On 10 November 2011, UNESCO’s General Conference adopted revisions to the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). As steward of the revision process, the UIS was deeply involved in the development of ISCED 2011. The following Questions and Answers highlight substantive changes to the classification system.
What is ISCED and why was it revised?
ISCED is the framework used to compare statistics on the education systems of countries worldwide. It is also an important tool used to produce accurate data that reflect today’s education priorities and policies. The classification was first developed by UNESCO in 1976 and was then revised in 1997. As education systems are constantly evolving, the framework needs to be updated periodically to ensure that it reflects current structures.
What was the process for revising the framework?
In 2007, Member States formally requested that UNESCO revise the framework. In response, the UIS established a technical advisory panel (TAP), which brought together 16 experts on international education policies and statistics. The panel included national statisticians, ministerial experts, representatives of international organizations and education researchers from around the world.The panel undertook a complete review of ISCED 1997 in order to identify the most pressing – and the most feasible – areas for revision. TAP members worked closely with the UIS to develop thematic proposals, which were discussed during a series of expert meetings that were organized in all the major regions by the UIS, OECD and Eurostat.
Based on feedback from the regional discussions, the UIS prepared a draft text that was the subject of a global consultation (June to October 2010). The text was sent to all UNESCO Member States, including ministries of education and national statistical offices, as well as to regional experts and relevant international organizations. Following the consultation the document was further revised and approved by the technical advisory panel.
In November 2011, the proposed revision was approved by the Education Commission of the 36th General Conference of UNESCO. It was formally adopted by Member States on 10 November 2011.
How does the revised framework differ from the previous version? How will these changes affect international education statistics?
ISCED has always been used to classify programmes by levels of education – from pre-primary to the highest levels of tertiary education. Previously, the first level (ISCED 0) encompassed only pre-primary education programmes designed for children from the age of three to the official primary school entrance age. In the new version, this level has been expanded to include an additional sub-category of education programmes designed for children below the age of three. These types of educational programmes for very young children are becoming increasingly popular. The new provision will make it easier to compare data on this sub-level for the first time.
On the other end of the scale, the classification of tertiary levels of education has changed substantially. The revised ISCED has four levels of tertiary education compared to two categories in the current version. A major reason behind this change was to better reflect the tertiary education structure (Bachelor, Master and Doctorate) that is found around the world but also has been more recently introduced across Europe following the Bologna Process in 1999.
Another significant innovation is the introduction of educational attainment into the framework. For the first time, ISCED will offer a system to classify qualifications into educational attainment levels. This will enable governments to better assess their human capital resources.
Were there any issues that could not be addressed in the revision?
For practical reasons, the technical advisory panel for the 2011 revision proposed to look into two important issues in the future. The first one concerns the fields of education or subjects of study. ISCED 1997 had nine broad groups, such as humanities and arts, science, and agriculture. Within these groups, there are 25 fields of study. The panel would like to further divide these fields by adding sub-categories in order to generate more precise statistical information. Governments and organizations, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO), are looking to link data on field of study to the skills required for certain occupations. The review of the ISCED fields of education began in 2012. A technical advisory panel has been formed by UIS for this revision process and a global consultation on a draft of this classification is being conducted in 2013.
Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is another key issue to be addressed. ISCED 1997 does not have the level of detail required to reflect the tremendous diversity in TVET programmes globally. TVET is a rising priority for countries at all stages of development. So the challenge will be to devise a system that can be used to produce policy-relevant data.
What are the implications of the new framework for countries?
Countries will have to adapt their data collection systems to the new framework. For example, this could entail modifications in their national surveys and data processing systems. In response, the UIS is offering a range of support, including training workshops, new guidelines and technical advice, to help countries make the transition.
The first international data collection based on ISCED 2011 will take place in 2014. In preparation, the UIS is working with countries to map their national education programmes and qualifications to ISCED 2011. As they are updated, these mappings will be available on the UIS website, alongside current mappings of national education programmes to ISCED 1997. ISCED mappings support the transparency of UIS statistics and also help analysts to better understand and interpret the UIS international education database.