How the OECD is helping foster high quality and digitally enabled higher education

University teacher with students sitting in a lecture hall

By Patricia Mangeol and Cléa Frambourt

Higher Education Policy Team, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Improving higher education systems can grow economies and make societies more resilient.
– Looking at lessons from other countries can help make reforms more efficient and effective.
– Using international experience, two new OECD reports analyse the strengths and challenges of higher education systems in Hungary and the Slovak Republic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted higher education institutions, staff and students around the world. The quality of learning and student and staff well-being has deteriorated and graduates joining the labour market worry about the relevance of their skills in post-COVID labour markets. As countries recover from the pandemic, they should seize the opportunity to position their higher education systems as an engine of economic growth and social progress. Learning from international experience can help them in that effort.

In two new reports from the OECD, we look at the strengths and challenges of higher education systems in Hungary and the Slovak Republic, drawing upon national consultation and international experience, and the support of the European Union Structural Reform Support Programme.

Supporting the digital transformation of higher education in Hungary

Hungary aims to improve the accessibility and quality of digital higher education

When COVID-19 hit higher education systems, Hungary’s was prepared for an urgent transition to remote learning, thanks to recently adopted digital strategies and public investments 90% of Hungarian students responding to a 2020 OECD survey reported access to a high-speed internet connection and adequate digital hardware.  All Hungarian institutions had adopted learning management systems, and many higher education institutions were engaged in creating digital learning content.

One-third of staff surveyed by the OECD reported insufficient access to mobile devices for teaching and learning

However, much remains to translate national strategies into high quality digital higher education for all learners. One in ten students still has difficulty accessing the hardware they need, and one-third of staff surveyed by the OECD reported insufficient access to mobile devices for teaching and learning. Nearly 40% of students, and more than 50% of teachers, reported that teaching and learning generated more stress and less satisfaction than in-person instruction. Legal provisions governing IT procurement and quality assurance, and weak incentives for teachers to develop digital and pedagogical skills, hinder progress towards fully effective digital education. Hungary has an integrated higher education data system, but it does not permit policy makers to take stock of digital readiness in higher education, the digital practices of students and staff, or chart the impact of digitalisation on efficiency, quality and equity.

Removing obstacles to digitalisation and monitoring digitalisation technologies is key

The OECD outlined four steps for Hungary to support the digital transformation of its higher education system:

  • Understand the needs and experiences of higher education staff and students, using survey tools such as the Irish National Digital Experience (INDEx) Survey to inform national and institutional strategies.
  • Improve national policies governing the acquisition and use of digital infrastructure by promoting robust standards of quality and security across the system in areas such as interoperability of infrastructure and data protection.  Higher education institutions should have greater opportunities to meet their own digital technology needs. Guidance for purchasing digital equipment provided by the UK’s British Educational Suppliers Association, or the use of a national collaborative entity to leverage market power and exchange knowledge as in the Netherlands SURF cooperative, offer useful examples. 
  • Strengthen incentives that support digital innovation in teaching, research and engagement. This requires adapting incentive systems – the funding of institutions, and the remuneration and career advancement of staff – to recognise and support new possibilities created by digitalisation, and providing sufficient training and support to staff. It also requires robust student supports, especially for disadvantaged students who may struggle in a digital learning environment. Leveraging learning analytics while protecting student data holds promise.
  • Monitor digitalisation to ensure benefits to students, graduates and employers. Students need access to flexible and engaging learning programmes. Graduates expect that their learning be recognised and valued regardless of the delivery mode, and employers expect that online learning will equip graduates with relevant skills. To monitor performance in these areas, Hungary should consider establishing a set of indicators to monitor digitalisation and measure progress over time.

Improving higher education in the Slovak Republic

Improving the quality of Slovak higher education is a priority to support the country’s prosperity

Following a rapid increase in higher education participation since 1990, enrolments in the Slovak Republic’s higher education system have fallen by more than 40% since 2008. Today, one in five young Slovaks pursues higher education abroad. Slovak graduates are more often over-qualified and working outside of their field of study than on average in the OECD. Higher education graduates earn more than secondary graduates do, but that advantage is smaller than the OECD average.

Enrolments in the Slovak Republic’s higher education system have fallen by more than 40% since 2008

The output and quality of Slovak university-based research trails that of neighbouring countries, and the potential of European structural funds to spur improvements has not been fully exploited. Challenges lie ahead. Because the Slovak Republic faces the highest risk of job automation in the OECD, the higher education system will need to equip graduates with transversal skills, and support economic innovation.

Building support for reform among stakeholders and learning from international experience is key

A rigid legal framework, limited international engagement, low levels of funding, and weak incentives to improve quality have hindered improvements in the Slovak Republic’s higher education system. Efforts to improve and reform the system have been hampered by a lack of consensus among higher education stakeholders on what path to take.

Nonetheless, there are opportunities for improvement. Policy makers can build on key reforms in progress. These include important reforms to its quality assurance system, the internationalisation efforts of some higher education institutions, and new funding available through the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility. Drawing on lessons from other countries’ experiences, the OECD has proposed a three-part action plan for the Slovak Republic:

  • Co-ordinate reform efforts by agreeing on a common strategy and objectives. Having a central, multi-stakeholder Higher Education Task Force would help Slovak stakeholders agree on shared objectives, strategy and measures of success. The Slovak Republic could learn from the example of the Norwegian Skills Policy Council and Future Skills Needs Committee to improve co-ordination between stakeholders. The Latvian Education Development Guidelines are another example of linking education policy with broader national objectives by setting clear action plans and performance indicators.
  • Link improved funding to higher education performance. Funding levels could be improved, and mechanisms adopted to better align institutions’ strategies to national policy priorities, as Denmark does with Strategic Framework Contracts, and incentivise excellence and co-operation, following the French model of institutional groupings.
  • Revise the legal framework for institutional governance to provide flexibility to higher education institutions, and improve efficiency. Slovak institutions need flexibility to organise governance models adapted to their institutional mission. Legal reforms of institutional governance can be government-led, while offering differentiated legal forms for higher education institutions as in Portugal, or encouraged through a combination of legal reform and incentives fostering a bottom-up movement of institutions towards mergers and specialisation, as in Finland.

Boosting their higher education systems as they enter their recovery from COVID-19 can help both Hungary and the Slovak Republic expand their economies and make their societies more resilient to future shocks. Other countries, too, should be looking outwards for lessons on improving higher education from countries that have already made reforms – an exercise with which the OECD will continue to help.

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