Equity or Excellence in Education (or both?)?

One of the major current issues in (higher) education policy – in my opinion – is the issue of excellence versus equity. Is it most important to focus on the masses and see to it that everyone gets the same high quality education? Or should the country’s prime talents be nurtured and given the opportunity to fully exploit their opportunities. Or, better yet, can you do both?

The BBC Radio Documentary series ‘The Changing World’ investigates the dilemma, and what better places to visit than Finland on the one hand and the UK and US on the other. Finland is generally seen as the success story in creating a high quality egalitarian knowledge society. Finland shows very good results on the global tests like PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) and IALS (International Adult Literacy Survey).

In addition, they manage to do so without having schools that really fail. The range between the outcomes in the best and the worst schools is very small. An interesting observation in the interviews is that the consistent high performance of Finish schools is not only a consequence of their egalitarian education system, but also of the stability and equality in Finnish society as a whole. Major differences between suburbs or districts don’t exist and therefore major quality differences between schools don’t exist either. This of course sets limits to the transferability of the Finnish system.

Consistent high quality is not the case in the UK and the US. Their global tests scores are lagging behind many northern European countries and Asian countries (see for instance this post and this table). On the other hand, they consistently occupy the top positions in international university rankings. Westminster is the main purveyor to Oxford and Cambridge, while Harvard students see themselves as the future leaders of America and of the world (as one of the students in the documentary explains).

Of course it is a case of comparing apples and oranges. Singling out individual schools and comparing them with a whole system is impossible. It does however illustrate the dilemma. Clearly, there seems to be a worldwide shift towards ‘the excellence model’. In all the knowledge economy talk nowadays there appears to be a firm belief that it is the top layer that makes the difference for a country that wants to become an innovative knowledge economy.

Economic research to support this is usually based on a whole range of assumptions and has not really succeeded in fully convincing me. On the other hand, talent shouldn’t be wasted and is something that should be given the opportunity to flourish (not just for economic reasons). Have a listen and judge for yourself.

— Download the part on the egalitarian system in Finland (MP3) —

Finland has been judged to have the best educational system in the world. Here all schools get good results, teachers have extensive training — and children don’t start school until they are seven years old. It’s education for all. And each child matters.

— Download the part on the excellent institutions (MP3) —

Has education become a commodity? A visits to two of the world’s leading educational establishments: Harvard University and the Westminster School in England. They’re both elite, expensive schools with an impressive track record – the Westminster School, for instance, has been operational without interruption since the 14th Century.


Or subscribe to the podcast of The Changing World to listen to all their other outstanding radio documentaries.

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