In the fall of 1994 the Division of Statistics at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decided to seek advice on the preparation of a long-term action plan for the improvement of the quality, comparability, and relevance of education statistics and indicators at the international level. It invited the Board on International Comparative Studies in Education (BICSE) to prepare a report on this subject for UNESCO's Director General.
For nearly half a century, UNESCO has been the leading source of statistical information on education systems around the world. It now collects and reports data on approximately 200 countries. It maintains one of the largest (if not the largest) data bases on national education statistics, as well as on science and culture, in the world. It has made important contributions to the development of global education statistical systems by articulating standards for data collection and classification.
UNESCO is facing increasing demands for improved statistical products and services, however, as the world's hunger grows for information about education systems, how they work, and what they accomplish. The audiences for such data are many: public officials concerned to use public resources wisely and well, business leaders operating in an increasingly competitive and global marketplace, international agencies working to pro-
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WORLDWIDE EDUCATION STATISTICS: Enhancing UNESCO's Role Executive Summary INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY In the fall of 1994 the Division of Statistics at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) decided to seek advice on the preparation of a long-term action plan for the improvement of the quality, comparability, and relevance of education statistics and indicators at the international level. It invited the Board on International Comparative Studies in Education (BICSE) to prepare a report on this subject for UNESCO's Director General. For nearly half a century, UNESCO has been the leading source of statistical information on education systems around the world. It now collects and reports data on approximately 200 countries. It maintains one of the largest (if not the largest) data bases on national education statistics, as well as on science and culture, in the world. It has made important contributions to the development of global education statistical systems by articulating standards for data collection and classification. UNESCO is facing increasing demands for improved statistical products and services, however, as the world's hunger grows for information about education systems, how they work, and what they accomplish. The audiences for such data are many: public officials concerned to use public resources wisely and well, business leaders operating in an increasingly competitive and global marketplace, international agencies working to pro-
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WORLDWIDE EDUCATION STATISTICS: Enhancing UNESCO's Role mote human and economic development in the developing nations of the world, researchers and scholars, and others. The data available today to meet these needs are often unsatisfactory. Statistics reported by an international agency can be only as good as the statistics submitted by individual nations, and the capacity to collect information on education varies enormously around the world, ranging from highly sophisticated to almost nonexistent. Improving global education statistics and indicators depends on improving these conditions, but it also demands of the international reporting agency operating practices that promote and ensure relevance, credibility, and trust. An organization seeking to achieve or sustain the role of the world 's premier education statistics agency clearly faces large challenges. Some of them are addressed in this report. Given UNESCO's request for a report in the summer of 1995, BICSE has concentrated its limited time and resources on identifying key steps that should be taken to strengthen UNESCO's education program and to lay a solid foundation on which subsequent and more detailed plans for improvement can be built. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Early in its review, BICSE realized that it would be insufficient to recommend marginal changes to UNESCO's data collection and reporting program and practices. Our initial exploration of the current activities and the history of the Division of Statistics revealed more fundamental concerns. Ten years of retrenchment in the wake of serious budgetary pressures on UNESCO as a whole have seriously damaged the division. Confidence in the quality of the data it reports has slipped as fewer and fewer resources are available for follow-up and verification. Its activities are increasingly focused on routine data collection for and production of the Statistical Yearbook, accompanied by severely diminished attention to capacity-building in member states, special studies and publications, and inter- and intraorganizational cooperation. The division's computer equipment is outdated; it has therefore been unable to exploit the potential of modern technology to expand the variety and sophistication of its data services or to realize operational efficiencies. During a period when information is becoming more important to many people and when modern technology and sophisticated statistical knowledge offer the prospect of increasingly better service, UNESCO's Division of Statistics has not been able to respond. We concluded, therefore, that the critical starting point for improving education statistics and indicators is for UNESCO to rethink key aspects of its statistics program: mission, structure, resources, and responsibilities. This is essential in light of the world's changing needs for information on
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WORLDWIDE EDUCATION STATISTICS: Enhancing UNESCO's Role education and what is known about the principles and practices that characterize high-quality statistical agencies. UNESCO cannot meet all of the demands of diverse audiences from its own resources, but it could develop a strong core program that satisfies its own organizational priorities and also serves as a foundation on which to build a dynamic and responsive set of activities that other users could be expected to support. Our recommendations reflect these considerations. Mission UNESCO should articulate and legitimize a broader mission for its statistics branch. The Division of Statistics currently operates on the basis of a statement of audience and responsibilities written in 1974. This statement identifies two key audiences for UNESCO statistical services: member states and internal UNESCO program sectors. It lists a rather general set of tasks that refer (among other things) to collecting, compiling, analyzing, and disseminating statistics; expanding the data bank and publications; and providing assistance to member states for the development of statistical services. The only substantive priorities it mentions are financing and higher education. Mission statements need to be reviewed as the environment in which an organization operates changes, and the mission statement of the Division of Statistics is particularly in need of being formalized and updated. We believe that the statement should acknowledge constituencies beyond member states and internal users. It should also reflect the role of the division in developing a framework or model of educational processes to guide the collection and distillation of information. If specific priorities are identified, they need to be reviewed as understanding grows about the nature of the underlying educational processes the organization is attempting to describe. Organizational Structure The Division of Statistics should be granted functional autonomy within UNESCO. Despite having established in its early decades a strong external reputation, the statistics program has always occupied a somewhat marginal position internally. At the urging of outside experts and UNESCO's General Conference to give the program a more central place, the division was restructured in 1992 and became part of the Bureau of Studies, Program-
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WORLDWIDE EDUCATION STATISTICS: Enhancing UNESCO's Role ming and Evaluation, attached directly to the Directorate of the organization. Although this is an improvement on prior structural arrangements, it still compares unfavorably in status and independence with other education-related programs within UNESCO. Its current organizational setting continues to deprive the Division of Statistics of the visibility, professional standing, and managerial flexibility that it needs to be a highly credible program using its limited resources creatively and efficiently. UNESCO itself has recognized that some of its units can gain important advantages in flexibility and versatility by being granted “effective functional autonomy.” This status has already been accorded to UNESCO 's units responsible for education research and planning, as well as to several noneducation activities. We believe that functional autonomy is highly appropriate for the statistics program as well and that, without such a dramatic alteration in organizational structure, other operational reforms are unlikely to contain sufficient dynamism to create the kind of organization needed to improve education statistics and indicators. Human and Technological Resources UNESCO should bring its human and technological resources devoted to statistical activities into better balance with expectations for these activities. Limited resources have sapped the capacity of the Division of Statistics to carry out the mission it now has, much less to support the wider mission UNESCO is being called on to undertake. Personnel levels have declined 35 percent in 10 years, and a large proportion of the remaining staff will be eligible to retire in the next decade. Even when personnel are available, restricted funds for travel and other expenses limit what they can do. Adoption of modern technology holds the promise of creating operational efficiencies and expanding the variety and sophistication of data services. The division's computer support is outdated, however, and its plans for technology development underestimate the full complexity and cost of implementing changes of the magnitude envisioned. Personnel and technology needs will be closely intertwined in the next decade. The nature of the work in the division will change profoundly as new technological innovations are implemented. Although these changes will not necessarily require a significantly larger staff in the long run, there will be transitional needs for new staff and also a need to reconfigure the existing staff structure. Plans should be developed to take into account the effects of new technology on the division's human resources and to prepare for turnover due to retirements. The ratio of professional to clerical staff
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WORLDWIDE EDUCATION STATISTICS: Enhancing UNESCO's Role should change, with increasing emphasis on professionals. Provision needs to be made for continuous training in the new technologies. Computer hardware should be upgraded, beyond plans already in existence, and technical and policy issues involved in providing wider user access to the data base via electronic means should be addressed. Activities UNESCO should demonstrate its commitment to a core set of activities that are responsive to its organizational needs and that can inspire confidence in outside agencies that might wish to fund supplemental activities through or in coordination with the Division of Statistics. In a world whose thirst for information seems to grow and grow, UNESCO will always face more demands for education statistics and indicators than it can possibly meet. We believe that the organization will not be well positioned to defend the scope and quality of its education statistics program until it remedies the failure to define and commit itself to a core set of activities consistent with the principles and practices of a good statistical agency and widely recognized as legitimate by its major constituencies and users. These activities should include: establishing common definitions and data standards; regularly collecting and disseminating a core set of education statistics and indicators; maintaining and documenting the underlying data base; planning and coordinating a strategic research and development effort; carrying out analytical activities; and playing the role of catalyst in spurring the development of statistical capability and systems in member states, especially developing countries. Ongoing processes of consultation with education experts and key users should be employed to ensure that the conceptual framework guiding the choice of statistics to be collected reflects the most important questions about education that users need to answer. The current data collection framework, largely unchanged for decades, reflects an older emphasis on resources or inputs into education and does not address growing worldwide concern about the performance of education systems and students. Moreover, the best hope for meeting the needs that go beyond UNESCO 's own resources is to attract funding from outside agencies willing to pay for additional data collection, special studies, and/or building the education statistics infrastructure in individual nations in coordination with UNESCO's standards and definitions. Along with reforming its internal operations, UNESCO must exercise strong leadership in efforts to improve the capacity of countries around the world to provide accurate and timely education data. UNESCO cannot itself provide all of the nation-by-nation assistance
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WORLDWIDE EDUCATION STATISTICS: Enhancing UNESCO's Role that is needed, but it should spur partnerships with other organizations to encourage capacity-building and should provide technical support for their activities. We believe that many people now view UNESCO as the logical place around which to center global education statistical activities, although they often question the organization's capacity and willingness to respond. Unless external agencies perceive a meaningful commitment by UNESCO to its statistics program, they are unlikely to view the organization as the most appropriate vehicle through which to fund and implement their own ideas for improving education statistics and indicators. In sum, the foregoing set of recommended reforms is intended to enhance worldwide confidence in UNESCO's statistical capacity and to create a solid foundation on which to build an improved global system of education statistics and indicators. Many of these recommendations are commonsensical and, no doubt, are on the minds of UNESCO officials themselves. We want to stress, however, that we view these recommendations for reform and reorganization as a synergistic package, possessing mutually reinforcing possibilities if adopted in their totality. They are designed to take maximum advantage of their reciprocal interactions. Accordingly, we hope that UNESCO will read this report as a call to move boldly and rapidly to adopt these proposals in their entirety.