Harvey P. Weingarten – OECD: When good news isn’t good enough

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OECD’s recently released Education at a Glance 2012 is comparatively good news for Canada and even more so for Ontario. But in a twist on the old cliché, good news is the enemy of great news.  Evident within the 500-plus pages of international educational performance measures are at least two lessons: the dangers of complacency and the importance of reliable data.

But first the good news.  Postsecondary attainment rates are on the rise across the globe, especially among younger generations, which tend to have the highest attainment rates. Notable exceptions include the US, Germany, and Israel, whose postsecondary education (PSE) attainment rates remain relatively constant. For Canadians ages 25-64, the attainment rate is 51%, compared to 42% for the US and an OECD average of 31%. And in this arena, Ontario outpaces all other provinces at 57%, inarguably good news for Canadians who depend on a thriving knowledge economy and a PSE credential to get them there.

Postsecondary attainment by women continues to flourish, with Canada outpacing the OECD average and Ontario substantially outpacing the rest of Canada. In fact, attainment rates by Canadian and Ontario women ages 25-64 (55% and 61%, respectively) are almost double that of the OECD average (32%).  Canadian postsecondary attainment of men ages 25-64, at 46%, is significantly better than the OECD average of29%, but the gender gap in participation persists. A recent HEQCO study found that more Canadian women than men are pursuing PSE.  While university application rates for both genders have increased over the last decade, the study notes that there is a 16 percentage point gap between men and women in overall postsecondary completion — a magnitude that appears to be larger in Canada than in most other advanced countries.

The newest OECD data reflect the impact of global recession in 2009 and 2010, and as the report’s authors note, “no group or country – no matter how well-educated – is totally immune from the effects of a worldwide economic downturn.” Nonetheless, country comparisons suggest that postsecondary attainment – to a certain extent – acts as a recession buffer. And in Canada, 25-64 year olds were less impacted than in other countries. While Canada saw a 31% increase in the unemployment rate for those with postsecondary credentials over the years 2008-10 (growing from 4.1 to 5.4%), the OECD average increase was 42%, (from 3.3 to 4.7%) and the US increase was 121% (from 2.4 to 5.3%). And those without high school or postsecondary credentials faced remarkably steeper unemployment rates, with Canada at a 36% increase (from 9.1% to 12.4%), the OECD average at a 42% increase (8.8% to 12.5%) and the US at a 66% increase (from 10.1% to 16.8%).

Even more telling are the recession impacts on youth unemployment (typically ages 16-24). Youth unemployment generally signals a young adult’s resilience to economic uncertainties. And if high levels of unemployment are sustained for prolonged periods of time, this may create a “boomerang effect” where a young adult experiences an erosion of sector-specific skills and a competitive wage disadvantage that may take up to 15 years to close. Nonetheless, in Canada and slightly less so in Ontario, the so-called NEET population (neither employed nor in education or training) was less impacted by the recession than in other countries.  In Canada young adults ages 15-29 witnessed a 15% increase in the NEET population over the years 2008-10 (growing from 11.7 to 13.5%), whereas Spain witnessed a 41% increase (from 16.8 to 23.7%).

The OECD Indicators provide a tremendous wealth of information; however, for a variety of reasons – some more compelling than others – OECD’s annual accounting should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, data may be lacking from certain countries on certain indicators, impacting the reliability of some OECD averages.  But more troubling for Canada is the impact of funding cuts to Statistics Canada, which provides data to OECD for its annual education roundup and is the statistical bedrock of this nation’s evidence-based policy discussions. For example, although graduation rates reference the year 2010 for the majority of the 34 OECD and 8 non-OECD countries examined, Canada’s data are from 2009. And while the reference year for parental educational attainment is 2009, Canada’s year of reference is 2003.  In fact, an alarming amount of Canadian postsecondary data and labour-related data are one or two (or more) years behind the other major OECD countries.

Another lesson from the big picture: other nations coming up behind us are showing proportionately larger gains in educational performance.  While the proportion of Canadians aged 25-64 with some form of postsecondary credentials increased from 40% to 51% in the period 2000-2010, the OECD average increase in attainment for the period outpaced Canada, at 3.7% growth rate versus 2.4%.  South Korea’s postsecondary attainment rate jumped from 24% in 2000 to 40% in 2010, with an average annual growth rate of 5.2%. Clearly, Canadian complacency could be dangerous. It’s also clear that if Canada intends to secure its international leadership in postsecondary education, it needs to take a similar stand on data collection. Now more than ever, good isn’t good enough.

Thanks for reading.

-Harvey P. Weingarten

2 replies on “Harvey P. Weingarten – OECD: When good news isn’t good enough”

Thanks for underscoring the importance of Statistics Canada data for supporting evidence-based research. Many Canadian and provincial policies will be flying blind for the next few years until we return to a statistically unbiased mechanism, such as the mandatory long form, for collecting education, economic, population and housing data.

Let me second Jeff’s thank you. The profoundly crucial role played by hard evidence is certainly appreciated here at Perimeter.

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