UK education ahead of China according to World Economic Forum

Janet Downs's picture
The UK is ahead of China for the quality of its educational system, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report 2013.

13,000 executives in 148 countries took part in the Executive Opinion Survey which covered a wide range of subjects such as the macroeconomic environment.

The results for the overall quality of a country’s educational system placed Switzerland 1st followed by Finland then Singapore. UK was 25=.

Finland was first for the quality of its primary education. UK was 28= and China was ranked 51= (although the tables put China at 56th).

Australia had the highest secondary education enrolment rate. UK was in 21st place. Korea was ranked 47th, China 90th and Hong Kong 93rd. UNESCO data was used – not executives’ opinion.

The quality of maths and science education was rated highest in Singapore followed by Finland. Korea was ranked 20th, Japan 34th, and the UK was 47th=.

But rankings alone can be deceptive. If the scores are close together then the difference is actually statistically insignificant. A further problem with the WEF data is the reliability of the executives' opinions.

The WEF results ranked countries consecutively irrespective of whether countries had the same scores. This meant some countries appeared to be ranked lower than they should. For example, UK was ranked 50th for the quality of its maths and science teaching - this was the figure given by the Department for Education (DfE) – but UK scored the same as other countries. UK should really have been ranked 47=.

We also need to know how a country’s score compared to the mean. The WEF’s survey asked executives to rank, say, the quality of primary education, on a scale. The data for each country was given a value which contributed to its rank order. The rankings and value (in brackets) for each category are given below with WEF mean when known.

Quality of educational system (mean 3.7)

1 Switzerland (6)
2 Finland (5.9)
3= Singapore (5.8) with Quatar
22= Hong Kong (4.8) Australia and Austria
25= UK (4.6) with USA, Jordan and Sri Lanka
47= Japan (4.1) with Estonia, Bahrain, Guyana and Rwanda
52= China (4) with Albania, Oman, Slovenia, Israel, Lao PDR, Portugal and Lithuania.
62= Korea (3.8) Ecuador and Puerto Rico

There is very little difference between the value of the top three. There’s also little difference between Hong Kong, UK and other countries which scoring 4.8 or 4.6. Japan and China are close together and still above the mean but it appears that executives in these countries do not have the same opinion of their country’s education system as would be suggested by their position in global league tables.

Quality of primary education (mean 3.9)

1 Finland (6.8)
3 Singapore (6)
20= Japan (5.1) with Slovenia
22= Korea (5) with Australia, Sweden, Germany, Lithuania and Montenegro
28= UK (4.9) with Austria, Norway and Hong Kong (4.9)
51= China (4.3) with Czech Republic, Hungary, Albania, Slovak Republic and Indonesia.

There is very little statistical difference between the scores of countries ranked between 20 and 28=. However, the table does not recognise equal values and ranks all countries with the same score arbitrarily (they’re not even alphabetical). UK came out at 31st place in the primary table which is misleading. Similarly, China was ranked 56th.

Gross Secondary education enrollment rate (Source: UNESCO. Mean not given)

1 Australia (131.3)
15= Finland (108) with Iceland
18 Singapore (107)
21 UK (105.3)
47 Korea (97.1)
90 China (81.4)
93 Hong Kong (80.1)

I was surprised at the low gross secondary education enrolment rate in China and Hong Kong. The value assigned by the WEF was lower than Peru (91.2).Moldova (87.7) and Venezuela (83.5). This low enrolment rate for the whole of China should be borne in mind when the media reports on how the poorest Chinese children outperform advantaged Westerners. It’s likely that in China as a whole many of the poorest aren’t in secondary school.

Quality of maths and science education (mean 4)

1= Singapore (6.3) with Finland
18= Korea (5.1) with Slovenia, United Arab Emirates and Germany
31= Japan (4.7) with Tunisia, India, Latvia and Indonesia
47th= UK (4.4) with Norway, China, US and Macedonia

It should now be apparent that my headline was rather misleading. Yes, the WEF data shows UK ahead of China in two categories and equal in one other according to executives’ opinions. But these may not necessarily be accurate. But the DfE quoted the UK figure for maths and science without any qualification.


However, the UNESCO data shows that secondary school enrolment in Hong Kong and the whole of China is much lower than in the UK. I wonder if the DfE will mention that.

Thanks to the DfE for making me aware of the WEF report.
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rogertitcombe's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 18:04

Janet - What are we to make of the educational views of the representatives of the world's super rich?

This is what Pope Francis wrote in his address to this year's WEC Davos gathering.

" In the context of your meeting, I wish to emphasize the importance that the various political and economic sectors have in promoting an inclusive approach which takes into consideration the dignity of every human person and the common good. I am referring to a concern that ought to shape every political and economic decision, but which at times seems to be little more than an afterthought. Those working in these sectors have a precise responsibility towards others, particularly those who are most frail, weak and vulnerable. It is intolerable that thousands of people continue to die every day from hunger, even though substantial quantities of food are available, and often simply wasted. Likewise, we cannot but be moved by the many refugees seeking minimally dignified living conditions, who not only fail to find hospitality, but often, tragically, perish in moving from place to place. I know that these words are forceful, even dramatic, but they seek both to affirm and to challenge the ability of this assembly to make a difference. In fact, those who have demonstrated their aptitude for being innovative and for improving the lives of many people by their ingenuity and professional expertise can further contribute by putting their skills at the service of those who are still living in dire poverty. What is needed, then, is a renewed, profound and broadened sense of responsibility on the part of all. “Business is - in fact - a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life” (Evangelii Gaudium, 203). Such men and women are able to serve more effectively the common good and to make the goods of this world more accessible to all. Nevertheless, the growth of equality demands something more than economic growth..."

His Holiness must have gone down a storm.

The World Economic Forum exists to stoke the flames of economic growth. Its super rich members that benefit the most from this have an interest in seeing education primarily as the means of training their captive wealth creation units (people) to best compete in the global economic race.

We are unimpressed when Michael Gove expresses that view about the purpose of education. Why should be any more impressed by the educational views of his masters?

I am with the Pope.

And I don't say that very often.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 08:54

Roger - you're right - the WEF data was compiled from the views of executives in each country. They're hardly typical (although WEF claims to include a representative sample of small/medium enterprises and large organisations) and in some countries may even be corrupt.

There's also the number of responses* in each country which don't seem to reflect the country's size. For example, in the second component (2013) there were 57 responses from Luxembourg, 150 from Singapore but only 47 from the whole of South Africa (118 from UK).

I wasn't impressed by the data. The way the ranking was compiled, for example, took no account of whether countries had the same scores - they were just ranked within their score level in some arbitrary fashion (I couldn't work it out - it wasn't alphabetical which always works against UK but obviously greater brains than mine decided the rank order).

But the DfE chose to use the WEF stats because they showed an apparently negative view of UK education. However, having dug into the data I found the figures painted a more positive picture.

Just felt I needed to point it out.

*See pages 86 and 87 for response data

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