Direction de l’éducation et des compétences

Launch of Education at a Glance 2007, by Angel Gurría


Launch of Education at a Glance 2007, by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General
Berlin, 18 September 2007
Minister Schavan, Senator Zöllner, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you very much for the opportunity to present the OECD’s flagship publication on education here at the Bundespressekonferenz. If I was correctly informed, it is already the seventh year that this joint presentation for Education at a Glance takes place here in Germany. I frankly celebrate this tradition, for Germany has been a most receptive country to OECD diagnosis and recommendations.

I am also very pleased to be here with Minister Schavan and Senator Zöllner. Presenting this important report together with the authorities who are responsible for education in this country reflects very much how the OECD works: in permanent exchange and collaboration with policy-makers. The OECD’s central mission is to help governments at Federal as well as at State level to improve their public policies, to measure their effectiveness and find innovative solutions together.

Before I turn to the main results of Education at a Glance 2007, let me first stress the importance of education for the OECD. Quality education has become the most valuable asset for societies. In a highly competitive globalised economy, human-capital skills are key factors for productivity, economic growth and better living standards. Effective and innovative education policies open enormous opportunities for individuals; just as faulty educational systems result in declining standards, exclusion and unemployment. That is why education plays such a central role in the OECD’s agenda.

And let me add, the OECD’s work is not only valuable for our 30 Member countries, Increasingly we also co-operate with major emerging economies and other Non-Member countries.

To adapt to a fast changing world and better compete in a knowledge economy, it is crucial for governments to know how well their education systems progress in producing world-class learners, to share policy experiences and learn from today’s best performing education systems. We are providing “Education at a Glance” to help governments with these delicate tasks.

Education at a glance 2007

Let me turn now to this year’s edition of Education at a Glance. The must striking conclusion you may draw from this publication is the stunning speed at which education systems continue to expand. On average, more than half of school leavers in OECD countries are now entering university-level education at some stage in their lives. In some countries it is more than three-quarters. This is remarkable. Some 40 years ago, it was little more than 1 in 10.

The general impact of this massive expansion of education continues to be positive. I know that graduate output is controversially debated in this country. But the report is quite clear in this respect: the expansion of education has had a major positive impact on individuals and economies, and there are still no signs of an “inflation” of the labour-market value of university-level qualifications (Indicators A1, A8 and A9). On the contrary, in some of the countries with the fastest growth of the university sector the earnings and employment benefits of university degrees keeps growing.

However, educational progress has been very uneven across countries. Even in countries where overall progress has been marked, significant parts of populations have been left behind and face deteriorating labour-market prospects. Indeed, some of the data suggest that education is not always meeting its core mission, namely to improve participation and foster social mobility and cohesion, but rather cements and reinforces social disparities.  We must reverse this synergy.

Turning to the situation in Germany

Now turning to the situation in Germany and how the country is situated among OECD countries. There are a number of strong points in the German education system. Germany continues to do well to provide adults with strong baseline qualifications: over 80% of the adult population have completed upper secondary schooling, significantly above the OECD average of 68% (Indicator A1). The dual vocational system makes an important contribution, as a system that: 1) draws in significant resources from the private sector (Indicator B3); 2) keeps programmes relevant through strong public-private partnerships; and 3) supports effective school-work transitions (Indicator C4).

However, Germany’s upper secondary completion rates that, two generations ago, where the benchmark for much of the rest of the world, are now commonplace in OECD countries. Indeed, Germany now needs to pay close attention to those who do not obtain an academic or vocational qualification at the upper secondary level, as their labour-market situation has deteriorated significantly (Unemployment in this group has disproportionally risen from 7% in 1991 to 20% in 2005, Indicator A8).

No doubt the German university system has important strengths. Only Switzerland and Portugal produce a higher proportion of PhDs than Germany. But when comparing tertiary attainment as a whole in the generation nearing retirement with qualification levels of 25-34-year-olds, Germany’s position has dropped from rank 10 to rank 22; mainly because levels of tertiary attainment have risen so much faster elsewhere. Over the last decade, student enrolment in tertiary education has expanded by 41% on average across OECD countries and expenditure on tertiary education rose by 55%. In contrast, enrolment in Germany rose by just 5% and expenditure by 12%.

In the past, many Germans thought that the strong vocational system was making up for gaps in higher education. Indeed, some have argued that some vocational qualifications at Germany’s secondary level are equivalent to academic qualifications in other countries’ universities. I am the first to admit that the OECD still has a long way to go until we can measure the outcomes of higher education as reliably as our PISA comparisons do that for schools, something that I have asked our Education Directorate now to address urgently with a PISA for higher education. However, this year’s data show that the earnings advantage of a dual-system vocational qualification remains, at 11% well below that of a vocational tertiary qualification (32%) and significantly below that of a university-level tertiary qualification (64%). Moreover, it has, if anything, fallen over the last years (Indicator A9). These are important signals that we should not ignore.

A great part of the challenge lies in the tertiary sector itself. Participation in the university-sector is not only low, but a large share of students drop out without obtaining a degree. In Germany’s traditional 5 to 6-year programmes drop-out rates are as high as 35%. This finding, which mirrors results in many other countries, suggests that Germany’s move towards the two-tier bachelor/masters structure is an important step in the right direction of a more flexible qualification structure.

Financing is an issue too. When the comparatively large research sector in German universities is excluded, Germany spends less than the OECD average per tertiary student, and less than half than the United States (Indicator B1). I know that there is considerable debate in Germany on how this funding gap can be filled. Our analysis suggests that establishing innovative financing and student support policies that mobilise additional public and private funding in ways that better reflect the social and private benefits of tertiary education will be part of the answer. Many countries are moving successfully in this direction. 

It is important to stress here that an entirely publicly financed education system provides no guarantee for equitable access to universities, in particular when the financing system is regressive, as is still the case in Germany – where parents need to pay for early-childhood education but the public pays for universities. Indeed, Austria, France, Germany and Portugal ─all countries with essentially publicly financed tertiary systems─ are among those countries where social background has the strongest impact on university participation: only 16% of German university students have a father with a blue-collar job.

The challenge of improving this access goes well beyond the tertiary sector. While our indicators show that inequities in access to higher education are at best weakly linked to funding systems, in Germany they can be linked to the structure of the school system. Children as young as ten are routed to different tracks; those from disadvantaged families tending to be directed to tracks with lower performance expectations. That is also mirrored in the poor school performance of students with an immigrant background (Indicator A6). This has a high cost.

Indeed, the proportion of young people with qualifications that give them at least theoretically access to university-level tertiary education is only 38% in Germany, while, as I mentioned before, on average across OECD countries more than half of today’s school leavers do already enter higher education at some stage during their life. An even more strikingly finding is that for the majority of German 15-year-olds a university or vocational tertiary qualification seems no longer even a serious prospect: only 21% of the girls and 18% of the boys aspire to a university level qualification. This is worrying. In Korea, almost 80% of 15-year-olds aspire to a tertiary qualification, with almost no visible relationship to socio-economic factors. The OECD average it is still over 50%.

Germany’s federal governance system must not be seen as a handicap for successful reforms. There are many positive examples among OECD countries, which prove that good co-operation between the Federal and the State level, combined with competition among States for the best solution, can result in excellent performance.

Germany has been exemplary in the ways in which it has recognised the equity-related challenges of its school system, after these were first highlighted by PISA. Significant reform efforts have been launched in many states to strengthen early childhood education. However, given that our comparisons show early stratification to be so consistently associated with social inequalities, these issues will need to be addressed. In the knowledge economy, our concern needs to be how we can develop the full potential of all children.

Success will go to those individuals and countries which are open to change and swift to adapt. Our role at the OECD is to help countries rise to the challenges.  Over the next few weeks, my staff will be working very closely with the German authorities in the context of our survey of the German economy, and education will play a key part in this EDRC review. And then, on 4 December, you will have the results from our latest PISA assessment which, I have no doubt, will intensify the debate and help the education system to advance further.

I am sure that the conclusions of “Education at a Glance 2007”, polemical as they might be, will also steer debate and provide a positive catalyst for the improvement of the German education system. I hope you enjoy this fascinating report. Thank you very much.