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Stepping out of the Ivory Tower

Posted by 565478 Feb 21, 2011

OECD Conference “For Stronger, Cleaner and Fairer Regions” in Seville, Spain, calls for more engagement and collaboration between universities and local economies

What better setting for a conference than the city of Seville, the regional capital of Andalusia. A melting pot of cultures, an ancient learning center, Seville has huge potential to be a world class city in the creative economy. The scientific and technological activity hub is fed by Seville’s three universities, whose laboratories and research centers work in close connection with private and public actors in various fields of research.


With Seville as a backdrop, the 10-11 February OECD Conference on Higher Education in Regional and City Development explored the role of universities in the context of today’s global economic and financial crisis. Aart de Geus, Deputy Secretary-General of the OECD, asked higher education institutions (HEIs) to “come out of their ivory towers” by engaging with a wide range of stakeholders including business and industry.


The conference covered a wide range of topics from experts around the world. Jamil Salmi, the World Bank’s tertiary education co-ordinator, discussed the negative economic consequences of limited access to higher education systems by people from low socio-economic backgrounds. Susan Christopherson from Cornell University, was critical of the US technology transfer model which creates some patents, makes a handful of universities rich but does not create a significant number of jobs and businesses.


Jaana Puukka, OECD analyst and one of the organizers of the conference, stressed the importance of universities’ role in the labour market in an interview with University World News. “In very few places can we see there is robust knowledge about the graduate labour market. Some universities are following up their students' progress - but in more cases they are not and universities see their responsibility as 'you get them in, you get them out'. In some cases, 50% drop out,” Puukka said. She stressed that HEI leaders need to be more proactive in establishing an entrepreneurial and locally engaged institution that doesn’t depend entirely on the national legislative framework. As she said, the "first movers never wait for the law to be changed."


With more than 250 participants from around 40 countries, the conference not only provided a forum for participants to share best practices, but also presented the main findings and policy lessons from the second round of OECD Reviews of Higher Education in Regional and City Development.


If the city of Seville isn’t enough to make you step out of the Ivory Tower, maybe joining the third round of reviews will.


For more information and the presentations in Seville, check out the conference website.

Are socio-economically disadvantaged students condemned to perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of poor academic achievement, poor job prospects and poverty? Not if they attend schools that provide them with more regular classes and that nurture their personal motivation and self-confidence with positive approaches to learning.


That’s what OECD analysts found when they examined the results of the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. Researchers focused on a group of students who displayed high levels of academic achievement despite the fact that they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. These “resilient” students essentially beat the odds stacked against them to outperform peers from the same socio-economic background.


Against the Odds: Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School, a new book from the OECD, takes a close look at these students to try to figure out what makes them so special and how to increase their number.


PISA results show that a large proportion of disadvantaged students do not even attain the PISA baseline proficiency level in science. These students risk completing their studies without acquiring the skills and competencies needed to fully participate in society and succeed in the labour market. In contrast, most resilient students, especially in OECD countries, achieve scores that place them in PISA’s top three proficiency levels in science.


Many disadvantaged students are vulnerable because, among other reasons, they spend very little time studying science. Learning time in school is one of the strongest predictors of which disadvantaged students will outperform their peers. In practically all OECD countries, and all partner countries and economies, the average resilient student spends more time studying science at school–on average, between one and two more hours per week–than the average disadvantaged low-achiever. But it is not only the quantity of time spent in school that matters; how that time is administered matters too.


Students’ confidence in their academic abilities also strongly predicts resilience: the more self-confident students are, the greater their odds of being resilient. Across OECD countries over 50% of resilient students believe that learning advanced science topics would be easy for them, while only about 40% of disadvantaged low-achievers think so. Some 75% of resilient students believe they can give good answers to test questions on science topics, while only about 50% of disadvantaged low-achievers share this belief. Motivation, particularly motivation that arises from a personal, internal drive, rather than motivation that is prompted by an external stimulus, such as the prospect of a certain job or salary, is also associated with student resilience in many countries, but that relationship is weaker.


This suggests that schools may have an important role to play in fostering resilience. Schools could start by developing activities, classroom practices and teaching methods that nurture motivation and self-confidence among disadvantaged students. High-quality mentoring programmes, for example, have been shown to be particularly beneficial for disadvantaged students. Focusing these activities on disadvantaged students is crucial, as they are the students who are least likely to receive this support elsewhere.


And while increasing time spent at school will not, in itself, improve overall performance, PISA results suggest that learning time at school should be considered when designing policies to raise performance levels among disadvantaged students. Many of these students might have ended up in tracks or schools where there is very little choice and no opportunity to take science–or perhaps any other academic–courses. As the saying goes, they can’t win if they aren’t allowed to play.



Against the Odds: Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School, ISBN 978-92-64-08995-2 (print), 978-92-64-08995-2 (PDF), will be available at in May 2011.


The pre-primary premium

Posted by 498371 Feb 4, 2011

How do students who had attended pre-primary school perform later on? Results from PISA 2009 couldn’t be clearer: in nearly all OECD countries, 15-year-olds who had attended pre-primary school performed better in reading than those who had not. And the benefits accrue to all students, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds.


The first issue of a new monthly OECD series, PISA in Focus, offers a brief discussion on the benefits of pre-primary education. And you can find related information at, and

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