Education at a Glance 2020: Why the data is crucial during the COVID-19 crisis

Screenshot from cover of OECD Education at a Glance 2020

By Marie-Helene Doumet

Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted education worldwide. Lockdowns have interrupted conventional schooling with nationwide school closures in most OECD and partner countries. While the educational community has made important efforts to maintain learning continuity during this period, children and students have had to rely more on their own resources to continue learning remotely. As emergency public funds are directed to health and social welfare, long-term public spending on education may be at risk despite short-term stimulus packages in some countries. Private funding will also become scarce as the economy weakens. More damagingly, the lockdown has exacerbated inequality among students and workers.

As education policy makers work towards a response to the crisis, education statistics will play a pivotal role in informing decisions, both at national and international level. The 2020 edition of our Education at a Glance report provides a comprehensive overview of education systems in OECD member and partner countries, including detailed indicators across all levels of education – with a focus on vocational education in particular. The publication provides a trove of data to consult and pore over, and sheds light on important indicators that not only shape education, but that will be critical to monitor during and after the crisis.

Here are a six of those indicators to keep a particularly close watch on:

1. The share of government spending on education

While there is uncertainty about the likely overall impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education expenditure, governments will face difficult decisions on the allocation of resources, as government funds are injected into the economy and the health sector. In 2017, total public expenditure on primary to tertiary education as a percentage of total government expenditure was 11% on average across OECD countries and this has remained relatively stable since 2012. 

2. International student mobility

International student mobility may decrease during and in the aftermath of the pandemic as travel restrictions and the shift to online learning may raise questions among international students’ perceptions on the value of obtaining their degree abroad. The impact may be large in some countries: While international students represent 6% of tertiary students on average across OECD countries, they represent 20% or more in Australia, Luxembourg and New Zealand. International student mobility is particularly high at doctoral level, where one out of five students on average travels abroad to earn their degree.  These losses do not just affect the education sector:  Countries have traditionally relied on international student mobility to facilitate the immigration of foreign talent and contribute to both knowledge production and innovation nationally.

3. Unemployment by educational attainment

Unemployment will increase as the economy struggles to cope with the reduced activity that resulted from the lockdown. People with low educational attainment are the most vulnerable, as they are the least likely to benefit from remote working and opportunities to develop new skills through adult learning: In 2019, 13% of young adults without upper secondary education were unemployed compared to 5% among those with a tertiary education. In the aftermath of the last financial crisis, the unemployment of young adults without an upper secondary education increased by 5 percentage points between 2008 and 2009 on average across OECD countries.

Data and statistics are the backbone of any informed policy response and will play a pivotal role as the world comes to grips with the pandemic and its consequences.

4. Instruction time

Although the education community has made significant efforts to ensure distance teaching during school closures, there are concerns that learning productivity may be lower at home than in the classroom. In 2019, students in public institutions attended classes for 804 hours per year on average at primary level and 922 hours at lower secondary level on average across OECD countries (excluding the non-compulsory part of the curriculum). On average, each week of school closure represents about 22 hours of compulsory instruction time at the primary level and 25 hours of compulsory instruction time at lower secondary level during which students have not physically attended school. 

5. Class size

Social distancing is one of the most basic measures being used to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 and is a prerequisite to school reopening in many countries. Accommodating for a minimum safety distance between pupils and staff will depend on the physical space available and  the number of students per class. On average across OECD countries, class size at primary level ranges from 16 students in Latvia to 31 in Chile.

6. The share of students enrolled in vocational programmes

Often neglected in the past, vocational education plays a central role in ensuring the alignment between education and work, the successful transition of students into the labour market. The coronavirus crisis has brought to the fore many professions that rely on vocational qualifications, and that have worked relentlessly during this period to keep our world afloat. However, students in these programmes have been particularly badly hit during the lockdown as social distancing requirements and the closure of enterprises have made practical and work-based learning that are so crucial to the success of vocational education difficult or impossible. On average across OECD countries, about one in three students from lower secondary to short-cycle tertiary level is enrolled in a vocational programme, although this varies from 16% in Lithuania to 50% in Finland.

Data and statistics are the backbone of any informed policy response and will play a pivotal role as the world comes to grips with the pandemic and its consequences. Education systems in particular will be at the centre of future planning, not only in supporting today’s students as they pursue their learning, but also in supporting the development of skills needed to build a more resilient society for the future.

Want to learn more?
OECD Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher discussed the key findings from Education at a Glance 2020 and answered questions during a virtual launch event
Watch the event on our Facebook page

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