The OECD has just published the results of its assessment of the student’s proficiency in problem solving at age 15 in 45 countries and regions, with no surprises. The top countries are those that are also better the other assessments in science, mathematics and language, and vice-versa. The Asian countries and regions – Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taipei – are at the top, followed by countries in Western Europe and North America – Canada, Finland, England, France – with the Latin American countries and a few others at the bottom – Brazil, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates Uruguay, Bulgaria, Colombia. In Korea, 28 % of the students are top performers in the test; in the United States, 11.5%; in Brazil, only 1.9%, and, in the other extreme, 28% are under-performers.
What are the implications of these results for higher education? In Asia, where countries are striving to bring some of their universities to the top in the international rankings of quality and research, the existence of a large pool of high performers show that they can do it, provided they make the necessary investments and provide their institutions with appropriate flexibility. This is not, however, a priority in the Latin American countries, where the issues of access and equity take precedence. Uruguay (as well as Mexico and Argentina, that are not in this survey) has a long tradition of universal access to higher education, and Brazil is moving in this direction, opening places and creating quotas for less endowed students to enter public institutions and providing subsidies for those in the private sector.
Given the absence of a significant group of top performers at age 15, it is probably wise for these countries not to enter international competition for excellence. The question, however, is what kind of higher education can they can provide for the ill-prepared students they receive? Some institutions try address this problem by providing remedial education, but it is unlikely that this would be enough to compensate for the gaps in language and mathematics accumulated during many previous years. The other solution is to offer vocation education that is more practical and with fewer prerequisites in terms of language and mathematical skills. The problem here is that, with few exceptions, these countries have not accumulated the experience or traditions that are necessary to provide meaningful and good quality vocational education. The third solution, which is what is happening in most cases, is to lower the standards for conventional higher education degrees, and place most of the students into careers in the “social professions” and the social sciences, while allowing a few institutions and degree programs to be more selective.
In the past, when the number of students entering higher education was small, even bad quality degree programs were attractive to the students, because of the benefits associated with higher education credentials. Now, however, with millions entering higher education every year, leading to credential inflation, this is no longer the case, as we can see by the large number of students dropping out before concluding their degrees, or going to work in middle-level activities in spite of their high-level diplomas.
The main challenge for these countries, of course, is to improve the quality of their basic education. This, however, will take a long time in the best cases, and, in the meantime, the issues affecting higher education need to be addressed, and cannot wait.
[Chart above shows performance levels on problem-solving skills with 1 being the lowest and 6 the highest.]