18 June 2014


Sometimes a simple idea has the potential to have a lot of impact. Here is one simple idea for the day, split into three concrete recommendations:

a. the European Commission – and in particular DG enlargement – ask all Western Balkan countries to take the regular PISA tests of the OECD, as one important way to assess whether in the future their economies will be able to “withstand competitive pressure” – which is one of the 1993 Copenhagen criteria.

b. the European Commission includes the scores of PISA as one of its main indicators in the annual progress report section on economic criteria – and includes a table comparing the performance of countries in the region with the rest of the EU.

c. civil society organisations in Balkan countries use this as a trigger to launch a broader debate in their countries on the quality and importance of education in national debates. Both of which are currently – to put it mildly – sub-optimal for countries trying to converge with a much more prosperous European Union.

This morning I met senior people in DG Enlargement in Brussels and made this proposal. I also made it in many recent presentations with EU ambassadors and EU officials in Paris, Skopje, Zagreb, The Hague, Berlin, Rome, Ankara and Istanbul. And as a result of some feedback I am increasingly hopeful on the first and second recommendation above. (This in turn will help with recommendation three.)

For more on all this see our forthcoming report on how to assess in future progress reports whether a candidate has a “functioning market economy”. For those impatient now, here are a few core facts:

Background: candidates, potential candidates and PISA

It seems obvious: one of the most important factors contributing to future development of an economy is the quality of the national education system.  And one of the most straightforward ways to launch a debate on this is to look at the OECD’s PISA tests, taken since 2000, every three years in some 65 countries.

Take a look at some recent findings:

PISA results – mathematics 2012

Taiwan (top country)[1]

Netherlands (top EU15 country) 523
Estonia (top EU13 country) 521
Croatia 471
Serbia 449
Turkey 448
Bulgaria (lowest EU country) 439
Montenegro 410
Albania 394
Bosnia and Herzegovina

PISA results – reading 2012

Japan (top country)[2] 538
Finland (top EU15 country) 524
Poland (top EU13 country) 518
Croatia 485
Turkey 475
Serbia 446
Bulgaria (lowest EU country) 436
Montenegro 422
Albania 394
Bosnia and Herzegovina

PISA results – science 2012

Japan (top country)[3] 547
Finland (top EU15 country) 545
Estonia (top EU13 country) 541
Croatia 491
Turkey 463
Serbia 445
Cyprus (lowest EU country) 438
Montenegro 410
Albania 397
Bosnia and Herzegovina


These tables raise many fascinating and important policy questions:

1. How can Albania and Montenegro close the serious gap (serious even compared to other countries in the region)?

2. How can all these countries learn from Estonia or Poland, some of the best performers among former communist countries?

3.  Where would Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina stand if they took the test? (Macedonia took the test in 2000: 381 in math, 401 in science, 373 in reading – abysmal scores I discussed in a recent Rumeli Observer; it is now taking it again for the first time this year).

Of course it would also be useful to have other credible education statistics from ALL candidates and potential candidates that allow for EU-wide and Europe-wide comparisons.
Here are some good statistics which already exist for the EU and some of the candidate countries. Again, they raise interesting policy issues.

They might also – if properly highlighted – trigger more important policy debates.



How many 4 year old are in primary or pre-primary education? In the EU

91.7 % of four year-olds were in pre-primary or primary education across the whole of the EU-27 in 2010. Participation rates of four year-olds in pre-primary or primary education were generally high — national averages of over 95 % in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Spain, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom; as well as in Iceland and Norway. By contrast, Greece, Poland and Finland reported that fewer than 70 % of four year-olds were enrolled; lower rates were also recorded in the EFTA countries of Liechtenstein and Switzerland, as well as in the acceding and candidate countries of Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey.”

Only national data are available for Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (data for 2010), where rates stood at 57.4 % and 24.0 % respectively. More than half of the 25 level 2 Turkish regions reported that less than 20.0 % of four year-olds participated in pre-primary or primary education in 2011. The lowest participation rate was recorded for the southern Turkish region of Gaziantep, Adıyaman, Kilis (9.7 %), while the second lowest rate was recorded for İstanbul (10.9 %).”[4]


“The number of students aged 17 in education (all levels combined) in the EU-27 in 2010 was 5.2 million, equivalent to 91.7 % of all 17-year-olds. The age of 17 is important as it often marks the age at which young people are faced with a choice between: remaining in education; following some form of training; or looking for a job. The number of 17 year-olds in education relative to the population of 17 year-olds exceeded 80 % in the vast majority of the regions within the EU in 2011, and this pattern was repeated across all of the EFTA regions … As such, for one reason or another, the vast majority of young people aged 17 remained in the education system at or even after the end of compulsory schooling.”

This indicates, for instance, a clear problem in Turkey:

“Among the acceding and candidate country regions, the proportion of 17 year-olds who remained in education was above 80.0 % in Croatia (national data) and three Turkish regions (including the capital city region of Ankara and two north-western regions of Bursa, Eskişehir, Bilecik and Tekirdağ, Edirne, Kırklareli). There were four Turkish regions where the proportion of 17 year-olds who remained in education was 50.0 % or lower — they were all in the south and east of the country, namely: Sanlıurfa, Diyarbakır; Mardin, Batman, Sırnak, Siirt; Ağri, Kars, Iğdir, Ardahan; and Van, Muş, Bitlis, Hakkari. The lowest ratio of 17 year-olds remaining in education was recorded in Van, Mus, Bitlis, Hakkari, where the share was only slightly more than one third (35.5 %) in 2011.

“An indicator that presents information about early leavers from education and training tracks the proportion of individuals aged 18–24 who have finished no more than a lower secondary education, and who are not involved in further education or training: some 13.5 % of 18–24 year-olds in the EU-27 were classified as early leavers from education and training in 2011, with a somewhat higher proportion of male early leavers (15.3 %) compared with female early leavers (11.6 %). Europe’s growth strategy, Europe 2020, has set an EU-27 target for the proportion of early leavers from education and training to be below 10 % by 2020; there are individual targets for each of the Member States that range from 5 % to 29 %.”

Tertiary education:

“Tertiary education is the level of education offered by universities, vocational universities, institutes of technology and other institutions that award academic degrees or professional certificates. In 2010 (the 2009/10 academic year), the number of students enrolled in tertiary education in the EU-27 stood at 19.8 million; this was equivalent to 62.7 % of all persons aged 20–24.

In candidate countries:

“In Turkey there was a particularly high concentration of tertiary students in Bursa, Eskişehir, Bilecik — this may be attributed to there being an open university in Eskişehir, where a high proportion of students are enrolled on distance learning courses. Otherwise, the ratio of students enrolled in tertiary education to residents aged 20–24 was below 60 % for all of the remaining regions in the candidate and accession countries.”

Tertiary attainment

“In 2011, for the EU-27 as a whole, just over one third (34.6 %) of 30–34 year-olds had completed tertiary education. These figures support the premise that a rising proportion of the EU’s population is studying to a higher level — in keeping with one of the Europe 2020 targets, namely, that by 2020 at least 40 % of persons aged 30–34 in the EU-27 should have attained a tertiary level education.”

Again Turkey is backward:

“Bati Anadolu (23.6 %) — which includes the Turkish capital city of Ankara — was the only Turkish region to report that more than one in five of its residents aged 30–34 had attained a tertiary level education. By contrast, the lowest ratios … were recorded for the north-east of Turkey (Kuzeydoğu Anadolu), where only just over 1 in 10 (10.2 %) of the population aged 30–34 had attained a tertiary level education.


One thing should be obvious: if PISA rankings and such tables are seriously discussed in candidate countries, everyone would benefit. And if the EU can manage to encourage a focus on such issues – through its own regular assessments – everyone would gain.

So let us hope that this simple idea will indeed be picked up.


[1] Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong excluded as cities.

[2] Sic.

[3] Sic

[6] Croatia, 2002; Serbia, 2004.

[7] Albania, 2007.

[8] Albania, 2009.


Rumeli Observer