Higher Education and Statistics

The OECD has issued its latest Factbook. The OECD factbook 2007 contains a large amount of indicators on issues ranging from economics to the environment and from population to health. And of course on higher education. Some time ago I’ve been critical about the presentation of some of the OECD higher education statistics, but I must admit that they do a great job in collecting them. The OECD is without doubt the best source for cross-national statistics in the fields of higher education and science & innovation.

But of course you can do a lot with statistics and the media knows that. Just check out this article in the Higher Education section of the Australian:

“Australia’s spending on tertiary education per student went backwards in the eight years after the Coalition came to power, leaving the nation ranked alongside Portugal, Poland and the Slovak Republic.”

That sounds pretty bad… This definitely leaves the impression that funding per student levels in Australia are now behind Portugal, Poland and the Slovak Republic. I checked and… they are just behind the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark, clearly above the OECD average and ranking 8th in the OECD member countries. And in the mean time, it has one of the highest attainment rates for young people in the OECD (see graph; click to enlarge). Obviously this journalist only looked at the graphs that were presented on the OECD website and didn’t check any further.

But didn’t it decline then? Yes it did, and yes the commonwealth government should channel more resources to universities if it expects them to be Backing Australia’s Future. I’ve said before that I’m not exactly convinced that the current government is doing a good job in the field of higher education, but still I prefer to stay with the facts.

But what exactly the facts are is also not always clear. Some time ago, the news programme ‘the 7.30 Report‘ featured a debate between Minister Julie Bishop and Labor education spokesman Stephen Smit. I think that they spend half the time talking about the OECD statistics and how bad Australia scores in them:

JULIE BISHOP: Between 1995 and 2007 Federal government funding for higher education has increased by 26%. Now, Stephen keeps trotting out an OECD figure that he knows is flawed, he knows is misrepresenting the situation. There has not been a decline, there’s been an increase.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the OECD Education at a Glance Report 2006 said that Australia’s investment in tertiary education publicly had gone backwards by 7% whereas OECD average was an increase of 48%. Comparison with OECD countries, our investment in tertiary education, we’re 18th.

JULIE BISHOP: I must take issue with the suggestion that our funding has decreased. Stephen knows that figure is dodgy and he keeps trotting it out. Every time he says it doesn’t make it true. We haven’t decreased funding by 7%. The figure he refers to leaves out taxpayer subsidies for HECS, it leaves out the massive injection of funding from 2004 – because the figures back in 2003 he is using, 2004, we, through Backing Australia’s Future, have ensured that universities are $11 billion better off over the next decade. This year they are receiving $8.2 billion from the Federal Government. Our universities are in better financial shape than they’ve ever been in…

Now… who’s right and who’s wrong?

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