn, training others—in using this renewable energy source to power their local villages. The project is part of India’s Barefoot College, which was founded by Sanjit Bunker Roy, one of the speakers at today’s OECD Forum session on Gender: Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship. What’s so special about grandmothers? “A grandmother loves to train and transfer her knowledge to others,” says Roy. Three grandmothers in Afghanistan, for example, trained 27 other grandmothers in solar-electrification and, as a result, 100 villages now use solar power to generate electricity. In India, dozens of grandmothers have solar-electrified hundreds of villages, which, in turn, has led to improvements in health and education outcomes. “The sky is the limit when you train a grandmother,” Roy says.

Speaking at today’s OECD Forum session on Gender: Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship, Cherie Blair, founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and wife of the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made the point that despite girls’ achievements in secondary school and university, five years into their careers they are already earning 15% less than their male colleagues and their path to the top of their profession is stalled at the “sticky” mid-level while their male colleagues stride onwards and upwards.


What’s needed, she argued, is a “change of culture, a change of mind-set”.


Ah, but how to effect such a change: through targets and quotas? Through sanctions against companies that don’t practice equal opportunities for all their employees? Through better policies? How do young girls unlearn the lesson that many of them are learning today: that no matter how well they do in school, in the end, their success in education, and all their efforts to that end, probably will not be recognised or appreciated in the workplace?


What do you think?

As the OECD releases Towards a Skills Strategy, maybe you’re wondering how countries actually train electricians, plumbers, chefs, hotel staff or hairstylists.


Turns out they do it in different ways. Some countries provide vocational programmes in schools while others offer apprenticeships. Some encourage students to choose vocational options earlier and some later. But the core purpose of vocational education is to give young people practical skills that can be applied in the workplace.


The OECD’s work on Learning for Jobs took an in-depth look at how countries organise their vocational education systems so as to respond to the needs of the labour market. Here are just a few points that the OECD brought to light: 

  • Austria has well-structured apprenticeships that integrate learning in schools and workplace training.
  • China has a strong and simple model for upper secondary vocational education that maintains general academic skills and a commitment to workplace training and close relationships with employers.
  • The Czech Republic has a very impressive database on labour market outcomes of education.
  • Germany’s vocational education and training (VET) system is well-resourced, combining public and private funding and its well-developed VET research capacity supports continuous innovation and improvement in the VET system.
  • The Hungarian VET system can rely on a strong national qualifications framework.
  • The Korean government has recently created sector councils and Meister schools to strengthen employer involvement in VET.


Of course, countries always face challenges and for each of the countries it looked at, the OECD came up with several suggestions for improvement. For example, OECD recommended that: 

  • The Czech Republic introduce a standardised assessment covering the practical elements in technical programmes.
  • Ireland systematically identify the literacy and numeracy problems of those who come into contact with training services and provide basic skills support to those in need.
  • Mexico create quality standards for workplace training and a traineeship contract to expand workplace training and improve its quality.
  • Norway’s workplace supervisors and trainers of apprentices should receive some obligatory training.
  • Sweden publish information on the labour market outcomes of VET.
  • Texas (United States) ensure that career guidance receives sufficient separate attention and resources relative to other forms of school counselling.


If you’d like to know more about all the countries reviewed and the general policy lessons from the work, please read our Learning for Jobs: Pointers for Policy Development. And now, we're moving on to examine how countries develop higher level technical skills in our new project Skills beyond School. Take a look.

The decision of the OECD to develop a Skills Strategy, in order to support its member countries in establishing their national level strategies has been timely. In many countries the meaning of skills, the way of thinking about how they are produced and how they are used, and about the role they can play in social and economic development and national competitiveness is being re-thought. There is a growing need for sharing experiences in this area and there is also a need to find common answers to the emerging new questions related particularly with the new post-crisis social and economic conditions.


The document entitled “Towards an OECD Skills Strategy”, which is already containing the key elements of a possible strategy, was presented last month, among others, to the Governing Board of the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation( CERI). One of the questions raised by the members of this body was related with the term skills. Some of them proposed that we use the term competence instead of skills, because they found the meaning of skills too narrow, too much connected to specific jobs. This was an important warning. We should not forget that many people in many countries might have difficulties to understand the messages of the skills strategy if the meaning they give to the term skills is not broad enough. There is an important communication task here. For example, when talking about skills, many people do not think of complex, high level skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving; communication and collaboration or skills related with creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. It is important to make it clear: skills may range from the simplest to the most complex and many of them are horizontal or generic. Many skills require very high level general cognitive, social or interpersonal and intrapersonal capacities. This must be appropriately stressed in the OECD Skills Strategy.


The document “Towards an OECD Skills Strategy” points to six possible areas of actions (including effective implementation). One of them is about the use of skills. I think this is the area that should receive the highest attention from those within the education sector because this is what seems to be the most often neglected in discussions about skills within the sector. As a university professor, teaching and studying educational policy and development, I often experience that my colleagues and students have a high level knowledge about how skills are produced but they have relatively little understanding of how they are used in real life, particularity in different jobs and in different workplaces. We should think about skills always in two dimensions: from both the formation and the utilisation perspective. We should understand better the dynamic connection, the inseparability and the mutual impact of these two dimensions. The production or the formation of skills and the use of them should be seen as two sides of the same coin. Those who are in the skills production side (educators, human developers, training providers etc.) should learn more about the complex reality of workplaces in enterprises or public services. We should know more about, for example, high performance workplaces, learning organisations, knowledge organisations and complex innovation processes within work organisations: otherwise we cannot understand the potential of skills in producing value. We should understand better the nature of entrepreneurship and innovation because these are the most important channels for skills to create new jobs and new value-creation possibilities. Only a deeper understanding of work organisations, technological transformations and human resource management processes, and a better apprehension of the dynamics of creating and implementing workplace level development strategies can show us how we can, though developing skills, enhance development and foster competitiveness.


The shift from the supply side towards the demand side seems to be one of the most promising aspects of the emerging Skills Strategy of the OECD, and this is what perhaps will be the most challenging component for those who are on the supply side. Hopefully those who are within the education sector can draw inspiration from understanding better the world where skills are used.


Gábor Halász

Professor of Education,

ELTE University Budapest

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) Governing Board member


What’s going on in class?

Posted by 498371 20-May-2011

Popular belief has it that every successive crop of students is less disciplined than the one before it, and that teachers are losing control over their classes.


Well, popular belief has it wrong: according to data gathered in the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, most students in OECD countries enjoy orderly classrooms; and between 2000 and 2009 discipline in school did not deteriorate – in fact, in most countries it improved.


On average across OECD countries, the percentage of students who reported that their teachers do not have to wait a long time for their classmates to quieten down increased by six percentage points – up to 73% in 2009 from 67% in 2000. What difference does that make? It could make a lot of difference. Results from PISA 2009 show that disciplinary climate is strongly associated with student performance in school. Students who reported that their reading lessons are often interrupted perform less well than students who reported that there are few or no interruptions in class.


Classrooms in some countries have become significantly calmer over the past decade, especially in a few countries where, in 2000, nearly half of students reported unruly classes. For example, in 2000, between 51% and 54% of students in Chile, Greece and Italy reported that there was “never” or “almost never” noise and disorder during their lessons; by 2009, this proportion had increased to 63% in Chile, 58% in Greece and 68% in Italy.


Not only did students report better behaviour among their peers, more of them said that they enjoyed good student-teacher relations, too. And positive student-teacher relations help students to learn. Research shows that students learn more and have fewer disciplinary problems when they feel that their teachers take them seriously. Between 2000 and 2009, the increase in the proportion of students who reported that their teachers “really listen to what I have to say” was greater than 10 percentage points in Germany, Iceland, Japan, Korea and the partner country Albania. In 2000, three of these countries – Germany, Japan and Korea – showed the smallest proportion of students who reported that they had their teachers’ ear among all 26 OECD countries with comparable data.


During the same period, there was also an increase in the proportion of students who said that their teachers are willing to help them with their studies if they need it. This proportion rose by more than five percentage points in several of the 25 countries and economies with comparable data.


In sum, PISA offers no evidence to support the notion that a lack of classroom discipline is a growing problem or that students are becoming more and more disengaged from their classes. So much for conventional wisdom…


For a closer look at how classroom discipline has evolved over the past decade, see the latest issue of PISA in Focus.

Today UNESCO is assembling dignitaries from all over the world to talk about rankings in higher education. You may wonder what more remains to be said on that topic: rankings have been variously described as a distraction; a disease, even a disaster.

Rankings matter because higher education matters. Higher education matters not only because it drives innovation and growth but because it is a building block of social cohesion and democracy. Higher education matters to students and their families because it is crucial to personal development and to life chances. It matters to employers and employees because twenty-first century labour markets need twenty-first century skills.

Young people expect to be able to choose their university courses, and to do that they need information about the institutions and what they can expect from them. International rankings fill an information gap: the main reason for their growth is the expanding international student market. Last year around 320 000 international students were studying in Australia. That is almost six times the total number of students – Australian and overseas – that were there 50 years ago.


Those 50 years have seen a transition from a world in which higher education was reserved for an elite few to one where in some OECD countries it is an expectation for a majority. Students, employers and Governments need to understand how well our educational institutions and systems are doing.
You can be sure that very many prospective international students thinking of going abroad to study will look up one or more of the Shanghai, Times Higher or the QS rankings in order to help them decide which is the best place for them.

The problem is that they are unlikely to get that information from those rankings. Universities do much more than research –the great majority of them are primarily or exclusively teaching institutions - and those international rankings tell us nothing about teaching and learning.

The only internationally comparable and verifiable information that is available is on research output and impact. That is what the Shanghai ranking is based on and it does a good job of telling us what are and have been the leading research universities in the world.

That is why a group of OECD countries – and several others – are aiming to put things straight through the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes initiative. AHELO aims to establish a reliable way of collecting and analysing information on what higher education students have learned and can do. It is no simple task but the basis for this assessment is now in place and successful implementation of AHELO will transform the higher education accountability debate.

In the meantime, the international rankings that are currently available –for all the care that goes into compiling them – fall far short of capturing the range and depth of what universities and other higher education institutions do.

Accountability and transparency are essential and rankings have a valuable contribution to make. However when tools intended to provide information for students and their families are used to drive political and strategic decisions we have a problem. This is a zero-sum game: there will only ever be 100 universities in the “top” 100.

Rankings may be inconvenient, but they will not go away. They are not a disease, they are a symptom: a symptom of a lack of accountability and transparency which needs to be treated.


Go to the UNESCO/OECD/World Bank Global Forum: Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses


Follow the conversations on twitter:  #unirankings


Do you believe that rankings fall far short of capturing the range and depth of what universities and other higher education institutions do?


Is it always a good thing when a university rises up the rankings and breaks into the top 100? Do rankings raise standards by encouraging competition or do they undermine the broader mission to provide education? Should rankings be used to help decide educational policy and the allocation of scarce financial resources? Should policy aim to develop world-class universities or to make the system world-class?

University rankings have dominated headlines and the attention of political and university leaders wherever or whenever they are published or mentioned. Politicians regularly refer to them as a measure of their nation’s economic strengths and aspirations, universities use them to help set or define targets. What started out as an innocuous consumer product – aimed at undergraduate domestic students – has rapidly become a global intelligence information business – impacting, influencing, and incentivizing higher education, and its stakeholders inside and outside the academy. Today, there are over 50 national rankings and ten global rankings, including the European Union’s U-Multirank.

However, while much of the focus has been on methodological issues or how rankings may influence student choice, little is known about how rankings influence government policy. Around the world, governments are using rankings to guide the restructuring of higher education because societies which are attractive to investment in research and innovation and highly skilled mobile talent will be more successful globally.

Yet, many of the justifications for using rankings are based on misunderstandings.

  1. It is widely believed that rankings provide useful comparative information about university performance, facilitating student choice and policymaking. However, global rankings focus primarily on research, and cannot provide meaningful comparative information about educational quality. By using quantitative data, rankings give the appearance of scientific verification, but it is difficult to measure quality by this method or to compare whole institutions in different national contexts.
  2. The indicators are often perceived as a plausible measure of research capability. However, by counting only peer-articles and citations, rankings fail to recognise the full spectrum of research across all fields of inquiry or their contribution to society and the economy.
  3. For many governments, concentrating resources in a few elite world-class universities has become the panacea for ensuring success in the global economy. But, estimates for a world-class university could cost over $1.5-2b annually. Few countries can afford this level of investment without sacrificing other policy objectives. More importantly, it is not obvious that this kind of investment will create sufficient patentable knowledge that can be exploited, while concentration could reduce over-all national research capacity.
  4. It is often believed that high ranked HEIs are better than lower ranked institutions. But this demands on the definition of quality. And, according to the International Association of Universities, there are 15,000 HEIs worldwide. Rankings usually promote only on the top 100.

Governments should stop obsessing about global rankings and the top 1% because they risk transforming their higher education system and institutions, and subverting other policy objectives, to conform to indicators designed by others for other purposes. What matters is how governments prioritize their objectives of a skilled labour force, equity, regional growth, better citizens, future Einsteins and global competitiveness, and translate them into policy. Rather than ranking institutions, governments should use benchmarking to improve the capacity and quality of the whole system – not simply reward the achievements of elites and flagship institutions.


Professor Ellen Hazelkorn

Vice President, Research and Enterprise, and Dean of the Graduate Research School

Head, Higher Education Policy Research Unit (HEPRU)

Dublin Institute of Technology


For a comprehensive analysis of influence and impact of rankings on higher education and policy from a global perspective, see E. Hazelkorn (2011) Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education. The Battle for World-Class Excellence
(Palgrave MacMillan,

To understand the growing importance of cross-national university assessments, you first have to understand the extent to which higher education has become a truly global institution. Students now hopscotch from country to country more than ever before. Western universities set up branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia. Nations from China and South Korea to Saudi Arabia compete intensely to create top-quality research universities. Perhaps inevitably, institutions like Times Higher Education and Shanghai Jiao Tong University have created university rankings to provide information about this fast-growing academic marketplace.


Yet critics have long noted that many factors used in various national and global rankings to determine university excellence – student qualifications, research spending, and faculty salaries, for instance – are measures of inputs. To better judge educational quality also requires assessing outputs. That could mean gauging research productivity (a not-always-easy, but I think legitimate approach), but output measures should also include a careful look at how much students really learn in the classroom. The absence of such learning measures has been perhaps the most glaring deficiency of rankings to date. What’s more, in a global education market it’s increasingly helpful to have common metrics that indicate not only what students are learning within a given country, but also across national borders.


Against this backdrop, I’ve become a fan of the OECD’s relatively new AHELO project. Known formally as the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, AHELO focuses at the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning. It also assesses the demographic background of students, and the characteristics of each university, in order to put undergraduate learning in context. For now, AHELO is carrying out a multi-stage feasibility study in 15 countries, including the United States, Mexico, Finland, Egypt, Japan, and Australia. Small groups of students are being tested in “generic skills” such as analytical reasoning as well as in economics and engineering. Over the longer-term, AHELO analysts would like to go beyond taking a snapshot of learning to coming up with measures of value-added – helping answer the elusive question of how much students improve academically during their time at university.


AHEO is not intended to be a ranking. But assessment measures of all kinds, whatever their imperfections and whether or not they are called rankings, have the potential to be important consumer tools in a border-free educational world. When done well (and I believe rankings are already on the path to improvement) they can foster transparency, expose weak research, highlight effective instruction, and give universities the information they need to build the research and human capital on which innovation and economic growth depend. In the case of AHELO, a five-year-old OECD memo articulates its potential very well:


A direct assessment of the learning outcomes of higher education could provide governments with a powerful instrument to judge the effectiveness and international competitiveness of their higher education institutions, systems, and policies in the light of other countries’ performance, in ways that better reflection the multiple aims and contributions of tertiary education to society.




No venture like this is likely to be simple. There are  methodological difficulties to overcome, criticisms to contend with (both reasonable and less reasonable), and budget challenges to surmount. But AHELO’s potential seems unmistakable. In a rapidly globalizing academic world that lacks the kind of information students, universities, and governments need, AHELO promises to do a lot to close that gap.


Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation and former education editor of U.S. News & World Report. He is the author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, which won the Frandson Award for Literature in the Field of Continuing Higher Education and is being translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, and Arabic. He is also coeditor of Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation, published by Harvard Education Press in April 2011.

Visit his blog:


Join the discussions: What do you think is the most glaring deficiency of University rankings to date?

Many countries have national tests of children at key points as they progress through the school system. They can be a source of tension and contention and are sometimes hotly debated. But what do kids who are being assessed think about them?

In a novel approach, a research team from the School of Education at Queen’s University Belfast went out and asked children aged 10-12 in England and Wales what they thought about the SAT Key Stage 2 assessments in science. 

Are you ready for some surprises? The research shows that kids have a pretty sophisticated understanding of what’s it’s all about.

Children understand the value of KS2 science assessment in helping them to learn, and they place importance on genuine feedback on how they are doing. Kids said:

“Science assessments help children to see how much they have improved in science and what they need to improve on. They are very useful.”

“Marks tell you how you’ve done....Comments tell you why”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to stop SATs because the children won’t try as hard and they will learn less because they won’t revise.”

Children also want different types of assessment. They wanted to be tested on a topic as soon as they had completed it, and more “fun” approaches to assessment, instead of just the pen-and-paper, sitting at a desk approach – presentations, group work and projects. Here's one child's suggestion:

“Put children in groups of five and do projects for each topic and present your project to the class. You could do different things for the project such as: models, PowerPoint, presentations, etc.”

And although many children feel stressed by the SAT tests, they (and their parents) also worry that the decision to abolish the science SATs will lower the status of science in primary schools.

So maybe we need to make the effort to find out more about what children think about different education policies and practices – and take their views into account when reforms are being considered. After all, it’s their future that’s at stake. 

To learn more about these research findings and the methodology used, the full report is available online at

See also Evaluation and Assessment Frameworks for Improving School Outcomes: Common Policy Challenges emerging from the OECD’s current review on this topic.

Assessment, testing, evaluation, appraisal – these words can easily raise hackles in education circles and become hotly contested. Do we need them? Should we have them? And do they actually raise performance? Protagonists easily become entrenched in their positions and the debates become increasingly shrill.  

So what happens when someone comes along and takes an outside, independent look at how a country’s policies for evaluation and assessment actually work? The OECD has just done exactly that for Denmark and here’s what they found.

Denmark holds high ambitions to improve student outcomes and the OECD praises Denmark for gaining broad agreement from all major stakeholders in efforts to stimulate an assessment and evaluation culture in compulsory education.

Over a short period of time, Denmark has also set up new national bodies to monitor and evaluate quality in compulsory education, new national measures on student outcomes in compulsory education and required municipalities to produce annual quality reports on their school systems.

But Denmark still has a way to go to get a coherent evaluation and assessment framework and with all the different elements – student assessment, teacher appraisal, school evaluation, and system evaluation – working well together.

The OECD’s report highlights Denmark’s strengths, then it sets out the challenges and finally, it offers Denmark some concrete and constructive feedback for improvement. It’s rather like an evaluation really – but there are no marks or grades here!   



To learn more about:

Denmark's Review:

Main Conclusions Denmark

Country Review Denmark

Pointers for Policy Development Denmark


Sweden's Review, released recently:

Main Conclusions Sweden

Country Review Sweden

Pointers for Policy Development Sweden


OECD Review of Evalaution and Assessment Frameworks for Improving School Outcomes:

Evaluation and Assessment Frameworks for Improving School Outcomes: Common Policy Challenges

Open educational resources (OER) are providing more and more opportunities for learning


At no point in human history more knowledge has been generated. And technology in general and the Web in particular provide unique opportunities for knowledge to flow and to be shared by everyone. This dramatically alters the way people learn, unlocking potential we could only dream of a few years ago. Not exactly that people will be able to obtain a Harvard or Cambridge degree for free, but with educational content and even complete courses available online, self-directed learning is getting an enormous boost. A recent article, “Going to Harvard from your own bedroom” talks about the growing popularity and use of online university classes provided by the UK’s Open University, MIT, and Harvard, among others. And as an important side-effect, educational institutions have to increase the quality of the added-value value of the educational experience if knowledge itself is no longer their secret. Free-flowing educational resources probably will break the boundaries between the knowledge-rich and the knowledge-poor parts of the world. An example includes African villagers using up-to-date expertise on irrigation from MIT. According to one proponent, OER is “becoming a wider social imperative.”


Since exactly ten years ago the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Open Courseware Initiative announced that it would publish educational materials of all its courses openly and freely on the Internet, an astonishing movement has shaken the education world. Every day new universities and colleges are publishing educational resources, mostly in digital format, for other institutions to be used and for learners to enjoy. Probably the largest conglomerate of institutional open educational resources, the Open CourseWare Consortium, has a membership of several hundred institutions.  With education budgets dwindling and tuition prices swelling, a free Ivy League education seems like a pipe dream for most people.


The Cape Town Declaration in 2007 is a major initiative to promote OER in an ideal world, in which education resources would be accessible, high quality, effective, and sustainable.  In the meantime, policy makers, education institutions, and students will need to continue to work on refining and improving OER, and explore ways to make it more available to those who need it most.


The Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) has examined Open Educational Resources (OER), looking at the critical issues surrounding access, quality, and costs of information knowledge.  Evidently, true to the title: Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources, the results are available as a free publication.


But while the OER movement seeks to provide more educational resources online, some are worried about the opposite problem: too much information online. Although web education and information can be a tremendous resource, many teachers and academics are concerned that too many students are becoming dependent on Wikipedia and other encyclopedia-like websites to do research. A blog on Web 2.0 in the classroom asks whether or not Internet research is killing critical thinking. With so much information online, how do we teach students how to sift through the “junk?” New skills are needed, focusing on information management, ‘learning to learn’ and ‘meta-cognition’ (understanding and improving one’s own learning).


Drawing from lessons learned from previous  work by the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)  on OER, we will be exploring new policies for business models emerging around free content, new copyright licenses, such as creative commons, for the education sector.

For more information on OECD work on Open Educational Resources go to the website.

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