PISA, TIMSS and higher education: The missing link

by Professor Dr. Francois Therin

The recent release of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) ranking has resulted in many articles being released, commenting on the pros and cons of education systems and how they can jeopardise the economy of a country. But is that really the case?

I did a little exercise using the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 results. PISA, launched in 1997 by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is an international study which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills (including many different reading skills) and knowledge of 15-year-old students.

Besides using the PISA 2009 results, I also gathered information from the Global Innovation Index 2012 results published by INSEAD and World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO); and the unemployment rate of 36 countries, mixing countries which ranked at different levels on PISA and which are at different stages of economic development.

While my exercise was not a fully scientific study, it indicates that the results of the PISA test and more interestingly, the results in mathematics, can in no way explain how well a country is doing in areas such as entrepreneurship, innovation, high-tech exports and scientific publications. Furthermore, none of the results explain the differences in the rate of unemployment between countries.

While we could argue that there is a time lag between educating children and having highly-skilled workers, professionals and managers, most of the education systems on which we measure the results now are not new. The transformation of the education system in Finland started 40 years ago while Singapore’s was mainly designed in the 1980’s.

In other words, if any particular countries are still failing at being innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial and not producing new and original knowledge, it is not related to the performance in mathematics or science. What is rather surprising is that some of the reading skills appear to be related to some innovation indicators, such as the production of scientific articles or domestic patents.

How does that impact higher education worldwide? By putting emphasis on these criteria, countries are producing college graduates who are not ready for syllabi taught at university level to make them industry-ready and help enhance the competitiveness of these countries.

Young adults who were previously trained or forced to learn without understanding the ‘whats’ and the ‘whys’, spoon-fed for a faster outcome and used to work and perform alone, are not able to think critically, be innovative, lead or work in a team or even speak in front of a small audience.

The result is a discrepancy between what the universities and academics could teach and what they actually can teach, which added pressure to students’ evaluations and passing rates. It also resulted in a discrepancy between the expectations of employers and the graduates produced.

In this ocean of missed opportunities, there are islands with great achievements – the schools and universities which are highly selective. Take the French business schools, for an example. The schools can afford to be highly selective, where each candidate has to go through a 30 to 60-minute interview with a panel of academics and managers.

Therefore, the schools tend to select the brightest, for example, in mathematics and physics, and the ones who already have, or at least have predispositions to, innovative, entrepreneurial or leadership skills.

However, these elite institutions are often subject to criticism due to their high cost and the absence of social diversity. It also does not answer the needs of emerging or in-transition countries which need to train a high number of highly-qualified graduates as soon as possible to fuel their economic growth.

What can be done? Well, there are many avenues being discussed currently, the bottom line being that ‘other skills’ need to be re-introduced into curricula, along with differential learning, for example, through the flipped classroom model. Flipped classroom is a form of learning which encompasses any use of technology to leverage learning in a classroom, an example being videos created by academics that students can view outside of class time, giving time for more interactions and applications in the classroom.

Also, K-12 education (the education period from kindergarten level through twelfth grade) needs to be re-designed, taking into account not the immediate satisfaction of school teachers or parents but making sure that universities get students who are ready to learn and grow to obtain skills, capabilities and mindsets needed not only by themselves but also by companies and countries. Critical thinking, entrepreneurship, innovation and leadership could, for example, be gradually introduced from a young age.

Professor Dr. Francois Therin is the Dean of the School of Business at Curtin Sarawak. His teaching and research interests cover strategic management, technology and innovation management, and high-tech innovation for small firms and technoentrepreneurship. His views on higher education have been published in The Guardian online edition and University World News, and are also available on his blog atfrancoistherin.wordpress.com/. Dr. Therin can be contacted at +60 85 443 939 ext. 3841 or by e-mail to therin@curtin.edu.my. He can also be followed on Twitter @ftherin.