Who’s the smartest?

A new ranking of European countries places the Nordic nations at the top of the list. As for the bottom . . .

Robin Utrecht Keystone Press The Netherlands also scored well in the index

Since politicians are fond of mouthing platitudes about how learning is essential for growth, development and prosperity, the Bertelsmann foundation decided to analyze which nations backed up those statements with action. This week, the German think tank unveiled the European Lifelong Learning Indicators (ELLI) Index, a measure of learning from cradle to grave that evaluated 23 European Union nations on everything from Internet access to participation rates in job-related training. While Denmark was thrilled with its No. 1 overall place, education-proud Germany was shocked that its 10th-place spot was just above the EU average. Greece, Bulgaria and finally Romania were consigned to the bottom of the pile, along with most of southern and eastern Europe.

The index originated at the Canadian Council on Learning in Ottawa, which has been releasing a comparable domestic survey since 2006, published annually in the “Smartest Cities in Canada” issue of Maclean’s. The statistics that form the basis of the CCL’s Composite Learning Index as well as the ELLI come from four distinct areas of education: vocational learning, formal education, personal growth and social cohesion. By evaluating data on 36 separate indicators, the Bertelsmann foundation wants Europeans to understand that “learning cannot and should not start or end in the classroom,” Ulrich Schoof, a co-writer of the report at Bertelsmann, states. “We learn on the job, during our leisure time, in the community and in our families.”

It is no surprise that the Nordic nations of Denmark, Sweden and Finland occupy three of the top four slots, largely because of their innovative education systems. The Netherlands finished in third place overall. Given that Dutch society is in the midst of a fierce debate about how to integrate a growing Muslim minority, it is not surprising that the nation did relatively poorly in the “trust in others” measure included in the social cohesion category. Still, it finished in the No. 2 spot for that category because of its extensive volunteer work, tolerance and strong social networks, Schoof explains.

Interestingly, the survey also compared the ELLI results to corruption, global competitiveness and access to health care, and reported that in every case the countries high in the ELLI did well on those indicators as well, while the ELLI’s bottom dwellers—such as Greece—were equally abysmal on the other scales. The report bluntly assessed the impact of those low scores: “The effects of corruption can cripple economic development while accessibility of health services can literally make the difference between life and death. Recent economic events prove that the institutions and policies that enable a country’s competitiveness are not merely facilitators of productivity, but are also the mechanisms preventing social and economic collapse.”

Ironically, while the ELLI was launched to fanfare in Europe, the original Canadian index is in jeopardy. In March, Ottawa cut all of its funding to the fledgling organization, eliminating 90 per cent of its budget. Unless a generous donor comes forward, the original learning index might be expelled from Canada.

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