In 2006, higher education ministers gathered in Athens for a ministerial conference organised by the OECD. I has just been appointed as the new Director for Education of the OECD. Angel Gurría, who had assumed his mandate as Secretary-General of the Organisation, chaired the meeting and succeeded in convincing the excellencies to embark on an ambitious new project of assessing higher education’s learning outcomes. With the success of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the time seemed ripe to initiate a comparable initiative in higher education. After two years of preparatory work, the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) Feasibility Study started in 2008. It was one of the OECD Education Directorate’s projects I was most personally committed to.

In those early years, the political support for AHELO was impressive. Despite 20 years of developing quality assurance in higher education, very little was actually known about its “quality”. Global rankings of universities relied on bibliometric data and research indicators but could not provide any transparency on the quality of educational output. In turn, this led to a hugely distorted picture of the global distribution of academic excellence. Governments were unable to demonstrate how rapidly increasing funding for higher education institutions resulted in human capital growth. Qualifications, diplomas, and degrees matter, but the actual skills that graduates bring to labour markets and societies matter more. Qualifications are meaningless if they are not trustworthy guarantees of relevant learning outcomes. Early believers in the AHELO project felt that more transparency about graduates’ learning outcomes would strengthen the hand of universities in any political debate.

The AHELO Feasibility Study was successfully concluded in 2013. After having demonstrated the proof of concept, we believed that countries would be willing to embark on the Main Study. Yet the project became quite controversial in some university associations. Capital cities were hesitant to push forward a project on universities against their support. After discussing a couple of proposals, the OECD’s Education Policy Committee found itself hugely divided on the topic. It finally decided not to pursue the Main Study.

Nonetheless, a group of countries still supported the idea and decided to continue the work. They gathered informally and with the support of the Council for Aid to Education, which had developed the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) instrument, they launched the CLA+ International Project in 2016. The group considered the CLA+ International assessment to be an excellent tool for measuring the critical-thinking skills of university students. Assessments would be a response to employers and others who criticised higher education institutions for failing to deliver skills that matter for the 21st-century economy and society.

As a result of past years’ work in this informal group, this report brings together the assessment results in six countries. Some assessments were small-scale, covering only a few institutions; others were implemented nationwide. The data analysed and discussed in this report lead to important insights. Hopefully, they will lead to even more.

I am personally thrilled to see this work finally leading to relevant data and analyses, and am very grateful that the AHELO project was pursued under the professional leadership of Dirk Van Damme (OECD) and Doris Zahner (CAE). I sincerely hope that higher education institutions and governments will see the value of these instruments in helping students develop the appropriate skills for their future life.

Barbara Ischinger

Former Director for Education and Skills, OECD (2006-2014)

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