The global education race

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Governments around the world are racing to improve their education systems – the key to economic success. Professor Chris Husbands on the global education race.

There has never been a time in the history of the world when education has mattered to more people than it does today. If you were an advertising agency, you’d really want the account for education.

Education makes a difference to individuals. At Stanford University, Hanushek and Woessman reviewed the evidence in 2010: the economic and non-economic returns to education are substantial. 

Across international datasets, the returns to individuals include a 13 per cent improvement in salary to those who hold a degree and improved health – half the number of disabled years for those who hold a degree, longer life, and an additional 1.7 years for every additional year of schooling. Higher levels of education are associated with lower offending and with higher levels of physical activity. And what’s true for individuals is true for economies and societies: education seems to be the economic and social investment par excellence.

In their massive 2008 analysis of American economic, technological and social development, The Race Between Education and Technology, Claudia Goldin and Laurence Katz argue that the 20th century was the American century because American economic success was driven by education. 

They argue that “because the American people were the best educated in the world, they were in the best position to invent, be entrepreneurial, and produce goods and services using advanced technologies”. 

The nation, they go on to say, that invested most in egalitarian educational opportunities and did that during the century in which education would critically matter was the nation with the highest per capita income. 

This was America’s great success. In the 80 years between 1900 and 1980, education attainment improved rapidly and continuously. America’s failure since the 1970s has been the stalling of education improvement. 

For the first three quarters of the 20th century, they summarise, “education raced ahead of technology but later in the century, technology raced ahead of educational gains”.

Around the world, the Goldin and Katz thesis now underpins the education policies of almost all governments. Investment in human capital drives education reform: the race to improve education systems is a race for economic advantage, because the returns to education appear to be stronger in more advanced economies. 

And so education has gone global, with evidence in the huge international flows of students, policies and practices. In January this year, the OECD’s Policy Outlook analysed more than 400 different policies swapped, borrowed, exchanged and implemented between member states. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of all this are the education league tables which pour out from international agencies and organisations. 

Results from PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment, which ranks skills performance across the world) keep ministers awake all night and drive national education paranoia. 

Higher education league tables are poured over by university leaders, press commentators and prospective students. And so the UCL Institute of Education has an interest in this: the QS ranking of university subject disciplines in 2014 placed the IoE in the number one position as the world’s best school of education, scored for the quality of its research, the impact of its ideas and reputation with users and employers. 

We are waiting for the 2015 tables to see if we have maintained our position. How have we done it? Like the recipe for Coca Cola, we’ll keep that a secret, but at its heart is something unchanging and essential to that education which matters so much – a focus on quality, a focus on impact, a focus on our students, a wide ranging commitment to global engagement and, at the core, a passionate belief that if education really does matter, then getting it right matters most of all.

  • Professor Chris Husbands is director of the Institute of Education at University College London.


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