Thursday 27 May 2010

The truth behind the passion for education

In the last few years, several of our governments have made a strong commitment to invest in education, in order to improve the economy’s human capital and competitiveness. And commitment there was. After decades of underinvestment in its human capital, Portugal now spends more in Education in percentage of GDP than the average country in the OECD. The big question is thus: how efficient this investment in Education has been to raise both the quality and quantity of human capital? And the sad answer is: not much.
How do we know that? Well, we just have to look at the results of the PISA surveys to know that the quality of education in Portugal is still somewhat lacking. Simply put, nobody in the OECD scores worse in terms quality of education (math, reading and science) than our students, with the dubious exception of Mexico and Turkey. Still, and knowing that the PISA methodology is not perfect, do we have any other evidence with regards to the efficiency of our educational system? The answer is positive. Luckily, the new Barro-Lee dataset has just been published and the results are simply very telling.
There are good news and bad news when we analyze the Barro-Lee data on average years of schooling.
The good news is that, indeed, and as we can see in graph 1, there has been a steady increase in the average years of schooling since the 1950s, and, more particularly, after the implementation of democracy. 
 Figure 1 _ Average years of schooling, 1950-2010 
The bad news is these advances are not so impressive when we compare Portugal with other countries. To see why, let’s start with a comparison of the situation today in Portugal and other European countries. I will then look into the last decades to see the progress (or lack of it) that we have made in this area.
The next graph plots average years of schooling for a plethora of Western and Eastern European countries in 2010. The picture tells it all. In spite of all the investment of the last few decades, we are still the country with the lowest average years of schooling in all of the EU.

Figure 2 _ Average years of schooling in 2010
 If we now look to average years of schooling for secondary education, Portugal is slightly better in relative terms, but not much. Worse than us in the Europe Union only Poland, Bulgaria and Slovenia. However, as we can observe, the average person in countries like Greece and Spain or Italy have, on average, quite a few more years of secondary schooling than we do.
Figure 3 _ Average years of secondary schooling in 2010

In turn, if we analyze university education, the picture is, once again, not so rosy.  Portugal is dead last in average years of tertiary education in the European Union, behind countries such as Romania and Bulgarian, substantially poorer than we are.
Figure 4 _ Average years of tertiary schooling in 2010
 Since our governments like to argue that our disappointing human capital indicators are only a mere reflection of our past underinvestment in Education (which is partly true thanks to the pitiful legacy of the dictatorship in this area), let us now compare Portugal with a sample of five advanced economies (France, Germany, Italy, Holland and the UK), which I will call European core, to see whether or not our “passion for education” has worked.
Let’s begin by comparing the relative distance between the average schooling years in the European core with the average schooling in Portugal. Figure 5 presents this comparison for average schooling years for all levels of education.

Fig. 5 _ Average schooling years in Portugal relative to European core (core =100)
It is noticeable that Portugal’s “convergence” with the European core took place mainly in the early years of democracy. In the last few years, and in spite of a substantial increase in the funding for Education, the gap between Portugal and the European core has remained fairly constant. In other words, it seems that we were not the only ones in Europe with a passion for education…
In turn, if we look at secondary education, the picture is quite similar, as we can see in Figure 6. Again, no major passion here, at least compared to the other European countries.
Fig. 6 _ Average secondary schooling years in Portugal relative to European core (core =100)

Lastly, with regards to university education (a good selling point for any Education Policy), the comparative results are even more disappointing. In fact, in terms of average years of university of education, Portugal looks worse now than in relative terms than 20 years ago.

Fig. 7 _ Average tertiary schooling years in Portugal relative to European core (core =100)
In short, in spite of unprecedented resources devoted to our Education system, and in spite of a self-proclaimed “passion” for this area, Portugal continues to lag in terms of average schooling years and in terms of the quality of human capital (proxied by the PISA results) vis-à-vis virtually every country in the OECD. The latest data on average schooling just confirm this sad state of affairs.
Thus, and in spite of all the political rhetoric that we are often bombarded with, our governments truly deserve a fail in their effort to improve our average human capital. And it is this disadvantage in our human capital that, more than major public works, will be one of the true determinants of our competitiveness and our success in the future.

A versão portuguesa deste post pode ser encontrada aqui.


  1. Good post! Some years ago I read an IMF paper that helps illuminate some of these issues: "The Efficiency of Education Expenditure in Portugal" (PDF)

  2. (...) that our disappointing human capital indicators are only a mere reflection of our past underinvestment in Education (...) -> I suggest the following: do similar graphs but compare levels of investment (say, European "core" with index 100) per capita.

  3. Is "secondary education" defined equally for every country? I find it surprising that the countries with the highest number of schooling years (the Czech Republic and Germany, both with ca. 12 yrs) have such disparate numbers of secondary education (>7 for germany, ca. 3 for the Czech Rep.) The difference cannot come from the mean tertiary schooling (0.6 yrs in germany, 0.3 in Czechia)

  4. "in spite of unprecedented resources devoted to our Education system"

    Perhaps you really should elaborate a time series of the amount that other "first-world" PISA countries have spent during the 20th century and compare it to how insignificant was the amount spent by Portugal in the same period.
    As they were consolidating, Portugal was creating and developing so that amount of money had to be spent, if Portugal really wanted to increase the number of people with secondary and higher education.
    As far as i know, the main problem was guidance and educational policies from the central government who can ruin even the most motivate teachers of brigt students...constant shalowness leads to evil and that was what happened here and will continue to do so since the educational policies remain the same.

  5. I think this analysis needs to bear in mind the impact of emigration. Haven't the brightest and most talented and qualified students and professionals left the country already (and still are leaving). On the other hand, what was the impact of the immigration, particularly of qualified migrants from Eastern Europe, on the overall picture? We must also not forget that we receive many migrants with low levels of formal education, particularly from Brasil and African-Portuguese speaking countries.

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