The OECD flagship publication, Education at a Glance, has turned its attention to Sustainable Development Goal 4. This is important for confirming the universality of the agenda. But it also carries implications about how the OECD, as an organization representing rich countries, engages in global processes.
Adjusting Education at a Glance to the SDG era
Few organizations can match the innovative contributions of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to international education over the past 20 years. While the spotlight tends to fall on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), its work on issues ranging from school resources to teacher motivation to early childhood education quality helps generate interesting debates on education policy, monitoring and evaluation. The Global Education Monitoring Report team has referred increasingly to OECD research, as a recent bibliometric analysis has shown.
A common thread links OECD innovations, going back to the Indicators of Education Systems programme in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which resulted in its flagship publication, Education at a Glance. Last month saw the release of the latest in the series, Education at a Glance 2017. The report has set high standards for clarity and attention to detail – and this edition is no exception.
The Education at a Glance series has been built on four pillars of indicators: education system output; financial and human resources; access and participation; and learning environments. As of 2016, the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and in particular SDG 4 on education has been superimposed as a second, parallel framework. Last year, Education at a Glance included a special introduction on SDG 4. We welcomed it as “one of the clearest signs that this is a universal agenda, not one dictated by rich countries to poor countries” given that until then OECD member states had dismissed international agendas, such as the MDGs and EFA, as irrelevant to their national education needs.
However, at the time we had also noted that the presentation was leading readers to believe that the indicators on show were the global approach to monitor SDG 4, when in fact they were just an interpretation of those indicators, with the OECD understandably privileging those that relied on its own monitoring tools.
We were not the only ones to note that. There was concern among 22 of the 35 OECD members who are also European Union member states. Education at a Glance 2016 had set ‘benchmarks’ on their behalf, which were different to the painstakingly agreed education benchmarks for 2020 that they had set through a lengthy EU negotiation process.
Interpreting and agreeing on global indicators
In response to this criticism, Education at a Glance 2017 has not included benchmarks. It has also acknowledged that “whenever an indicator presented … does not correspond to the methodology set out by UNESCO, it is clearly labelled as a proxy”. This is a step forward but maybe it does not go far enough.
At the global level, the process of specifying proxies (or ‘placeholders’) is decided at the level of the Technical Cooperation Group, a platform convened by UNESCO and its Institute for Statistics that consists of 28 countries and selected agencies and civil society organizations. In that sense, Education at a Glance 2017 does not specify that these are proxies for OECD reporting purposes and not for SDG 4 reporting.
The report is selective in the way it represents the process by which agreement on indicator methodologies is reached. When it refers to “global and thematic indicators agreed with UNESCO”, it reduces the process to two organisations deciding on their own. However, the process set up by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, which is the custodian agency for 9 of the 11 SDG 4 global indicators, is one in which many partners take part and where, importantly, the countries should be in the driving seat. At no moment does UNESCO ‘agree’ on indicator methodologies with any one partner, such as the OECD.
This is not to say that OECD, like all other partners, does not have a lot to offer in this process. Its methodologies on measuring participation in lifelong learning, adult literacy and numeracy skills or teacher professional development, to mention but a few examples, are a good basis to build on and are being taken into account as work on developing indicator methodologies continues. They can help expand the way poorer countries monitor and improve their education systems. But this requires recognizing the different perspectives and needs in different parts of the world.
It is important to avoid shortcuts to indicators that are expedient and tempting but may distort the purpose of achieving a target. One example is how the international community has been locked in to the volume of aid disbursed in the form of scholarships as global indicator of target 4b. But the majority of scholarships is not disbursed out of aid budgets. As a result, the quality of the global indicator is poor. It does not measure progress towards the target – and, worse, it will continue distorting the allocation of aid away from the clear priority of basic education.
As part of the mandate governments, including those of OECD member states, gave to the Global Education Monitoring Report, namely to be “the mechanism for monitoring and reporting on … SDG 4” and to “report on the implementation of national and international strategies”, the 2017/8 Global Education Monitoring Report, to be launched on October 24, addresses some of these issues. With accountability as its theme, the report looks at the responsibilities of all actors in education, including international organizations. One of its key points is that international organizations need to facilitate processes for standard setting, of which monitoring frameworks are an example, ensuring that they are open and inclusive, led by countries and serving their needs.