Do Chinese and Indian universities turn out more skilled engineers than British and American ones? Which university produces the best economists?
With increasing numbers of students seeking to study outside their own country, and often using commercially devised international university league tables as a preliminary guide to options, there is a pressing need for less subjective measures of university teaching. Meanwhile, policy makers are keen to know how their graduates stack up against those from competing economies.
The OECD has begun the first phase of its Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes programme. It will try to compare disciplines across universities in different countries, beginning with engineering and economics as the easiest to compare across cultures, and will also study generic skills and the value added of university education.
"We will try to measure the value-added to capture the net learning gain of incoming abilities," said the OECD's Fabrice Hénard, presenting the project to an international audience at the Going Global conference. "We want to see the impact of institutions on knowledge gain."
The generic skills to be looked at include those employers are particularly interested in, whatever the university discipline. "We would like to measure analytical skills, problem-solving, communication and leadership, and ability to work in a group. The list is long but the point is that acquisition of knowledge does not in itself constitute an education," Hénard said.
The OECD is hoping the ambitious programme will help policy makers understand why some institutions or countries do better than others and insists it will not create a new, albeit more objective, ranking system for universities alongside existing league tables whose criteria are hotly disputed.
"Policy makers, students, families and tax payers devote considerable attention to the outcomes of higher education, especially in times of economic crisis and high unemployment," Hénard said.
"At the same time we see that efforts to improve the quality of teaching and quality of learning suffer from a considerable information gap because there is no reliable instrument that would enable comparable judgements to be made."
"Learning outcomes are more and more included in quality assurance processes [of universities] and so now it is time to measure learning outcomes. It is time to show what students know and can do," he said.
Some 14 countries are taking part in the first phase, including Finland, Italy, Norway, Mexico, Japan, Kuwait, Australia and the US, with some 10 institutions per country and around 200 students in each institution to be tested in their first and third years of study.
The project is often compared with the OECD's better-known Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA. This ranks the skills of 15 year-olds in mathematics, science and reading skills in an international league table and often sparks huge debate and policy changes by countries that come lower down in the rankings.
But Hénard said: "Diversity of higher education is the cornerstone of [the assessment of higher education programme].The aim is not to develop predetermined quality standards that can be applied to all institutions irrespective of their mission."
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