The Irish Times today covered the publication of the latest OECD Education at a Glance and some of the domestic response to it. Like most OECD publications, this series provides lots of useful statistics and information generally to a fairly high standard.
I haven't read the actual report but two things struck me from the coverage. In the first article it says " The report shows that on average across OECD countries, a man with third-level qualifications will generate $119,000 (€93.386) more in income taxes and social contributions over his working life than someone with just an upper secondary level of education. It says that even after taking account of the cost to the public exchequer of financing degree courses, higher tax revenues and social contributions from people with university degrees make third-level education a good long-term investment."
Assuming they are being quoted correctly, this is a bad mistake by the OECD. If you want to do a Cost-Benefit analysis of investment in education then you need to measure the extra output generated which is proxied by the extra income and not the additional tax revenue generated. The latter is a transfer from one group to another so its irrelevant. In a country with high marginal income taxes the extra tax yield from additional education is higher but obviously this doesn't mean that education is a "better investment" in such countries. Unfortunately this fallacy is quite common though I am surprised to see it apparently emanating from the OECD. The OECD argument would only make sense if the purpose of public policy was to minimize net public outlays on education. In which case, one should simply close the sector down or privatise it.
The second point that struck me is the concentration in the commentary on education expenditure & Ireland's low ranking by this criterion (as a share of GDP). This data is openly referred to as "league tables" and various people in the education sector as well as opposition politicans, quoted in the second article, are content to moan about it.
Now when league tables are discussed in an education context it usually refers to comparisons of schools based on exam results. Cue educationalists and teachers unions saying "Oh no crude league tables, don't take into account blah blah... so we can't have that". Far better to keep parents in the dark about one of the most important decisions they will ever make: its for their own benefit. But such tables would at least refer to outputs and could, with a little work, be made into a Value Added measure. However these OECD numbers just released are measures of one input as a share of another variable that take nothing into account. What does it mean that Ireland spends less on education, as a % of GDP, than say Belgium? Absolutely nothing. So it seems to me that it is completely inconsistent, not to say self-serving, to decry one set of crude comparisons but endorse another totally meaningless set.