There are few people who would dispute that a high-quality education system is essential for the competitiveness of an economy. Nevertheless, in many European countries, the recent economic crisis has led to education budget cuts. While protests against them have been voiced all over Europe, in principle, these cuts do not necessarily have to have only negative effects. They could trigger efficiency gains that maintain educational outputs at current levels even with reduced (financial) inputs – a utopian win-win situation for both the finance and the education ministers?

Unfortunately, only one part of this story seems to be realistic: education budget cuts. A recent Technopolis Group study for the European Commission mapped the approaches and instruments used to assess effectiveness and efficiency in education systems in the 28 EU Member States. It shows clearly that efficiency analyses – and thus the basis for efficiency gains – in all areas of education are hugely underdeveloped all over Europe.

Inputs and outputs

The study highlights that a common focus in education systems all over Europe is effectiveness: How does a country score in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)? How many students graduate from university per year? How is participation in adult learning? These are output or outcome figures that interest not only policymakers but also the general public (i.e. the voters).

Going one step further, to assess the inputs needed to generate these education results, and relate them to the outputs, is unfortunately often neglected. This is particularly regrettable since austerity measures in many countries do not seem to be a flash in the pan. Education policymakers and administrators thus would be well advised to look at how they can gain insights on providing education efficiently. The Technopolis Group study brings together a number of examples of good practice.

Good practices

Firstly, close cooperation between education policy and research is key. Policymakers often argue that it is impossible to measure (and subsequently improve) efficiency in a highly complex social system like education. While there are methodological challenges, educational research and other social sciences have developed sound approaches to this, such as cost-benefit or cost-effectiveness analyses. However, knowledge of these methods needs to be better used in practice.

Some Member States have been taking steps in this direction. In the Netherlands, for example, there is a specific unit within the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the so-called Directie Kennis, which carries out studies on the effectiveness and efficiency of policy interventions. In addition, it transfers knowledge between education research and policy-making and advises different departments of the Ministry on how to use more advanced approaches in evaluation and other studies. This seems to be a good approach to broader dissemination of the possibilities available to assess efficiency in education.

Secondly, in some countries, the assessment of efficiency (or ‘value-for-money assessments’ as they are also called) is embedded in the standard external assessments of educational institutions. In particular, this approach is used in the UK and Ireland. In most Member States, however, efficiency analyses as part of school evaluations, university accreditation systems or certification of continuous-education institutions seem to play only a minor role. Understanding efficiency analyses as a natural part of evaluations of educational institutions would help to maintain the quality of education systems, even in the (possibly inevitable) case of budget cuts.

The study highlights that a common focus in education systems all over Europe is effectiveness

Finally, it seems the most important factor is a real commitment to raising efficiency (and not just effectiveness) from education policymakers. To this end, external organisations like Courts of Auditors can contribute, although institutions with explicit expertise from within the education system, such as education evaluation agencies, seem to be even better suited. Their mission should be broadened to take efficiency into account to a greater extent.

Efficiency now

With recent stock market crashes worldwide and low (or even negative) growth rates in many BRIC and Western economies, the next recession might just be around the corner. And so might be the next budget cut for education spending. Realising this should be incentive enough to take efficiency improvements in education more seriously. The journey to a more efficient education system needs to start now.

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