A new report by QS, a firm of global education analysts, places the quality of the UK’s higher education system as second only to that of the world leader, the United States. This finding may come as a surprise to those who have become used to international league tables that rate the quality of education in both countries as well below such states and jurisdictions as South Korea, Shanghai and Finland. This discrepancy points to the need for any kind of evaluation to be clear about what is being tested, how, and with what purpose. (Any valid global assessment of relative national achievement in literacy, for example, would need to demonstrate what aspects of literacy were examined, in what populations, and in what ways; how it provided valid comparisons between countries with very different languages, social systems and educational institutions; and the overall assumptions and purpose of the investigation.)
In the case of this new report, the stated purpose of the analysis is to measure the factors that make a nation’s higher education system more likely to succeed. It is based on four criteria, each weighted equally:
- System strength: the rankings performance of a nation’s institutions.
- Access: how likely a talented individual is to find a place at a top university in their home country, based on the number of places available at said institutions and population size.
- Flagship: the global performance of a nation’s top institution.
- Economy: the quality of a country’s economic environment for its higher education institutions, and whether economic prosperity translates into performance.
According to John O’Leary, Editor of the Times Education Guide and member of QS’s Executive Board, the advantage of this ranking approach is that it looks at the quality and accessibility of higher education as a whole. “Assessing whole systems is not just about the top universities – if it were, Singapore would be much higher than it is and some European countries would be lower.”
It’s interesting to speculate what would come out of a survey that similarly attempted to assess the quality and accessibility of UK primary and secondary education as a whole. Clearly the questions asked would differ from those in the new QS survey, but given the amount of data already being collected at various stages of students’ progress, it should be possible to assess the performance of UK schools as a whole in realising the potential of their students. Dealing with some of the current issues about curriculum and assessment, however, might require a more qualitative approach than is usual in these large-scale evaluations. Nonetheless, UK primary and secondary education has been transformed to offer more equal opportunity over the last 40 years, and international comparisons of the UK’s success in educating the people might be revealing.