International comparisons in higher education: the OECD's Education at a Glance

Tony Bates, e-learning & distance education resources, Sept 10, 2010
Commentary by Stephen Downes

The recent OECD report on advanced education has been making the rounds in the media, but I prefer the cautious reading Tony Bates offers. What has caught people's attention around here is the stat saying that Canadian students pay around 42 percent of the cost of an education, which is up substantially since the days I was in school (when it was around 20 percent). Also worth noting is how well Canada places in the number of adults graduated with some kind of post-secondary degree, following only Korea.

But that said, as Bates notes, "The closer one reads the report, the more cautious one needs to be in drawing conclusions. There are wide variations in the organization and structure of higher education across these countries, data on some key indicators are missing for some countries, and we all know how reliable government statistics can be." Even so, "one can't help be struck by the gap between expenditure and output in the USA. In particular, high tuition fees, relatively modest enrolment figures as a proportion of the population, and low completion rates all suggest that the USA has some major systemic problems to deal with." We are often told that the USA has the 'best university system in the world' - but less often stated is that it is serving that nation poorly.
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