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Benchmarking Higher Education System Performance

05 Jul 2019 | The OECD has published a report on the benchmarking of higher education systems. The report is the first extensive examination of higher education systems undertaken by OECD in more than a decade.

The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published a lengthy synthesis report: Benchmarking Higher Education System Performance (644 pages). 

The report is based on the compilation and analysis of statistical data for the higher education systems of all OECD countries, and in some cases sub-national units, for which data is available. In addition, the report contains a review of the policies and practices of four participating jurisdictions (Estonia, The Flemish Community of Belgium, The Netherlands and Norway), who elected to participate in a deeper benchmarking exercise (the United Kingdom was not one of the participating jurisdictions).

The report can be read on-line, accessed through subscription, or purchased directly from the OECD (cost £50.00).

The report presents an analysis of the state of higher education across OECD countries. The report, and specific chapters, are likely to be interest to governors, senior leaders and governance professionals of higher education institutions.

Content of the report

The report explores the differences and commonalities between national systems of higher education.

The report’s executive summary highlights ten issues in relation to higher education systems identified from the work undertaken.

The context to higher education

Higher education and the wider social and economic context is examined in Chapter 1 (pp.34-57). The chapter offers an overview of the environment in which higher education operates. While acknowledging and accommodating national contexts, many of the issues and challenges facing individual higher education systems have a high degree of commonality.

Structure and governance

Chapter 2 of the report discusses the structure and governance of higher education systems (pp.59-112). Issues discussed include:

  • Distinguishing between the horizontal (degree of diversity between institutions) and vertical differentiation (informal hierarchies) of institutions found in higher education systems
  • Classifying institutions as private or public on the basis of the locus of institutional control. Private institutions being further sub-divided according to their source of funding into government-dependent private and independent private institutions. The former being applied to institutions who receive at least 50 per cent of their core funding from government, or whose teaching personnel is paid by a government agency.

Applying the classification to the United Kingdom, OECD suggests all higher education institutions are private. As most receive the majority of their funding from government they are categorized as “government-dependent”. To access public funding these institutions are subject to regulation. By contrast higher education remains predominantly public in most OECD countries. 

  • Noting that the vast majority of private higher education institutions are non-profit
  • Seeing authority across higher education systems as being distributed between the state, institutional autonomy and market forces
  • Suggesting the authority of the state is exercised through four key levers: regulation, funding, information and organizational.

Concluding its assessment of structure and governance, the OECD observes:

  • Over the past few decades, the vertical differentiation (stratification) of higher education has been increased in many systems, while horizontal differentiation (diversity) has tended to decrease
  • Privatisation of institutions can help increase institutional autonomy. However, in some jurisdictions the quality issues that have emerged in the for-profit sector indicate the need for continued government efforts to monitor the quality of provision at private institutions (particularly private for-profit institutions)
  • Higher education institutions face a tension between their role in providing public value and their need to sustain institutional performance in a growing market. Governments face the challenge of maintaining a balance between these dual roles.

Specific aspects of higher education

Chapters 3-7, examine specific aspects of higher education systems, namely Financial Resources (Chapter 3), Human Resources (Chapter 4), Education (Chapter 5), Research (Chapter 6) and Engagement with the Wider World (Chapter 7).

Assessing performance in higher education

In an attempt to assess comparative performance, Chapter 8, looks at the performance of higher education systems. OECD’s aim is to “provide a system-level view of higher education performance that could inform deliberations about government strategy for higher education” (p.434). However, OECD’s work indicates that this is challenging.

Benchmarking higher education systems

For the purpose of benchmarking, indicators of inputs, outputs and outcomes were selected by the OECD through a multi-step process.

For the four participating jurisdictions, 45 indicators equally divided between three domains (financial and human resources; education; and research and engagement) were identified. These were displayed as an indicator scoreboard. For each jurisdiction the level of an indicator is then shown as a quartile in relation to the other participating jurisdictions. i.e. a system’s relative position vis-à-vis the group. This does not however indicate anything about the level of the performance of the system as a whole. For example, relative performance by the jurisdiction could be good, but the group’s overall level of performance poor.

Moving beyond individual indicators

Individual indicators only focus on one aspect of the higher education system. A more complex exercise involved assessing efficiency or effectiveness by linking input to outputs or outcomes. OECD sought to test whether benchmarking indicators could be combined to “generate simple and reliable measures of efficiency.” Measures tested included:

  • Expenditure on competing and non-competing students
  • The number of publications per researcher
  • Expenditure per publication.

The potential benefit of the approach was the generation of comparable measures across OECD countries. The aim was to enable countries to understand their position compared to other countries. However, OECD acknowledge that “further improvements would be required to increase the validity and policy relevance of indicators on efficiency and cost-effectiveness of higher education before they could be become actionable measures of higher education performance” (p.450). It was noted, for example, that due to the lack of data almost no account is taken of the quality of the outputs.

Benchmarking performance for the participating jurisdictions

The final sections of the report, Chapters 9-12, look at benchmarking in each of the four participating jurisdictions: Estonia, The Flemish Community of Belgium, The Netherlands and Norway.


OECD’s analysis shows that while national systems of higher education are context-specific, many systems of higher education face common challenges. However, when attempting to make international comparisons between different systems, there are significant challenges in going beyond indicator scoreboards and looking at the relationship between inputs and outputs/outcomes to assess and compare efficiency and effectiveness. Additional work is required before such measures can be used to inform policy choices.


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