An interesting ranking was recently reported by Yahoo! Finance, on the ten most educated countries of the world. That is, which countries have the highest percentage of people with post-secondary education. Apparently college and university graduation rates have increased in half a century by almost 200%, but the rates among countries vary greatly. And while it’s not surprising to see countries that spend a great deal of their GDPs on education, many of the countries on the list spend comparably little, and yet see high numbers of graduates. So after you check to see if your country made the list, be sure to ask yourself: Just what does this really mean?
The “Most-Educated” Rankings
The ranking was reported by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and I was surprised about the order myself. Perhaps Poland will be on the list after one more decade, as its post-secondary education rate jumped from 10% in 1997 to 21% in 2009, and it’s still on its way up. But education trends are hard to foresee. Anyways, these are the ten most educated countries in the world, just as reported.
Finland is a small country relative to the other OECD members. The share of its adult population with some sort of postsecondary education, however, is rather large. This select group is reaching the end of its expansion. From 1999 to 2009, the number of college-educated adults increased only 1.8% annually — the third-smallest amount among all OECD countries. Finland is also one of only two countries, the other being Korea, in which the fields of social sciences, business and law are not the most popular among students. In Finland, new entrants are most likely to study engineering, manufacturing and construction.
Australia ’s population grew 14.63% between 2000 and 2009. This is the third-largest increase among OECD countries. Its tertiary-educated adult population is increasing at the much less impressive annual rate of 3.3%. Australia also spends the sixth-least amount in public funds on education as a percentage of all expenditures. The country also draws large numbers of international students.
8. United Kingdom
Unlike most of the countries with the highest percentage of educated adults, the UK ’s educated group increased measurably — more than 4% between 1999 and 2009. Its entire population only grew 3.5% between 2000 and 2009. One aspect that the UK does share with a number of other countries on this list is relatively low public expenditure on education institutions as a percentage of all educational spending. As of 2008, 69.5% of spending came from public sources — the fourth-smallest amount among OECD countries.
Norway has the third-greatest expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP, at 7.3%. Roughly 23% of that is spent on tertiary education. In Norway , more than 60% of all tertiary graduates were in a bachelor’s program, well more than the U.S., which is close to the OECD average of 45%. The country is one of the wealthiest in the world. GDP per capita is $56,617, second only to Luxembourg in the OECD.
6. South Korea
Korea is another standout country for its recent increase in the percentage of its population that has a tertiary education. Graduates increased 5.3% between 1999 and 2009, the fifth-highest among OECD countries. Like the UK, this rate is greater than the country’s recent population growth. Korea is also one of only two countries — the other being Finland — in which the most popular fields of study are not social sciences, business and law. In Korea, new students choose to study education, humanities and arts at the greatest rates. Only 59.6% of expenditures on educational institutions come from public funds — the second-lowest rate.
5. New Zealand
New Zealand is not a particularly wealthy country. GDP per capita is less than $30,000, and is the 14th lowest in the OECD. However, 40% of the population engages in tertiary education, the fifth-highest rate in the world. The country actually has a rapidly growing population, increasing 11.88% between 2000 and 2009. This was the eighth-largest increase in the OECD. Part of the reason for the high rate of tertiary graduates is the high output from secondary schools. More than 90% of residents graduate from secondary school.
4. United States
The U.S. experienced a fairly large growth in population from 2000 to 2009. During the period, the population increased 8.68% — the 12th highest among OECD countries. Meanwhile, the rate at which the share of the population with a tertiary education is growing has slowed to an annual rate of 1.4% — the lowest among the 34 OECD countries. Just 71% of funding for educational institutions in the country comes from public funds, placing the U.S. sixth-lowest in this measure. Among OECD countries, the largest share of adults with a tertiary education live in the United States — 25.8%.
In Japan, 44% of the adult population has some form of tertiary education. The U.S. by comparison has a rate of 41%. Japan ’s population increased just 0.46% between 2000 and 2009, the sixth-slowest growth rate in the OECD, and the slowest among our list of 10. Japan is tied with Finland for the third-highest upper-secondary graduation rate in the world, at 95%. It has the third-highest tertiary graduation rate in the world, but only spends the equivalent of 1.5% of GDP on tertiary education — the 17th lowest rate in the OECD.
Although there is no data on the percentage of Israeli citizens with postsecondary education dating back to 1999, the numbers going back to 2002 show that growth is slowing dramatically compared to other countries. In fact, in 2006, 46% of adults ages 25 to 64 had a tertiary education. In 2007 this number fell to 44%. Only 78% of funds spent on educational institutions in Israel are public funds. The country is also only one of three — the other two being Ireland and Sweden — where expenditure on educational institutions as a proportion of GDP decreased from 2000 to 2008. Israel also had the largest increase in overall population, approximately 19% from 2000 to 2009.
In Canada, 50% of the adult population has completed tertiary education, easily the highest rate in the OECD. Each year, public and private expenditure on education amount to 2.5% of GDP, the fourth-highest rate in the world. Tertiary education spending accounts for 41% of total education spending in the country. In the U.S. , the proportion is closer to 37%. In Israel, the rate is 22%. In Canada, nearly 25% of students have an immigrant background.
This ranking represents the rate of educational attainment, but many sources on the Internet are saying that this represents the “smartest countries in the world.” Unless you define intelligence as credentials, you would have to admit that this doesn’t represent intelligence. These rankings are not informed by any valid comparison of intelligence (not that intelligence tests are particularly valid to begin with), so to find the “smartest country,” we should use an international exam.
Consider one of the most famous international aptitude tests, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This assessment is conducted on 15-year-olds from around the world on measures of reading, science, and mathematics. The most recent test was in 2009.
Consistent with other such international examinations, as well as results from recent years, Finland and South Korea are at the top. Ranked even higher than these, however, was the city of Shanghai, which marked China ’s first time participating. This gives people the wrong impression that Shanghai represents the entire country. I think if only people in the state of California represented the USA, their rank would be a lot higher as well. There’s no question that China has considerably good education, but Shanghai doesn’t represent the poorest parts of the country, so it is not a fair comparison.
However, this didn’t stop the Japanese TV show “Sekai-Banzuke” (世界番付) from poorly reporting on international education in October of last year. I took this picture when I saw them rank the top three countries, with Japan ranked 8 underneath.
The problem with this reporting is that they said it reflects intelligence, instead of reflecting one aspect of it (namely, the 2009 PISA ’s reading score); and claiming that China is #1 in the world. While it’s true that reading was the main focus of the 2009 study, it was not China that participated – only Shanghai did. So despite the Japanese TV show then broadcasting a genuinely interesting field report, not all of it was accurate.
Should we even buy into PISA results at all? Some believe that PISA is not just useful for measuring intelligence, but that the results are good indicators of future economic growth. This may be true, but then there are still cases such as Peru, which is currently enjoying an economic boom despite having one of the worst education systems in Latin America. Others, often Americans, don’t believe that PISA should be used to assess countries. As the late social scientist Gerald Bracey poignantly wrote just before his death in 2009 (before the PISA’s 2009 results were released)…
Many critics cite the performance of American students on international comparisons of mathematics and science. [. . .] Most recently (2006), American students ranked 24th of 30 OECD nations in mathematics and 17th of 30 in science. [. . .] It should be noted that these rankings are determined by nations’ average scores [. . .] [but] average students are not likely to be the leaders in fields of mathematics and science. Those roles are more likely to fall to those scoring well.
[. . .] If one examines the number of highest-scoring students in science, the United States has 25% of all high-scoring students [within the 58 countries who participated]. Among nations with high average scores, Japan accounted for 13% of the highest scorers, Korea 5%, Taipei 3%, Finland 1%, and Hong Kong 1%. Singapore did not participate.
In a separate blog post, Bracey also made this argument (links were added below, and the text was heavily reorganized; click here for the original text):
Comparing nations on average scores is a pretty silly idea. It’s like ranking runners based on average shoe size [. . .] Not much link to reality. What is likely much more important is how many high performers you have. On both TIMSS math and science, the U. S. has a much higher proportion of “advanced” scorers than the international median although the proportion is much smaller than in Asian nations.
This was not true on PISA, another international comparison that tests 15-year-olds. Only 1.5% of American students scored at the highest level compared to top performing New Zealand at 4% and second place Finland at 3.9%.
Yet the proportion of Americans at the highest level meant that 70,000 kids scored there compared to about 2,000 for New Zealand and Sweden. No one else even came close–Japan was second with about 33,000 top performers. These are the people who might end up creating leading edge technology in the future.
[. . . ] Who cares if Singapore, with about the same population as the Washington Metro Area, and Hong Kong, with about twice that number, score high? There aren’t many people there. [. . .] And, as journalist Fareed Zakariya found out, the Singapore kids fade as they become adults. [. . .] When Zakariya asked the Singapore Minister of Education why his high-flying students faded in after-school years, the Minister cited creativity, ambition, and a willingness to challenge existing knowledge, all of which he thought American excelled in. But, as Bob Sternberg of Tufts University [. . .] has pointed out, our obsession with standardized testing has produced one of the best instruments in the nation’s history for stifling creativity.
The two Swiss-based organizations that rank nations on global competitiveness, the Institute for Management Development [IMD] and the World Economic Forum [WEF], both rank the U. S. #1 and have for a number of years. The WEF examines 12 “pillars of competitiveness,” only one of which is education. We do OK there, but we shine on innovation. [. . .]
But really, does the fate of the nation rest on how well 9- and 13-year-olds bubble in answer sheets? I don’t think so. Neither does British economist, S. J. Prais [. . .] [who says:] “That the United States, the world’s top economic performing country, was found to have school attainments that are only middling casts fundamental doubts about the value and approach of these [international assessments].”
[. . .] As usual in these comparisons, Americans in low-poverty schools look very good, even in mathematics. They would be ranked third in the 4th grade (among 36 nations) 6th in the 8th grade (among 47 nations). This is important because while other developed nations have poor children, the U. S. has a much higher proportion and a much weaker safety net. When UNICEF studied poverty in 22 wealthy nations, the U. S. ranked 21st.
I don’t think we should just throw out the measurement of mean, but I do agree that it would be helpful to look at the median to get a more accurate view of what intelligence really is. In fact, Mel Riddile at NASSP blogs has shown that you can manipulate the US PISA data to show that the places with the lowest poverty rates turn out to be the highest scoring, and those with the highest poverty rates yield some of the lowest scores. Suddenly Shanghai being at the top of the reading scores makes a lot of sense.
The Bottom Line
We can call Canada the most educated country in the world if your definition is the highest number of nationals with post-secondary credentials; but is that your definition of being the “smartest country in the world?” It’s not mine. I don’t even think that international intelligence tests are valid indicators of intelligence.
And for that matter, what is intelligence, and how do you measure it? Is it the score you get on a test when you’re 15 years old? People try to make sense of the world, but it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of our investigations. Or else we’ll start believing something that simply might not be true.