There is a clear connection between how good a country’s educational system is, and the country’s economic success.

Economists has found that the number of universities are positively linked with the future growth of the so-called Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in a country. GDP is a measure of the market value of all the products and services produced per year in a country. GDP is usually measured per capita, which is GDP divided with the number of people living in the country. The higher the GDP per capita the better off is of course the country.  

The economists also found that the more universities a country has the stronger is the populations democratic attitudes. Knowledge and facts make people smarter, as I always claim myself, and that is actually my motivation for being in the educational sector myself. In short; education makes smarter, more democratic and more wealthy living conditions.

This is why education is so imperative. And primary and secondary education is the first and most important building block.

It is difficult to compare the quality of education between different countries because there are different systems and philosophies to what is important to teach children and students. One indicator of course can be to look at how much different countries are spending, but that may also lead to false conclusions because spending is not necessarily equal with quality and unbiased teaching.

My intention is not to promote any system or country above others. I choose to base my insights on my own experiences rather on some theoretical framework. My experiences in this regard happens to be from countries with good schools and with the highest spending on education in the world.

USA, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland have the highest spending on education in the world. I am a Norwegian myself and my son had most of his education in Norway, my oldest daughter grew up and had her school years in Denmark (now she is studying in the USA) and I have lived in Switzerland the last 10 years and my youngest daughter is now in the high school here. I have in other words the privilege based on my own first-hand experience to compare school systems in all the countries with the highest spending on education.   

In my opinion the system and the results are better in Switzerland than in the Scandinavian countries.

The reason is the decentralised system where the Cantons (Provinces with a high degree of autonomy) and the municipalities (Gemeinde) have the main responsibility for both organising, administrating and financing their school system.

The Federal involvement is limited.

Municipalities are generally responsible for buildings, teaching materials, equipment and the Cantons are responsible for the main part of teacher’s salaries. But there are differences between the different Cantons.

Even at university level, the Cantons and Municipalities play a major role in financing, organising and administration.

There are two main reasons in my opinion why a decentralised system gives better results.

The first is that the opposite of decentralisation is to centralise, which generally speaking means to take the decision-making responsibility away from the local level. The local level will always understand and interpret much better what is needed because we are closer to needs and feedback and therefore able to continuously adjust to better and smarter solutions than a centralised system.

The second reason is that a decentralised system like in Switzerland, creates competition. There is competition between Cantons, but also between Municipalities within the same Canton. The population is even invited to referendums about whether or not to build new schools, where it should be located etc.

This will always give better solutions because poor, wasteful, non-functioning solutions will simply not survive. It is truly about the survival of the fittest, which does not mean the strongest or biggest, but about the smartest and most adaptable.

A centralised system is not adaptable and will just continue to spend resources even on a broken system because there is no flexibility to change. It will make one universal standard everywhere, in all regions and all schools, and the problem is that it is always the poorest model that will be the standard. Centralisation means bureaucracy far away from people’s reality and bureaucracy will defend themselves against critique and change. 

There will of course always be something to criticise and something that needs to be improved, everything is not perfect in the Swiss school system. Everything in life is about constraints; economic, political, geographical etc. The question is however how we operate within those constraints, and in this regard, I must say I am impressed by the Swiss educational system. The way it balances between educational quality, social skills, team-spirit and responsibility and respect, impresses me. From what I have seen I am also impressed by the way the schools here in Switzerland are very professional and transparent in how they treat parents and the public interest through openness and information regarding economic and professional matters.

I have met foreigners with school children that came from countries where I know they have a much lower quality in their educational sector, but they still complain about the Swiss schools. In my opinion there are some very obvious reasons for this and few of them have to do with the school as such.

First of all, there are individual reasons. A school child that come from abroad to a new life and new school reality in Switzerland will not always succeed. There is language as well as cultural barriers that you have to overcome. The older the child is, the more difficult this is. It is of course easier for the parents to see the problems with the school rather with their own child. This is normal.

Another reason is that Swiss schools are absolute about rules and regulations. You cannot just take your child out of school to e.g. have vacation when it fits you. This is very different from some other countries. In Switzerland you have to apply in beforehand even if your son or daughter is having just an hour off to see the dentist.

In some countries there are exclusively focus on factual subjects like mathematics, physics, grammar etc. and much less on social skills and to learn how to be a good team member. I believe therefore that for some parents it is a cultural chock when they move to Switzerland and they see how much schools here emphasise to teach waste management, environment, sociology etc. It is simply a different mindset and approach.  

The schools here are also very strict with grades. You will e.g. not be allowed to continue in the gymnasium if you fail to meet the required minimum score, or you will have to retake a school year. This is also different from some other countries where they may have grades and strict tests, but where they allow students to continue even if their grades are not satisfactory.  

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Accessibility to higher education for anyone that is qualified, through a fair financing model is another important element in making a good educational system that will benefit the country. A really good financial model will not discriminate between what you want to study or where you want to study.

My oldest daughter is studying in the USA and she gets loans and grants from Norway (she is both a Norwegian and Danish citizen). Why would a country finance education abroad? Why not spend it instead on their own schools and universities? And, are they not afraid that the student will never come back and contribute to the country?

There is a tradition in Norway to go abroad to study. Norway is a small country with small universities, and we were always encouraged to study abroad to get a more diversified education and knowledge. In Norway it has always been considered as an extra merit to have a good education from abroad.

Norwegian authorities always supported education financially even if you chose to go abroad.

It turns out that most students that went abroad will eventually return home. This has of course to do with the fact that they think it is a good country to return back to and there are job opportunities.

This is why the Norwegian tradition of financing studies abroad is giving very good payback to the country; students return home with relevant and worthful global knowledge that is contributing to the total wealth of the country. It is in other words a very good return on the investment for Norway.

Many countries have the opposite approach, almost as an insulted accusation; “don’t you understand that our universities are the best”!

If, however the living conditions in the country are such that it is unlikely that the student will return home after studying abroad, I can understand why a country wouldn’t support students going abroad. I would however suggest making it a top priority to improve all factors that makes it attractive to come home after studying abroad; access to jobs, safe living conditions, reasonable taxation, a well-functioning health system and a good school system for their children.  

Kjetil sandermoen
Kjetil sandermoen

Kjetil Sandermoen is a global strategic management consultant, founder of the University of Fredericton and Sandermoen School of Business. A Norwegian by birth and staying in Switzerland for over a decade, he founded Sandermoen publishing and Sandermoen Learning solutions. He authored many management books and is a regular columnist in several international magazines.
 

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