Variation within households in consent to link survey data to administrative records: Evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study

photo_consentTarek Mostafa

This article was first published in the NCRM newsletter.

Longitudinal surveys face significant challenges due to the rise in survey costs, attrition over time, and non-coverage of the target population. A promising solution to some of these problems is survey and administrative data linkage. Administrative data linkage leads to shorter interviews, less respondent burden and an overall reduction in costs (1) in addition to the gain of valuable information on respondents. However, access to administrative data is restricted by consent. Non-consent occurs when respondents refuse permission to link their administrative records to their survey data. It results in smaller samples and possibly in sample bias if the likelihood of consent is related to the characteristics of respondents.

This study aims to advance our knowledge about consent by analysing adult respondents’ behaviour when consenting to link their own administrative records in contrast to their behaviour when consenting to link someone else’s records (i.e. the cohort member in the Millennium Cohort Study). These variations in consent behaviour have not been explored in the past. All previous studies focused on respondents consenting to link their own records but not those of other members of their household (2, 3). The paper uses data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) and focuses on consent to link the cohort member’s health and educational records and the main respondent’s health and economic records (all consents are sought in wave 4 of MCS). The study attempts to answer the following research questions:

Do respondents behave differently when consenting to link their own administrative records in comparison to consenting to link those of their children?

Does respondents’ consent behaviour vary according to the domain of consent, e.g. health, economic, education records?

What is the impact of interviewers on consent outcomes and can interviewer effects be separated from the impact of an interviewer’s geographical assignment?

In summary, the findings show that main respondents behave differently when consenting to link their own records and when consenting on behalf of the cohort members. For instance, parents of children with high cognitive skills are more likely to consent on linking their children’s educational records. In contrast, the child’s cognitive skills do not affect the parents’ likelihood to link their own health and economic records. Moreover, being a private person has a more significant effect on the MRs outcomes than those of the CM. When it comes to loyalty to the survey, respondents who have missed a wave in the past are found to be less likely to consent irrespective of the outcome. In contrast, partial evidence was found in support of the impact of past relationship with the agency holding the administrative data. Among the sociodemographic characteristics of respondents, ethnicity was found to have the strongest impact irrespective of the outcome. Nonwhite respondents are less likely to consent. The cross-equation correlations measured through the multivariate probit models showed that the highest level of association is between outcomes sought for the same respondent (i.e. MRs consenting for linking their own records vs. MRs consenting for linking the CMs records).When interviewers’ effects were included through the use of fixed effects models, the explanatory power of the models increased by 3 to 4 times. This indicates that the interviewers’ characteristics and behaviour have a large effect on consent.

In terms of fieldwork practices, the findings suggest that it is possible to identify the respondents who are less likely to consent (ethnic minorities, respondents with higher privacy concerns, and respondents who have dropped out from the survey in the past). Interviewers have a strong impact on consent, therefore in the case of low consent rates, the matching of interviewers and respondents and the allocation of interviewers, with more survey experience, to difficult cases might improve consent rates. The findings also indicate that the linked administrative data is likely to suffer from sample composition bias due to non-consent. This is of a particular interest for the MCS data users. For instance the linked MCS and educational records are likely to lose children with lower cognitive skills. Similarly the high and significant impact of ethnicity means that samples are likely to lose non-white minorities. Since ethnicity is highly correlated with educational, health and economic outcomes, the data contained in the linked administrative records will be affected by non-consent. However, the total level of bias depends on non-consent and on the extent of non-linkage (the failure to link data even if consent was given) which might alleviate or exacerbate the initial non-consent bias.

A full paper on this topic was published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology: Mostafa, T. (2015). Variation within Households in Consent to Link Survey Data to Administrative Records: Evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 579.2015.1019264


1 Sakshaug, J., Couper, M., Ofstedal, M., & Weir, D. (2012). Linking survey and administrative records: Mechanisms of consent. Sociological Methods and Research, 41, 535–569

2 Korbmacher, J., & Schroeder, M. (2013). Consent when linking survey data with administrative records: The role of the interviewer. Survey Research Methods, 7, 115–131

3 Sala, E., Burton, J., & Knies, G. (2012). Correlates of obtaining informed consent to data linkage: Respondent, interview, and interviewer characteristics. Sociological Methods and Research, 41, 414–439

How consistent is respondent behaviour to allow linkage to health administrative data over time?

Tarek Mostafa and Richard D Wiggins, University College London.

This article was first published in the NCRM newsletter (Summer 2015).

Household surveys are increasingly being linked to administrative records with the potential of greatly enriching survey content on subjects such as health, education and income. One major challenge to data linkage is nonconsent. Non-consent occurs when respondents refuse permission to link their administrative records to their survey data. This problem inevitably leads to information loss and possibly bias if consent is correlated with key characteristics of the respondents.

Despite the recent developments in the analysis of consent [2, 3, 4, 5] the evidence is still scarce. The existing literature focused on the patterns of consent arising in cross-sectional surveys and very little is known about consent behaviour over time. Our study is one of the first longitudinal explorations of consent in the context of attempts to link survey and administrative data. It relies on a theoretical framework which distinguishes between passive, active, consistent and inconsistent consent behaviour and uses a series of models including multivariate probit analyses in order to identify the nature of consent as a latent trait and linear probability models which include interviewers as fixed effects.

The study exploits three consent questions to link health records held by the National Health Service (NHS) to the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). The questions correspond to waves 1 (age 9 months), 2 (age 3 years) and 4 (age 7 years) of MCS. The questions are: To what extent is consent behaviour consistent over time? and Can consent behaviour be described as active or passive?

In order to answer the questions Cialdini’s [1] framework on compliance in survey research is developed by testing four scenarios which sub-divide consistency/ inconsistency in consent behaviour along the lines of activeness/passiveness. Active consistency is the case where respondents are aware of their previous choices and are committed to make the same choices on future occasions because of stable beliefs or personality traits (e.g. belief in the importance of scientific research, being a private person, etc). Passive consistency is the case where respondents make consistent choices over time even though the decision making process is passive. This means that consent decisions do not reflect an active adherence to well-defined beliefs but rather external influences such as the respondents’ circumstances at the time of the interview and the impact of the interviewers. Active inconsistency is the case where respondents are aware of their previous choices and intentionally behave in inconsistent ways. This change in behaviour could be the result of a change in convictions. For instance, a past consenter might actively decide to withhold consent after a breach to data confidentiality. Passive inconsistency is the case where respondents switch from consenters to non-consenters or vice versa. This switch is not the result of changes in convictions but rather the result of changes to the circumstances of the respondent (e.g. divorce, acute health problems), changes to the interviewers over time (e.g. persistence in pursuing consent), and the fact that respondents could have forgotten what they did in the past. In all cases, the respondent has a passive role and the changes in consent behaviour are caused by extrinsic factors.

In summary the analyses provide evidence in support of passive consistent behaviour. Firstly, 77% of respondents behaved consistently over time by either consenting or refusing to consent in all waves. Secondly, the cross-equation correlations from the multivariate probit models showed that the unobserved parts of the consent outcomes are weakly associated over time, and therefore, cannot really be held to indicate the existence of strongly held latent convictions about consent. Thirdly, the likelihood of consent and the likelihood of switching behaviour over time are related to the respondents’ circumstances, and to the variation the impact interviewers have on the respondents’ willingness to consent. These three findings indicate that, for the majority of respondents, consent is not driven by personal convictions but rather depends on the circumstances of the respondent at the time of the interview and on the potential influence of the interviewers.

In sum when it comes to using linked survey and administrative data, users need to take into account the potential sample bias resulting from the correlations between the respondents’ characteristics and the agreement to consent. On a practical level the longitudinal evidence based on our project suggest that it is important to brief interviewers about what to expect and encourage them to adapt to the respondent’s circumstances when attempting to gain their cooperation to consent to record linkage.


1 Cialdini, R. Wosinska, W. Barrett, D. Butner, J. and Gornik-Durose, M. 1999. Compliance with a Request in Two Cultures: The Differential Influence of Social Proof and Commitment/ Consistency on Collectivists and Individualists. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25, 1242-1253.

2 Korbmacher, J. and Schroeder, M. 2013. Consent When Linking Survey Data with Administrative Records: The Role of the Interviewer. Survey Research Methods 7, 115–131.

3 Mostafa, T. 2015. Variation within Households in Consent to Link Survey Data to Administrative Records: Evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, published online on: 23 March 2015.

4 Sakshaug, J. Couper, M. Ofstedal, M. and Weir, D. 2012. Linking survey and administrative records mechanisms of consent. Sociological Methods and Research 41, 535-569.

5 Sala, E. Burton, J. and Knies, G. 2012. Correlates of obtaining informed consent to data linkage: respondent, interview and interviewer characteristics. Sociological Methods and Research 41, 414–439.

Providing Education to the Syrian Refugees: ‘No Lost Generation’ a Promising Initiative

Syrian refugee children sit inside a makeshift school tent in Lebanon

Since the start of the conflict in Syria in March 2011, more than 6.5 million Syrians were displaced and another 3 million became refugees in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq (figures from October 2014). According to UNHCR 3.2 million Syrians are now registered with the UN refugee agency; half of them are children below the age of 17. In some countries the influx of refugees has raised serious challenges to the abilities of governments, NGOs and international organizations, to provide the needed services such as food, shelter, education, and health.

In Lebanon, according to UNHCR, the number of Syrian school-aged children will exceed the number of Lebanese children who were enrolled in the public system in 2012. Eighty percent of those children were not in school as of September 2013. In addition to this, drop-out among Syrian refugees is twice as high as the national average. In Jordan, the situation is not much better with 56% of Syrian children not enrolled in school.

Aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

The inability of the educational infrastructure to cope with the influx of refugees is compounded by the lack of adequate funding, the lack of trained teachers, the need for transportation, and the need for specialized services for children with disabilities. Other challenges also include the differences between the Syrian and Lebanese or Jordanian curriculums. In particular, in Lebanon, Syrian children have to study science and mathematics in either English or French while in Syria teaching is done exclusively in Arabic. Furthermore, children who have missed school for more than two years (usually older than 12) are more difficult to reintegrate into the education system since they are older than their peers. In addition to this, a large number of children are obliged to work in order to sustain their families.

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan

Facing all these challenges a number of initiatives are being developed with the objective of alleviating the impact of the conflict on young Syrians. The ‘No Lost Generation Initiative’ is the largest among them. The initiative was launched in October 2013 by a consortium of UN agencies, governments, NGOs, and donors. Since then, numerous countries and organizations have pledged funding and the results are promising. Over the last year, 770,000 children received some form of education and more than 660,000 received psychological support. Enrolment of Syrian children in neighbouring countries has increased from 169,500 in 2013 to 489,000 in 2014. Now the major challenge facing the initiative is ensuring the sustainability of its funding.

Sources: The No Lost Generation Initiative.

For more information on the situation of Syrian refugees refer to:

The World Bank’s report on Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The UNHCR’s report on the countries hosting Syrian refugees.

The different reports of the No Lost Generation Initiative.

Oxfam’s Syria, a children’s crisis?

Save the Children’s Untold Atrocities: The Stories of Syria’s Children.

Consent to admin data linkage and bias

1Surveys are increasingly being linked to administrative records with the potential of greatly enriching survey content on subjects such as health and education at a limited extra cost. One major challenge to data linkage is when respondents refuse permission to link their administrative records to a survey. This problem leads to a reduction in sample size and to sample bias if consent is correlated with respondents’ characteristics.

At the Centre for Longitudinal Studies we are carrying out an ESRC-funded project to analyse consent to admin data linkage in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). MCS follows 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000-01 and, so far, data has been collected when the cohort members were nine months, three, five, and seven years old. One of the important features of MCS is that the same consent questions are sought from the main respondent (i.e. the child’s parent, in most cases the mother) and the partner, and some of the questions are asked at each wave of data collection. The aim of this project is to assess the correlates of consent and to ascertain whether a latent propensity to consent exists across domains, at the household level and over time.

When we analysed multiple consent questions from MCS wave 4 for the main respondent, we found that ethnicity, gender, age, the respondent being a reserved person (as reported by the respondent), and the number of siblings in the household had a significant effect on the likelihood to consent. We also found a highly significant latent propensity to consent between all consent questions irrespective of the domain since all questions were answered by the main respondent.

At the household level four we analysed consent outcomes for two domains – health and economic records – two for the main respondent and two for the partner. The variables with the highest and most significant effects were: religion, the respondent being reserved, respondent’s age and whether the respondent received benefits. The analyses also showed that even if different respondents in the same household answered these questions, a strong and significant latent propensity to consent did exist; the strongest being for the combinations of questions answered by the same respondent.

In general, we found that respondents from ethnic minorities, older respondents and those who are more reserved were less likely to consent to data linkage. In contrast, non-religious respondents, white respondents, those with larger families, and those receiving benefits were more likely to consent. However, the impact of these variables varied according to the subject of consent and who was asked for consent.

When consent was analysed over time for the same respondent and the same domain (i.e. health), only ethnicity and whether the respondent is a reserved person had a significant effect. Further, the results showed that a weak latent propensity to consent exists between consent outcomes over time. This particular finding indicates that the likelihood to consent depends on two major groups of factors, those that are fixed over time (e.g. ethnicity) and those that reflect the circumstances surrounding the interview. The first group is likely to influence consent over time because it is intrinsic to the respondent. In contrast the second group of variables represent extrinsic circumstances which are time specific. Further, the weak latent propensity to consent over time is probably an indication that people forget what they did on the last survey and hence only their intrinsic characteristics affect their choice.

Beyond MCS, the findings of this study suggest that if consenters were very different in terms of their characteristics from the entire sample of respondents and if non-consent is high, then the significant impact of some of the correlates (e.g. ethnicity, openness, age,) requires adjustment for consent bias. Weights and multiple imputations can be used for this purpose. However, the efficiency of these techniques depends on the ability of the researcher to identify the variables which correlate with consent.

This article was first published in the December issue of Research Matters.

Learning: a cost effective intervention for a healthier old age

This post was first written for the blog of the Institute of Education by Dr. Andrew Jenkins.

It is based on research undertaken by Andrew and I for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Please follow the link to download the report.

We live in an ageing society. On current estimates the European population aged over 60 will continue to grow by about 2 million people a year over the next couple of decades and by 2060 over 65s will make up some 30% of the European population. Finding ways to minimise the resulting strain on pension and healthcare systems is a major long-term challenge for policy-makers.

But older adults can also be considered a resource to society so the idea of active ageing must be central in addressing demographic change. Active ageing means growing old in good health and as a full member of society: having the opportunity to continue to participate in paid or voluntary work, remaining independent in daily life and involved as citizens. Older people have much to contribute to society and in turn will enjoy a better quality of life if they are able to do so. The EU’s designation of 2012 as the European Year of Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations underscores this point.

So, if the objective is to maintain the wellbeing of individuals as they age, what is the contribution that participation in learning can make? Research has been growing on this topic but has been skewed towards small scale qualitative studies which, while of much interest and value, are not readily generalisable. Our study “Learning and Wellbeing Trajectories Among Older Adults in England” (pdf) aimed to strengthen the evidence base by drawing on quantitative data.

Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a large-scale, nationally-representative survey of older adults, we focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and related a measure of their wellbeing to participation in several types of learning.

The most striking finding was that it was consistently the non-vocational and relatively informal types of learning (such as music/arts groups and evening classes) which were associated with increases in wellbeing, rather than formal, more vocationally-oriented education and training courses.

Quantitative studies also have the advantage of yielding precise estimates of the magnitude of effects. As people grew older, their wellbeing gradually declined. But the measured impact of participation in (non-vocational) learning was at least sufficient to offset this gradual decline in wellbeing as people became older. Another way of expressing these results is that the boost to wellbeing delivered by engagement in learning was about one-quarter of the size of moving from the bottom to the middle of the wealth distribution. These estimates, then, show very clearly that learning participation has a useful role to play as a contributor to the wellbeing of older adults.

Of course, quantitative studies of this type do not tell us very much about the reasons why participation in non-vocational learning affected the wellbeing of older adults while vocational courses did not. But previous, qualitative evidence, can help to fill that gap. It seems plausible that vocational courses would only have benefits in the longer term and only when they led on to more satisfying work or promotion. Participation in non-vocational learning activities such as music or arts groups or evening classes, on the other hand, would be more likely to be undertaken because of their intrinsic enjoyment or possibly because of opportunities for getting out and socialising. These are important reasons for learning at older ages. Older adults often appreciated learning because it helped them to be receptive to new ideas, to improve understanding and maintain a positive outlook. Opportunities for increased social participation, for meeting up and studying with friends and the forming of new networks, were also important factors.

In general, it is not at all easy to think of policy instruments which can make an effective contribution to active ageing. If learning can play even a small part in contributing to good health and wellbeing, or helping people to live independent lives for longer, then providing relevant and interesting courses for older adults is a remarkably cheap and cost-effective intervention.

Despite the accumulating evidence of the benefits of learning for older adults in England, rates of participation in adult education have tended to decline in recent years. Some of this decline may be blamed on the recession – people having less money to spend on learning. But the decline has occurred primarily because of deliberate changes in adult education policy. Since 2004 – that is under both Labour and Conservative/Liberal governments – the policy has been to reduce the amount of money available for short courses and other unaccredited types of learning in order to concentate funding on longer-term, qualification-bearing courses aimed at 16-24 year olds.

It was no great surprise then, that when the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently, and rather belatedly, published the results of the 2010 National Adult Learning Survey (pdf) it showed some sharp declines in both non-formal learning (taught classes not leading to qualifications) and informal learning (involving self-study to improve knowledge). Indeed it was found that participation in learning had declined across almost all age groups with the exception of 16-19 year olds, with the decline being most noticeable among those aged 60 and over. This was a significant reversal of rising participation rates shown by earlier surveys.

Policies channelling public funds towards accredited and vocational learning carries the risk that other forms of learning, and any benefits which derive from them, will be neglected. Yet, in our ageing society, if adult learning can play a role in maintaining the health and wellbeing of older citizens then there must be a strong case for the state to invest in it.

Universal pre-school systems boost pupil scores and reduce educational inequalities, study finds

Press release: Monday, December 10, 2012

Institute of Education, University of London – (Written by David Budge)

The UK would have a much higher ranking in international pupil performance tables if a universal pre-school education system had been established in the 1990s, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, estimate that the UK’s 15-year-olds would have finished 13th out of more than 60 countries in the most recent PISA literacy test – rather than 25th – if they had all experienced more than a year of pre-schooling.

The calculation is based on an analysis of the test scores and early educational experiences of 12,179 pupils in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who took part in the 2009 PISA reading assessment. The test was conducted by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and was taken by pupils in 482 UK schools.

The IOE study also confirms that while all social groups benefit from pre-school provision, children from the lowest socio-economic groups gain most from universal schemes. This is because in the UK, and most other countries, it is the poorest children, and those from immigrant backgrounds, who have traditionally been least likely to receive pre-school education.

Only 54 per cent of the UK PISA candidates in the bottom socio-economic group had received pre-school education, compared with 73 per cent in the most advantaged group.

The study’s findings provide support for the coalition government’s decision to extend pre-school provision to 130,000 two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged families from September 2013. A further 130,000 two-year-olds from poorer families will be offered 15 hours a week of free nursery education or care from September 2014. All three and four-year-olds in England are already entitled to 15 hours of free nursery education for 38 weeks of the year.

“We expect that this rise in free provision for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds will increase their literacy attainments at age 15 and will reduce inequalities in educational performance scores between children from different social backgrounds,” say the study’s authors, Dr Tarek Mostafa and Professor Andy Green. “It will help to develop children’s cognitive skills at the formation stage before they become resistant to change.”

The researchers also looked at the pre-school experiences of the 4,567 Swedish children from 189 schools who took the 2009 PISA test. This exercise showed that Sweden could have climbed seven places in the PISA table – to 12th — if there had been a universal pre-school scheme in the 1990s.

Mostafa and Green have also calculated that in both England and Sweden the score gaps between different social-class groups could have been minimized if all children – except the most advantaged 30 per cent – had been offered high quality pre-school provision. However, they acknowledge that such a strategy would be socially divisive.

A universal scheme, on the other hand, would help to maintain a sense of solidarity among different social groups. It would also be fairer than the socially-skewed system that existed in both countries in the 1990s. Its only disadvantage is cost, they say. Ensuring that every child received pre-school education would be expensive.

“We decided to compare two countries which are supposed to be very different in terms of their approach to education to see whether the effects of universal pre-school education would be similar,” the researchers explain. “Surprisingly, they are – both in terms of raising national averages and in helping to equalise educational outcomes. The latter finding is, in a sense, especially significant as it has not been clear until now that high participation rates lead to more equal educational outcomes. This study confirms that they do.”

Further analysis of the PISA data also suggests that other countries with very different education systems — Germany, Italy, Australia, Canada and Spain — would also have witnessed the same positive effects. Again, this was largely because in each of these countries children from poorer backgrounds have also been less likely to experience pre-school education.

The researchers accept that over the past 10 years the debate has shifted from whether children should receive a year of pre-schooling to whether they should have two, three or four years. But they believe that the basic message of their study – that universal pre-school schemes raise standards and equalise outcomes – remains true.

They also point out that more equal distributions of skills and qualifications amongst adults – something that a universal pre-school system should help to bring about — are associated with more equal incomes. “These, in turn, are associated with a wide range of social benefits, including better public health, lower crime rates and higher levels of trust,” they add.

Mostafa, T. and Green, A. (2012) Measuring the Impact of Universal Pre-School Education and Care on Literacy Performance Scores, is published by the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies (LLAKES), an IOE research centre funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The paper is available from:

Further information

David Budge
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Meghan Rainsberry
020 7612 6530
075 3186 4481

Notes for editors

1. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, which are conducted every three years, measure the “functional ability” of 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science. To date, more than 70 countries and economies have participated in PISA. The 2009 survey included a city (Shanghai), a special administrative region (Hong Kong) and a city state (Singapore) as well as nations.

2. The UK breakdown of the total numbers of schools and pupils taking part in the 2009 PISA literacy tests is as follows: England (165 schools/4,081 pupils); Wales (132 schools/3,270 pupils); Scotland (98 schools/2,631 pupils); Northern Ireland (87 schools/2,197 pupils).

3. In the UK and Sweden, the proportion of 2009 PISA candidates who received more than a year of pre-school education in the 1990s was almost identical – 64.7 per cent in the UK and 64.9 per cent in Sweden. However, children in the UK were likely to experience two years of pre-school provision while those in Sweden had up to four years.

4. In a research paper published last year Mostafa and Green noted that pre-school provision does not necessarily equalise educational outcomes because individuals from each social group tend to benefit by the same amount. The logic of this argument still holds – analyses of PISA data conducted by the OECD have reached much the same conclusion. However, in reality, as their new study points out, participation in pre-school education and care has tended to be skewed towards higher social groups. Extending pre-school provision through universal schemes would therefore equalise outcomes.

5. LLAKES researchers are studying the bonds holding together different societies, and the role that education systems play in promoting – or undermining – social cohesion. The research brings together the findings from different social science disciplines and uses a variety of empirical methods and data sources to explore these issues. Further information from

6. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 12 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities. More at

7. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012-13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at


Educational reforms in the Middle East and North Africa: what is to be done?

This article was first published on the DevEd Community blog under ‘Into Africa: Special Series’.

Since the 1960s the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have witnessed a dramatic improvement in educational quality, student performance, and participation rates. However, in spite of these improvements, MENA is still lagging behind other comparatively similar countries. In fact, MENA still suffers from high dropout rates, low performance scores on international assessment tests, comparatively high rates of illiteracy, persistent gender inequalities, and the inability of the education system to generate the skills required in an increasingly competitive world.

The challenges MENA is facing

The improvements that the region knew during the last decades, though important, are still insufficient to maintain economic competitiveness and social development. In fact, most of the MENA countries were able to drastically increase participation in basic and secondary education by increasing the proportion of their GDP spent on education. In addition, they managed to almost eliminate the gender gap in participation in basic education and to reduce the illiteracy rates by significant amounts.
However, despite all such improvements, MENA is still lagging behind many of its comparator countries (e.g. Malasia) especially in the areas of secondary and higher education. In fact, more than half of the university students in MENA are pursuing degrees in social sciences instead of science and mathematics. This is the opposite of what is happening in East Asia. The major consequence of the lack of synchronicity between the education system and the labor market was the high level of unemployment among the well educated.
Similarly, the impact of education on economic growth, on the reduction of income inequalities, and on the reduction of poverty is weak. One of the reasons behind this weakness is that, even though participation has improved, the quality of education was too low to contribute to improvements in productivity and growth. Moreover, educational performances were lower in MENA than in its competitors. This meant that direct foreign investments were driven to these competitors because their economies offered the right skills for business development. Finally, the variations in the quality of instruction within MENA meant that the distribution of skills is highly unequal in terms of geographical areas, gender, and social class. Of course one has to keep in mind that each country within MENA has its own context, but nonetheless most of them share the same problems.
Today, MENA’s main challenge is to adapt and to evolve within the framework of the knowledge economy since it is no longer possible to compete on the basis of cheap unqualified labor. In fact, the absence of adequate skills means that these countries will fail to attract foreign investments. Hence, education can no longer be organized in the shape of a pyramid where the number of students decreases with the level of education. In fact what is needed now is a more diverse and comprehensive post-compulsory education system that delivers skills adapted to the needs of the economy and to each country’s context. These skills should reflect the diversity of abilities and aspirations within the student population.
Moreover, the demographic boom that these countries have experienced in the recent past means that funding the education system will also be challenging in the future since the number of students will certainly increase. One should note that in most of these countries the participation of the private sector in the delivery of education is very limited.

The reforms

Since the previous educational reforms in MENA have failed to deliver on their promises, now it is time to think of new paradigms.
Increasing the quality of educational provision: This consists of improving the quality of a combination of inputs, including teachers’ qualifications, instruction, curricula, equipment and infrastructure. The quality of these inputs should be improved simultaneously while giving attention to the distribution of such inputs in terms of geographical territory, gender and social class. The state can play an important role by coordinating the efforts of different actors (i.e. public, private, local, nongovernmental).
Reforming the incentives system: Incentives are extremely important in fostering efficient behavior among the actors on the education market. For instance, in some cases teachers and school principals can act independently of any supervision; hence new mechanisms that link educational performances to teacher and principal benefits must be established. However, one has to note that such incentives are hard to operate since it is difficult to determine what is due to teacher performances and what is due to other determinants.
Reforming the role of the state: public authorities responsible for the management of the education system should take into account the requirements of the “consumers”, and the latter should also be able to influence the decisions of educational authorities. Such reforms require the decentralization of some tasks to the local or school levels. This will allow local authorities, principals and teachers to customize educational provision and instruction according to the needs of the students (given their context, culture, economic situation, social class, gender, etc).
Synchronizing the education system with the needs of the labor market: the education system should deliver a diverse array of skills which correspond to the needs of the economy. Hence, it should become more sensitive to such needs. This requires tailoring education around the needs of the market while moving away from manufacturing standard skills into cultivating them through personalized education.
Reforming the education systems across the Middle East and North Africa should become a priority especially that the wind of change is sweeping through this part of the world. Democratization need not be limited to the political process and should extend to education among other areas. Any undertaken reforms must reflect the needs and aspirations of the people, while preparing them for the future economic and social challenges.

Measuring Job Quality.

Extract from LLAKES newsletter n4.

What do we mean by “job quality”, and how can we design indices to measure it? These are the central questions in another LLAKES European research project being led by Francis Green.

The project follows a call from the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions, an agency of the European Union based in Dublin, to carry out analyses of its 5th European Working Conditions Survey, which was completed in 34 countries during 2010. Working together with LLAKES researcher, Tarek Mostafa, Francis’s bid won the contract to devise job quality indices from the data, and to use the indices to describe the distribution and growth of job quality in Europe.

From the outset, the idea of job quality needed to be defined, the concept was focused squarely on objective features of the job, rather than on personal characteristics of the worker. Indices for wages, intrinsic work quality, employment quality (security and prospects), and work-life balance features were devised. Rather than focusing just on wages, which economists generally favoured, or combining them artificially to form a single index, it was decided to analyse the four indices separately. Tarek and Francis have since been busy analysing how these aspects of jobs vary across socioeconomic groups, and between European countries. We know that wages were increasing steadily in many countries, prior to the great recession of 2008, and that earnings had become much more unequal, including in Britain. Of particular interest is what’s been happening to the non-wage aspects of job quality over time. Is it getting any better? If so, in what dimensions? Is it becoming more unequally distributed across the population? Up to now very little has been known about these matters. Francis presented some initial findings on these issues to a conference on job quality in early November at Cornell University, New York State, organised by the Industrial and Labor Relations Review, in a paper entitled “Is job quality becoming more unequal?” In US conferences one is sometimes urged to make sure to include his “elevator” answer in his presentation, (i.e. the summary you would give to someone important if you found yourself describing your paper’s argument during a ride in the lift). In this case, Francis’ elevator statement required less than one floor: “not in Europe”. It was found that work quality, work intensity and work-life balance features were all becoming less, not more, unequal between 1995 and 2010; while environmental security (i.e. absence of physical and ergonomic hazards) was pretty stable.

Preschool Education and Care: a Win-Win Policy

A new study that I conducted with Professor Andy Green suggests that preschool education and care has a positive effect on female employment and on educational performance at the age of 15, but it does not help close the gap between poorer students and their peers.

Debates about policy frequently involve identifying social and economic trade-offs. A policy which is designed to boost economic competitiveness may have negative social consequences or, conversely, policies designed to enhance social cohesion may come at a high economic cost. The tensions between economic and social goals seem particularly evident in times of economic austerity. However, social scientists occasionally identify policies which they claim would have clear benefits, both on the economic and social side. Pre-primary education and care (PSEC) is one such policy area.

A new study that I conducted with Professor Andy Green showed clearly that PSEC opens the doors of employment for women. Affordable and accessible pre-school provision frees up mothers of young children to undertake paid work and is thus likely to increase the employment rates of women in general. Raising rates of employment makes an important contribution to raising GDP per capita and improving living standards. At the same time participation in PSEC is held to improve the cognitive abilities of young children. These gains would come at little net costs since they are off-set by the increases in productivity and in tax revenues which will accrue.

We used two datasets: The first is a macro dataset that covers Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA from 1980 to 2008. We included a large number of determinants of employment. These determinants are: PSEC, expenditure on unemployment (welfare), rigidity of employment, union coverage, coordinated wage bargaining, unemployment benefits’ duration and replacement rate, the rate of house ownership, and prison population. We also included the following variables: The degree of centralization of wage coordination (plant, firm, industry, or economy level), an index of employment protection, migrant stock, the ratio of minimum to average wage, taxes on labour, and union density. These variables did not have a significant effect on total or female employment and were taken out of the equation. The second is a micro-dataset: the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA 2009). Using this data we assessed the impact of attending preschool education on the achievements of 15 year-olds in Mathematics in the same countries mentioned above.

The findings are interesting. An increase in PSEC of 10% (making pre-primary education affordable and accessible) increases female employment by 6.1%. This result is substantial and intuitive since women are the major benefiters of PSEC. For the rest of the variables the impact on female employment is as follows. Expenditure on employment (welfare), rigidity of employment, and union coverage have a negative and significant effect on it, while the impact of coordinated wage bargaining, house ownership, and prison population is positive and significant. By contrast, unemployment benefits’ duration and replacement rate have an insignificant effect.

It is also worth noting that prison population accounts for a large difference in employment rates between the US and the rest of the countries. This happens because inmates are not considered as unemployed and as a consequence are taken out of the statistics. This artificially inflates employment rates in the US. Anecdotally, the prison population of the US is of 743 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, and in Sweden it is of 78 inmates. This corresponds to 12.6% difference in total employment rates in favour of the US. Such a higher level of employment is artificial and does not result in higher productivity and it has high social and economic costs related to the need to operate prisons and to incarcerate so many people.

When comparing the social democratic economies with the liberal ones, it is possible to see that they attain high levels of employment through different roads. In the liberal economies flexibility is paramount while in social democratic economies publicly provided PSEC and coordinated wage bargaining play an important role.

On the other hand, using the PISA 2009 dataset, we were able to prove that attending PSEC is positively and significantly related to performance scores on reading at the age of 15 for all social groups. Hence, the cross-national analysis does not support the argument that raising levels of PSEC participation necessarily reduces social gaps in attainment at 15 years of age. Participation in PSEC increases educational performance by similar amounts for children of all social groups in most countries. Social gaps in performance at 15 may only be mitigated by high levels of PSEC provision where children from less advantaged families get more – or better quality – provision.

The important implication of this for policy is that for PSEC to reduce social gaps in school attainment it is not sufficient merely to increase aggregate PSEC participation rates. It would require policies with a substantial bias towards children from disadvantaged families so that they receive more – or better quality – PSEC than children from other social groups. Policy in England seems to be moving in this direction. On Sept 19th 2011 the Department for Education set out plans to extend the existing free entitlement of PSEC to 15 hours per week, which currently applies to all three and four year olds, and to all disadvantaged two year olds (i.e. for those qualifying for free school means or in local authority care). This should increase PSEC participation rates for disadvantaged families. DFE estimates that approximately 140000 two year olds would be eligible to benefit. However, it remains to be seen whether this will bias participation towards this group sufficiently to reduce inequalities in learning outcomes.

This study also appeared on Montrose42’s blog, on Nursery World, and on the page of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the IOE.