How can we compare education systems that are so different?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Comparison of levels of education between ISCED 2011 and ISCED-97

Imagine three families accidentally meeting in a bar of a hotel in a sunny tourist location. They start discussing the schooling of their children and their professional futures. One Danish couple has young children aged 11 and 14, both attending the ‘Basic School’. The Dutch couple thinks that the oldest son probably has not performed well in school because he seems to have been repeating some grades in primary school. Their own daughter is around 25 and is following a short programme at an institution of higher education, which the parents describe as an “associate degree”. The third couple, French, assumes that, given the girl’s age, this must be a kind of specialisation following the license. Their own son has a license, which the Danish and Dutch couples interpret as a master’s degree. The schooling of their respective children is clearly a sensitive topic, because none of the three couples wants to enter into much detail: they’re afraid that the other couples would not fully appreciate the prestige and status of their child’s educational career. The result is confusion.

This is akin to what happened many years ago when education experts and policy makers started to meet and discuss education policies. A Babylonian confusion of terminology – with words only comprehensible to the citizens of a given country but incomprehensible to foreigners – made any reasonable discussion nearly impossible. In many cases, even experts did not understand that “Basic School” in Denmark covers the first nine grades, or that a Dutch “associate degree” is a short vocational programme of post-secondary but non-tertiary education that people sometimes pursue after some years of work experience, or that a French license is equivalent to a bachelor’s, not a master’s, degree.

People quickly started to realise that if ever international collaboration in education were successful, they needed instruments to make their systems comparable – instruments that could translate the peculiarities of their own systems into a universally understandable “language”. Especially when pioneers started to collect statistical data on education systems, such tools became absolutely indispensable.

The first edition of the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) was developed by UNESCO in the mid-1970s. It was quickly adopted by other international organisations, such as the OECD, the World Bank and Eurostat. The classification was first revised by UNESCO, OECD and EUROSTAT in 1997 (ISCED-97), and then again between 2009 and 2011 to create ISCED 2011, adopted in November 2011. The 2015 edition of Education at a Glance is the first major collection of data using the new classification. ISCED is the reference framework for classifying and comparing educational programmes and their “levels” – the tool to make systems transparent and comprehensible across countries.

Of course, classifying education programmes is a sensitive topic. Not only families but also countries attach prestige and status to education programmes and the institutions that deliver them. This is what makes mapping such programmes so difficult. But using ISCED is also an activity of international understanding and peer learning. Mapping and classifying programmes is not something done by bureaucrats behind their desks in international organisations, but by peers from countries working together. In a global international labour market, where credentials define access to jobs, earnings and social status, it makes a difference how specific programmes are classified.

Education systems are not static; they change. There have been some important changes at both ends of the education ladder recently: in early childhood or
“pre-primary” education, at one end, and in tertiary or higher education at the other. It is precisely in these two areas that the most recent revision makes the greatest difference. The instrument now has a precise classification for early learning, which has become so important politically. And in higher education, there has been general adoption of the bachelor’s/master’s model.

Probably the families at the bar will not resume their discussion by referring to ISCED levels. But at least among experts, developers and users of educational statistics and indicators, the use of the new ISCED is a tremendously important step forward. If educators and policy makers want to understand each other and learn from each other, a common language is necessary. ISCED 2011 provides them with the tool to understand the various levels of education.

ISCED 2011 Operational Manual: Guidelines for Classifying National Education Programmes and Related Qualifications
Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators

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