As the World Economic Forum launches the Human Capital Report 2015, a new report from the OECD has ranked countries according to the maths and science skills of their 15-year-olds. The overlaps and differences between the two sets of country rankings points to optimism for some countries, and challenging questions for others.

Education is a part of human capital, but not the whole story. The Forum’s index measures enrolment and attainment from primary through to tertiary levels and in vocational training, but also includes measures such as learning in the workplace, unemployment and skills mismatches. By breaking down its analysis by age group – from under-15s up to over-65s – the index aims to help policymakers to see where action is most needed.

When the countries richest in human capital are compared with those whose 15-year-olds are best at maths and science, three broad trends emerge.

In many Asian countries, the future looks bright

Some countries in Asia rank relatively low on the Forum’s human capital index, even as their 15-year-olds are sweeping all before them. The OECD finds that Singapore’s schoolchildren are the best in the world at maths and science, but the country as a whole ranks just 24th for its overall human capital. South Korea, third on the educational rankings, is 30th for human capital.

The difference is even starker for Vietnam, which has won headlines in coverage of the OECD report for rising as high as 12th – above the likes of Germany and the United States. Yet in the 124 countries ranked by the Forum for human capital, Vietnam is only 59th.

Part of the reason will be the kind of policy decisions the Human Capital Index exists to highlight: the ranking of Vietnam, for example, is dragged down by the relative difficulty of starting a business. However, much of the story here is a straightforwardly generational one. Singapore, for example, has developed so rapidly over the last couple of generations that the differences among its age groups are stark: if we were to look at the human capital only of the world’s over-65s, Singapore would rank 66th; if we looked only at the under-15s, it would come 3rd.

Countries like this, with a stronger ranking on the OECD’s education charts than in the Forum’s human capital index, can face the future with relative optimism.

There are worrying signs for some Nordic nations

The opposite holds equally true: countries which are currently performing well overall on measures of human capital, but whose 15-year-olds are lagging behind in math and science skills, can expect a struggle to maintain their advantage in human capital in the decades to come.

Comparing the two indices suggests that three Scandinavian countries have cause for concern. Norway ranks 2nd in the human capital index, but its 15-year-olds are only 25th in the world for math and science, according to the OECD; for Sweden the rankings are 6th and 35th respectively, and for Denmark 7th and 22nd.

These are countries where the age breakdown of rankings on the human capital index is the mirror image of Singapore’s improvement through the generations – Denmark, for example, would have the 4th highest human capital in the world if we looked only at old age pensioners, but 25th if we looked only at young schoolchildren. The OECD has recently called on Sweden in particular to review its educational policies in view of its declining performance over recent years.

Five countries are both doing well and holding steady

Despite the differences between the two indices, five countries hold a top 10 position on both: Finland, Switzerland, Japan, the Netherlands and Canada.

Finland is especially noteworthy, significantly outperforming its near Nordic neighbours on maths and science – finishing 6th on the OECD’s charts, the top outside Asia – and ranking first globally for human capital. Among the reasons for Finland’s index-topping performance are its primary schools, ranked highest in the world for quality and with second lowest school primary dropout rate; and the skills of its 25-54 age group, with the World Economic Forum’s Executive Opinion Survey rating Finland the easiest country in the world to find skilled employees.

While policymakers in these five countries can feel relatively relaxed about their current performance and future prospects, the decline of Sweden shows there is never room for complacency. Conversely, for countries at the bottom end of the scale – Yemen, Chad and Mauritania on the human capital index; Ghana, South Africa and Honduras for science and maths – the generational breakdown of Singapore shows how quickly progress can be achieved.

The Human Capital Report 2015 is available here.  

Explore the report by using the heatmap below:

Author: Andrew Wright is a contributor to Agenda. 

Image: Students take an examination on an open-air playground at a high school in Yichuan, Shaanxi province, China, April 11, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer