OECD more engaged than ever with higher education

The OECD agrees wholeheartedly that “higher education has never been more important to countries worldwide. Furthermore, academic institutions and systems are increasingly affected by global trends that require comparative analysis and international debate and can benefit from an analysis of ‘best practice’ worldwide.”

But we are rather mystified by Professor Philip G Altbach’s commentary, published on 29 June, on the role of the OECD in higher education – which simply doesn’t reflect reality.

Higher education is a diverse and rapidly changing sector and the OECD too is adapting its role to be more relevant and responsive to the challenges facing higher education in today’s changing and challenging world.

With the blessing of its governing board, the OECD Higher Education Programme (IMHE) has reshaped its products to offer more value to its members, as a glance at our website will show. Indeed, Altbach’s criticisms are all the more surprising since he has agreed to contribute an article to one of these new products.

A key feature of the IMHE is to bring together higher education leaders, researchers and government officials concerned with higher education.

For this reason, we now organise regular workshops and webinars to foster discussion among the programme’s members on the issues that are relevant to them. These cover a broad range of topics such as quality internships, open educational resources, fostering quality teaching and commercialising research.

The OECD also continues to hold larger forums on higher education such as the 2013 OECD/Japan Seminar held in Tokyo in February, where more than 300 participants from over 20 countries discussed global strategies for higher education, sharing experiences on issues such as the influence of accelerated commercialisation of education and a knowledge-based society.

The seminar also explored the latest trends of regionalisation and quality assurance. This seminar seems to fit exactly with Altbach’s call for “‘thinking capacity’, analysis of contemporary issues, and ‘convening authority’ for conversations and debates”.

Comparative statistics are the OECD’s bedrock, and we continue to invest in our regular data collection on higher education, as the just-published Education at a Glance 2013 shows.

Moreover, in October the OECD will publish the Survey of Adult Skills, which will provide new data for 23 countries on the actual skills level of adults compared with their educational attainment and their use of skills at work and elsewhere. This will open exciting new avenues for research and analysis on higher education and its links to economic and social outcomes.

In addition, the OECD continues to provide a great deal of policy advice to countries on higher education policy issues, drawing extensively on our established evidence base, which combines comparative statistics, reviews of higher education in countries, and lessons drawn from the cross-country synthesis of research, analysis and policy experience.

Some of this policy advice is published in reports, such as the recent reviews of Quality Assurance in Higher Education in Chile, Tertiary Education in Colombia and Higher Education in the Dominican Republic.

OECD policy advice is also often given orally to the many government representatives, institutional leaders and stakeholder representatives that visit the OECD each year, or when OECD officials visit countries. Needless to say, those not directly involved remain largely unaware of this important OECD role in the higher education sector.

Quality and skills

Enhancing quality in higher education is a key policy priority for policy-makers around the world, and the OECD is in the process of developing a new framework approach for analysing different approaches for improving quality in higher education, in order to understand better how these different measures contribute individually and collectively to improving higher education quality.

The Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, or AHELO, offers considerable potential as an instrument for enhancing quality in higher education and we, along with participating countries and institutions, are still in the process of extracting all the insights and lessons from the feasibility study.

We are also preparing a concrete proposal for taking AHELO forward, which the OECD’s education policy committee will consider at its November meeting.

Altbach may well not be aware of these developments, but I nevertheless find it perplexing that he could simply conclude that AHELO has been “closed down” without asking us before going into print what we are actually doing.

Another key priority for policy-makers today is to ensure that higher education equips young people with the skills they need for employability, especially given the hurdles that even university graduates face in launching their careers.

Employability of graduates is not a passing “fad” as Altbach claims, but a matter of crucial importance to students themselves, as illustrated by the European Students' Union Student Advancement of Graduates Employability (SAGE) project.

Higher education is also increasingly expected to provide the high-level technical and professional skills that employers need to enhance their competitiveness and move up the value chain; we have responded to this demand with the OECD review of post-secondary vocational education and training.

More broadly, the OECD Skills Strategy points out the important links between developing skills and their effective utilisation for achieving better economic and social outcomes, thus recognising that higher education must be connected to the world around it and responsive to its demands and expectations.

I hope that, with these examples, it is now evident to all your readers that the OECD has certainly not “abdicated” from higher education. On the contrary, we are more engaged than ever with today’s higher education issues, tomorrow’s higher education challenges and the longer-term future of higher education.

* Deborah Roseveare is head of the Skills Beyond School Division in the directorate for education and skills at the OECD.