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Education at a Glance 2020 – Inequalities exacerbated by Covid-19, VET systems hit hard

15 September 2020

Main findings

The Covid-19 pandemic crisis is hitting hard education and training systems, the OECD tells us in its  Education at a Glance 2020 report , the OECD’s annual report on educational and labour market outcomes, shows existing gaps in educational quality, access and employment. The impact of the crisis is addressed throughout the analysis.

The main outcomes of this years’ publication are as follows:

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities amongst workers and disadvantaged groups. While some government deployed measures to support lower-income households, and education and training systems, the OECD cautions of possible budget cuts in the near future.
  • Vocational Education and Training (VET) is recognised for its potential to provide pathways into the labour market. The OECD recommends more work-based learning and cooperation with the ‘private sector’.
  • Workers with a vocational background were precisely those at the frontline of the crisis – the OECD recognises. Yet, their wage levels and career progression prospects are below tertiary educated workers. To overcome this, the publication inter alia recommends easier pathways into higher education via short-cycle courses, and a better recognition of VET programmes.
  • School closures and the aftermath of such highlights old challenges of big class sizes, insufficient teacher professional development (IT) and recruitment of young teachers (low wages). VET systems had a double disadvantage as some practical content hardly can be taught online; neither could work-based learning be (fully) pursued.
  • The looming employment crisis comes against data of persistent earning inequalities both inter-generational, gender and against educational attainment levels. The OECD calls for more flexible criteria for access to adult learning. Indeed, access varies upon firm size, sector (public vs. private) and educational attainment.
The impact of Covid-19

As with labour markets, the Covid-19 crisis blatantly exposed cracks and inequalities in societies and in education and training systems. The publication confirms that. It also highlights the specific challenges faced by disadvantaged groups and in Vocational Education and Training systems (VET). “The lockdown has exacerbated inequality among workers. While teleworking is often an option for the most qualified, it is seldom possible for those with lower levels of education, many of whom have been on the front lines in the response to the pandemic, providing essential services to society,” says the OECD Secretary General in his editorial.

The OECD cautions against the perspective of falling educational spending and employer investment into training (and apprenticeships). Not only is spending on health and emergency measures high, tax incomes are likely to decrease and recovery costs to rise. This could bring back the scenario from a decade prior, where austerity hit public education and training systems in one third of OECD countries. This time, it could happen faster (given the severity of the crisis). The OECD stresses that funding cuts could undermine the quality of programmes that is instrumental for good learning outcomes and economic growth (p. 309). Already, total expenditure has fallen to 4.9% on average (5.1% in 2005).

For the moment, some governments deployed financial support – such as the Australian Higher Education Relief Package, the Canada Emergency Student Benefit and plans to double student grants and expand eligibility criteria, or the additional funding by the Italian government for special services, safety equipment and cleaning material needed in schools and universities for the next academic year.

VET as a backbone for economies and its future prospects

One of the main messages of the report is to strengthen Vocational Education and Training (VET) systems. The OECD acknowledges that professions taught via VET are the ‘backbone’ of economies – which became clear once more with the crisis. The OECD General Secretary writes: “this sector plays a central role in ensuring the alignment between education and work, the successful transition into the labour market, and for employment and the economic recovery more generally. Not least, many of the professions that formed the backbone of economic and social life during the lockdown hinge on vocational qualifications” (p. 9).

The OECD calls on to invest more into such systems in order to attract new generations. On OECD average, only “17% of 15-24 year-olds are enrolled in vocational education (at the secondary, post-secondary non-tertiary and short-cycle tertiary levels combined)” (p. 29). It recommends to enhance the work-based learning dimension (only one third of students in OECD countries pursue it at the moment) – in cooperation with the private sector. This is an important message – not least since the more successful dual VET systems are managed by social partners.

The VET training sector was hit hard during the crisis. The very nature of VET was challenged as it is not adapted to e-learning (practical content and instructions, work-based dimension). The OECD refers to a ‘double disadvantage’ during Covid-19: 1. Practical content is difficult to transmit at a distance, especially when it comes to fields such as agriculture, health, engineering, construction or crafts; 2. Work-based learning that can make up for up to 60% of the programme could not be pursued or was severely impacted by lockdown measures (p. 255). A third issue, identified in the TUAC Covid-19 mapping are the potential wage and social protection loss for current apprentices, and difficulties to find apprenticeship places. Some of these issues have been redressed due to trade union pressure and agreements with employers and governments. Some measures including wage support and investment into programmes are highlighted in the publication (p. 254).

Going forward, the OECD calls on to align VET programmes with labour-market demands (p. 247). Again, something that works best when social partners contribute to programme design, provision and to career guidance as TUAC research shows. The report points to importance of cooperation with employers (p. 243) – which is a missed opportunity to stress the merits of social dialogue. The OECD’s Employment Outlook 2020 made such a recommendation. The OECD makes an important point however on enabling easier transitions towards higher education via short cycle programmes (p. 215). Furthermore, it remains difficult for adults who are vocationally trained to pursue other programmes further down the line (p. 68). It is of note that “initial employment benefit of a vocational qualification turns into a disadvantage for adults age 35 and over and decreases with time”.

The lessons learned from school closures

School and training institution closures affected most OECD countries (with exceptions of partial or only local closures): “countrywide in 41 countries and at a subnational or local level in 5 (Australia, Iceland, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States)” (p. 359). The duration also varied substantially: “by the end of June 2020, out of these 46 countries, some degree of school closure was effective for at least 7 weeks in 2 countries (4%), 8-12 weeks in 6 countries (13%), 12-16 weeks in 24 countries (52%), 16-19 weeks in 13 countries (28%) and more than 19 weeks in China” (p. 259). In Iceland, closures were depending on class sizes. 60% of OECD countries are now organising shift systems (p. 375). This highlights the outstanding challenge to reduce class size in most OECD countries.

The TUAC in its paper on the ‘Impact and Implications of the COVID 19-Crisis on Educational Systems and Households’ alerted to the challenges of disadvantaged students and lower income households. The OECD confirms that they indeed lacked individualised support and many households lacked sufficient IT equipment or connectivity (at times next to telework).

The crisis also highlighted the gaps in ICT skills and equipment in learning institutions. Teachers and instructors faced the double challenge to adapt new techniques and methods, all while not necessarily having benefited from adequate professional development in the past (p. 144). Younger teachers were more adapt to certain online tools but lacked the experience in adjusting teaching styles (p. 145). It should also not be forgotten that there are not as many young professionals in the sector in general, not least due to the lower earning potential compared to other occupations. “Young teachers make up 12% of the teaching population in primary education, 10% in lower secondary education and 8% in upper secondary education” (p. 428).

The persisting gap in employment and earnings outcomes

Educational attainment and employment and earnings levels go hand in hand still. There is a generational gap as well – confirming findings on a shrinking middle class. While more young people pursue a higher education pathway than their parents, they earn less. One also earns 34% less in pursuing VET and upper secondary general qualifications compared to tertiary educated adults. The earnings advantage of educational attainment generally widens as peoples’ careers progress. In half of countries with available data, the earnings of recent master’s graduates are more than double the earnings of recent graduates from upper secondary programmes, and the earnings advantage varies from about 50% in Latvia, Norway and Sweden to almost 200% in Chile” (p. 87).

The employment prospects for those with lower qualifications are difficult. Their earnings are not only lower, so is there job quality. As they work in more routine jobs, the automation of some of their tasks is a potential future scenario. Now, with the economic crisis, the OECD assumes that these individuals are the most vulnerable (p. 68).

Gender pay gaps persist across all levels of attainment. The OECD ascribes some of it to the wage penalty associated with part-time work. However, where hourly wages are the same – the gap closes – as the report points out due to amongst other collective agreements in some sectors (p. 396). Notwithstanding, women remain disadvantaged due to various reasons. It is telling that while more women complete tertiary education, they receive lower returns than men: “the average private financial return from tertiary education is USD 295 400 for a man and USD 225 400 for a woman” (p. 110). This shows that inherent bias in human resources and at workplaces are the source for gender pay gaps much more than the educational attainment level.

The state of youth employment and adult learning amidst an employment crisis

Young people will likely be on the losing end of the crisis when it comes to their employment prospects (both in terms of finding a job and the quality of employment with the rise of flexible and non-standard forms of work after the financial crisis). Pre-crisis, figures were not too re-assuring: “In 2018, on average across OECD countries, 66% of young adults who had recently completed upper secondary education and were not studying any further were able to find employment within two years of graduation. Their employment rates increase significantly during the first years following graduation, but then tend to stabilise” (p. 76). Meanwhile, fourteen per cent of youth aged 18-24 are not in education, employment or training (NEET).

Access to adult learning is an outstanding challenge for many long before the crisis. The OECD rightfully recommends to introduce flexible entrance criteria to “support lifelong learning and second-chance programmes […] for older students who might have dropped out of the education system or for those who wish to develop new skills. Providing a range of educational options adapted to the needs and ambitions of young adults also ensures a smoother transition from education to work (p. 198).” This in line with the TUAC call for more agile and modular training offers and better access opportunities for workers (TUAC, 2020, forthcoming).

In terms of differences in access, the report finds that employer sponsored training is much more prevalent in larger firms than smaller ones. Working in the public sector is associated with greater participation in training than working in the private sector: “57% of adults working in the public sector participated in at least one non formal job-related and employer-sponsored education and training activity, compared to 40% of adults working in the private sector (p. 137). Adults with highest educational attainment are likely to participate in training. Only 24% of 25-64 year-olds with below upper secondary education participated in at least one non-formal education and training activity in a year. Formal training is more substantive (406 hours per year on average) compared to non-formal types of learning (73 hours). Yet, formal and regular lifelong learning is crucial to enhance employability and income. It is also important, as the report notes, to “personal fulfilment, improved health, civic participation and social inclusion” (p. 137).