Greater access, more equal higher education are key to competitiveness

The United States is at risk of losing its competitive advantage in the global marketplace unless it ensures greater and more equal access to higher education, according to a survey released by the OECD.

The Paris-based think-tank’s Economic Survey of the United States found that there is more demand for university-educated workers than meets supply. As a result, US companies are no longer more likely to innovate than companies in the other 33 OECD member countries.

“As the economy evolves and technology grows more complex, the need for higher-skilled labour has increased,” Matthias Rumpf, chief media officer at the OECD’s Washington DC, base, told University World News.

“But there are not enough people out there to fill the posts.”

The organisation collected data that showed a decrease in US innovation over a period of decades, dating back to the 1970s – a trend its researchers said boded ill for America’s future performance in the global economy.

Productivity growth in the non-farm business sector slowed from just over 2% in 1970 to 1% in 2009, according to US Bureau of Labor statistics.

Of particular concern, the OECD said, was America’s performance in education. The number of workers with tertiary degrees dropped sharply in the 1980s while the demand for skills continued to grow at the same rate as before.

Tertiary attainment rates for the older generation (55- to 64-year-olds) and the younger generation (25- to 34-year-olds) are the same in the US – at 40% – while in many other OECD countries the younger generation far surpasses the older generation, according to the report.

Even as the US remains a top destination for foreign students eager to obtain graduate degrees in core STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, those same areas of study are attracting fewer and fewer Americans.

Only 1.5% of US workers aged 25-34 have STEM degrees, compared to a country like New Zealand, where nearly 3% of workers hold STEM qualifications.

Rumpf said more STEM graduates are needed to spur US innovation. “STEM has a very close relationship with productivity gains,” he said.

The OECD cited several key strategies that could go some way towards mitigating the decline in innovation.

Among these was the implementation of more programmes like Race to the Top, a US Department of Education contest to encourage innovation in school education. Exposing high-school students to STEM subjects, as well as providing them with vocational training, is also key.

Further, the US needs to strengthen its community college system, especially in technical fields, and raise its overall college graduation rates.

Despite America’s drop in performance, Rumpf stressed that it is still one of the most innovative economies in the world.

“The US situation isn’t getting worse, it’s just not as dynamic as it once was,” he explained. “Other countries are catching up.”