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The international hierarchy of higher education quality is a very sensitive matter. This indicator is closely linked to national prestige, development level, and reputation. It is always pleasant to realize that our students are cleverer than neighbors. Especially when you are a student yourself. And, during a job interview, it may be important to inform your potential employer that you graduated from a university in a “prestigious” country (though usually it is not the country but the particular university that matters).

So the quality of education and such related concepts as students’ cleverness or smartness are quite important indicators. Then how can we measure or otherwise assess them?

The very concept of education quality is far from being simple and perfect. To estimate the quality of education in a particular country, an analyst can use a number of indices, which are both calculable and incalculable. Very often, in evaluating the education quality in a given country, public opinion is guided by traditional views. Then it is not always clear what we actually seek to evaluate: education quality or historical significance of a particular university. No doubt, such evaluation is strongly affected by educational brands like, for example, the Ivy League Universities, Cambridge or Sorbonne.

There are traditional educational rankings built on the basis of the above mentioned traditional approaches. The best known is a series of rankings referred to as “international league tables”. There are programs for the assessment of the students’ knowledge based on test results on the most important subjects. One major program of that kind is the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). It produces educational rankings based on tests taken by 15-year-old students in mathematics, reading and science. But an important shortcoming of the traditional approaches is their insufficient focus on the the graduates’ abilities.

To derive an objective concept of educational quality, let us make a more detailed analysis. Given the above mentioned complex nature of assessing the education quality, let us examine the question about correct criteria of education quality (which may be formulated as ”clever students” or elseway). To obtain a clear concept, we should first figure out what we actually wish to determine. Do we intend to find out in which country the students are the cleverest? If we do, how can we determine that? Just by comparing the universities reputation or the results of tests taken by students amid the educational process? Are you really sure that such comparisons are accurate? Rather not.

Upon thorough consideration, we should agree that the correct assessment for educational quality is primarily related to the results of the educational process. Thus, in order to unbiasedly evaluate the quality of an educational system, we need to use the data about the students’ performance after the graduation. Because, after all, the purpose of the educational process primarily consists in the transfer of knowledge to the students and development of their skills for further use in their activities.

It is exactly on those principles that the OECD annual statistical bulletin “Education at a glance” is based. The source provides a wide range of statistics estimating different aspects of the educational practice in the 35 OECD countries and their partners. That means a nearly global coverage as the OECD partners include such major countries as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Russia. The statistical tables embrace a broad spectrum of indicators illustrating the educational processes across countries.

Along with traditional statistics displaying general educational characteristics like the shares of population groups with different level of education, student mobility or professional profiles of tertiary education students, the source gives a lot of data on the educational output. The statistics includes various indicators related to the benefits of tertiary education and to the concept of graduate premium, that is, the EXTRA INCOMES expected to earn as a result of extra study.

For example, there are tables indicating such parameters as relationship between educational attainment and participation in the labor market, earning advantages of tertiary education and various others. These data characterize exactly the educational OUTPUT, which can be interpreted as improvements of the students’ professional abilities that they acquire in the course of education.

Such statistics in turn may serve as a basis for more objective and unbiased rankings that show the real efficiency of educational systems in different countries.

It is curious to compare the output based rankings with traditional ones, which are usually dominated by US and UK universities, such as Harvard, UCL and Oxford. The difference in the results is sometimes very significant.

Thus, in the OECD rankings based on the graduates’ abilities (that in, rather on the graduates’ results than on reputation or other factors), the first places are occupied not by the US or UK, but by such countries as Japan and Finland. The ranking of the graduates’ performance gives the following order in the top ten countries:

  1. Japan
  2. Finland
  3. Netherlands
  4. Sweden
  5. Australia
  6. Norway
  7. Belgium
  8. New Zealand
  9. England
  10. United States

The list shows that the US whose Ivy League Universities are famous throughout the world only ranks the 10th in the graduates’ performance.  On the other hand, few people outside Norway and New Zealand know the universities in those countries, which are scarcely presented in conventional rankings.

There is another important indicator characterizes the efficiency of education, namely the efficiency of educational investments. The primarily economic concept of cost efficiency can be well applied to education. In the educational sphere, it converts into returns (expressed in various measurements of graduates’ post-university abilities) on the taxpayers’ and students’ funds invested in education. And here too, the first place does not belong to USA or UK, but to the Netherlands. Meaning that, in cost efficiency terms, Dutch university system, with its low fees, outperforms the USA and England, where high tuition fees are charged.

What conclusions can be drawn from the above comparisons? First of all, the actual efficiency of tertiary education measured in terms of graduates’ abilities for post-education activities does not always coincide with our traditional conceptions.

And educational quality of a tertiary educational institution should not rest on past reputation, but needs constant refreshment.

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