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OECD: whose side are they on?

Amidst the first serious skirmishes of the general election campaign, the OECD's support - or not - of England's higher education reforms, has become a source of significant political disagreement. Using OECD data and quoted positions, Labour and the Conservatives were trading blows about HE in Parliament last week. This has brought confusion and counter-claims about OECD's actual line on the recent HE reforms. Andy Westwood cuts through the spin to find out what's really going on.
This article is more than 7 years old

Andy Westwood is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester

Amidst the first serious skirmishes of the 2015 General Election campaign, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) support – or not – of England’s higher education reforms, has become a source of significant political disagreement.

The stakes are high because the Coalition has repeatedly described the OECD’s endorsement as justification for both the principles and the financial sustainability of the reforms. This has become part of a ‘scripted’ rebuttal when the system is questioned. In response, Labour is now saying that the OECD’s official pronouncements actually relate to the previous system and the lower headline fee. So in last week’s parliamentary debates on higher education, Labour accused ministers of misleading parliament on the subject. See Chuka Umunna’s interview in the Independent last week where the criticism was first raised.

Given wind of Labour’s attack line, the government has sought clarification from Andreas Schleicher at the OECD. Schleicher is the OECD’s chief education and skills guru, and the architect of Education at a Glance as well as comparative studies such as PISA and PIAAC. Michael Gove once described him as the most important man in English education.

According to Greg Clark in last week’s House of Commons debate and repeated here in Schleicher’s OECD blog, it appears that he has reaffirmed his endorsement, describing the UK as offering ‘the most scalable and sustainable approach to university finance’.

It is also worth noting that the OECD still often talks in terms of the whole UK, rather than just England, which opens up the discussion about a range of very different approaches to funding HE

Follow the data

So that’s cleared that up. At least enough for the rebuttal lines in ministers’ briefings. But I’m not convinced. For one thing, the references in the blog all still relate to OECD data from 2012 or before. These are also the same datasets (from even earlier years) originally referenced by David Willetts in his 2013 ‘Robbins Revisited’ pamphlet.

Footnote 105 at the bottom of p59 references this tweet from Andreas Schleicher:

But when asked directly at the press conference for the launch of Education at a Glance in 2014, Schleicher categorically stated that he was using pre 2012 data and talking about the previous system.

So does that mean that Labour can continue to use their new attack lines? To try and answer this requires more than a quick look at the available data underpinning the dispute, and requires broader understanding at what the OECD thinks and how it works.

The OECD: what it thinks

It is pretty clear that both the OECD and Andreas Schleicher are fond of the human capital model. This assumes that more education and skills is a good thing in whatever form it takes and at whatever level it appears. They also like properly funded systems of higher education and regularly highlight comparative spending both by volume and as a proportion of GDP. In his blog, Schleicher is particularly critical of those countries that appear to underfund their higher education systems.

It is also very clear that they buy the impact and labour market returns of higher education over the longer term, consistently seeing the long-term benefits outweighing initial and overall costs. Accordingly, the OECD support high participation systems and high levels of skills and qualification in any national or local population, although at various times they have been critical about the UK’s comparatively poor record of supporting sub-degree or higher level skills programmes.

The OECD – at a glance

It is also important to understand how the OECD works. I have worked both with and for them for over a decade – as an author, a researcher visiting a number of countries to carry out national studies (including Italy, Poland, France, Ecuador) and have served as president of the OECD forum on social innovation since 2007. And my experience tells me that they wouldn’t want to take sides in this dispute. Their style is to generate consensus, demonstrate good practice and make evidence-based recommendations. They don’t court controversy and especially not with the national governments that fund them. And they are very rarely directly critical of individual countries or their policies.

The OECD is also a very big place with a great many programmes and departments. It’s a cross between a research-intensive university and a government department – indeed many of their staff are either civil servants from member countries or academics. Somewhat inevitably, given their complexity, size and their comparative nature, the data used by the OECD, especially in big studies, come with a time lag. This means that individual political debates are usually far ahead of the data.

The political cycle

During my time working at the Treasury and Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), we frequently looked for signs of progress, and therefore endorsement, from OECD studies when hoping to rise up league tables for skills and education. But the speed and churn of the policy cycle is too quick – which may be no bad thing, especially for the OECD as it usually enables them to steer clear of political disagreement. But this approach often trips up government – for example, there were several rows over whether we were hitting or missing the Leitch Review targets in the early days of DIUS.

With this experience in mind, I have remained cautious about the current debate, knowing that it’s unlikely the OECD would have either the data or inclination to set out a definitive opinion on the English HE reforms.

The argument over the OECD as an endorser of policy says a lot about their importance. They are not at all unlike an OBR of international achievement in education. The current debates also demonstrate the importance of the ‘script’ and underpinning narrative that political parties and governments generate for their ministers. Once in the script – used in parliament, on Question Time, in speeches and so on, ‘facts’ take on a life of their own. They are endlessly repeated but not endlessly checked for their veracity.

The bottom line

I suspect that Andreas Schleicher would endorse, in broad terms, the principles of the post-2012 system: i.e. income contingent loans, high levels of resource for universities, mass higher education and a progressive repayment system.

The trouble is that these are also the principles that underpinned the pre-2012 system. To that end I imagine he believes that it is these policy principles that are sensible and sustainable, rather than the actual prices, terms, accounting charges and so on. In time he may come to a different and more detailed view on these issues but that will be when the data allows him to do so. And that data will certainly not be available before May 2015.

Across the UK, politicians will want to differentiate between old and new HE regimes. That is how dividing lines in politics work. In time this may include the differentiation between a Conservative £9k and a Labour £6k regime in England. But to the OECD, the bigger difference is unlikely to be between these two variants either side of 2012, but rather between the principles that they both broadly enshrine, as opposed to the strikingly different funding models that exist in other countries.

If pushed – and he absolutely won’t want to be – Andreas Schleicher is most likely to say that it is the UK’s mix of mass higher education, high levels of resource for universities, progressive repayment systems with the costs shared by individuals and the state, that puts us out ahead*.

*Possibly. Comparatively. And when the data is available to prove it.

2 responses to “OECD: whose side are they on?

  1. Scotland. High levels of public investment, high participation levels and a moral abhorrence of fees and ‘the market’. Works nicely.

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