Higher education needs to step up efforts to prepare students for the future

Demand for tertiary education continues to rise, but its further expansion will only be sustainable if it matches the supply of graduates with labour market and social needs and gives them the skills required to navigate the future, according to a new OECD report.

Education at a Glance 2019, which is part of the Organisation’s “I am the Future of Work” campaign, finds that 44% of 25-34 year-olds held a tertiary degree in 2018, compared to 35% in 2008, on average across OECD countries. The employment rate of tertiary-educated adults is 9 percentage points higher than for those with upper secondary education and they earn 57% more.

However, some sectors in high demand may struggle to find the skills they need. Less than 15% of new entrants to bachelor’s programmes study engineering, manufacturing and construction and less than 5% study information and communication technologies, despite these sectors having among the highest employment rates and earnings. Women are particularly under-represented, making up fewer than one in four entrants, on average, across OECD countries.

“It is more important than ever that young people learn the knowledge and skills needed to navigate our unpredictable and changing world,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, launching the report in Paris. “We must expand opportunities and build stronger bridges with future skills needs so that every student can find their place in society and achieve their full potential.”

Many institutions are evolving to meet changing job market demands by promoting flexible pathways into tertiary education, balancing academic and vocational skills, and working more closely with employers, industry and training organisations. But they must also balance larger enrolments with the need to contain costs, while maintaining the relevance and quality of their courses, says the report.

Between 2005 and 2016, spending on tertiary institutions increased at more than double the rate of student enrolments to about USD 15 600 per student on average across OECD countries. Private sources have been called on to contribute more as countries introduce or raise tuition fees.

This year’s edition of Education at a Glance also assesses how youth are moving from education into work, as part of its ongoing analysis of where OECD and partner countries stand on their way to meeting the Sustainable Development Goal for education by 2030. It finds that some countries have made significant progress in reducing the numbers of out-of-school youth in the past decade. Rates fell by 20 percentage points in the Russian Federation, 18 percentage points in Mexico, 16 percentage points in Portugal and 10 percentage points in Australia and New Zealand between 2005 and 2017.

The report finds that, on average across OECD countries, about one in six 15-24 year-olds are enrolled in vocational programmes. The attainment gap among young tertiary-educated adults and those with upper secondary has narrowed. In 2018, the share of young adults with an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary qualification, 41%, is almost equal to the share attaining tertiary education, 44%.

Education at a Glance provides comparable national statistics measuring the state of education worldwide. The report analyses the education systems of the OECD’s 36 member countries, as well as of Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, India, Indonesia, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

Other key findings

Educational attainment and outcomes

The proportion of tertiary-educated 25-34 year-olds increased by 9 percentage points, on average, across OECD countries between 2008 and 2018, while the share of adults with less than upper secondary education fell from 19% to 15%. (Indicator A1)

The gender gap in earnings persists across all levels of educational attainment and the gap is wider among tertiary-educated adults. Women earn less than men, even with a tertiary degree in the same broad field of study. (A1)

On average across OECD countries, 14.3% of 18-24 year-olds are neither employed nor in education or training (NEET). In Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Italy, South Africa and Turkey, over 25% of 18-24 year-olds are NEET. (A2)

Access to education

On average across OECD countries, around 70% of 17-18 year-olds are enrolled in upper secondary education and more than 40% of 19-20 year-olds are enrolled in tertiary programmes in almost half of OECD countries. (B1)

In almost all OECD countries, the enrolment rate among 4-5 year-olds in education exceeded 90% in 2017, with about one-third of countries achieving full enrolment for 3‑year‑olds. (B1)

Current estimates indicate that, on average, 86% of people across OECD countries will graduate from upper secondary education in their lifetime, and 81% of people will do so before the age of 25. (B3)

Education spending

Across the OECD, countries spend, on average, USD 10 500 per student on primary to tertiary educational institutions. Average spending is 1.7 times more per student at the tertiary level than other levels. (C1)

Expenditure continues to increase at a higher rate than student enrolments at all levels, particularly tertiary since 2010. Average spending per student at non-tertiary levels increased by 5% between 2010-2016 while the number of students remained unchanged. At the tertiary level, spending increased by 9% while the number of students rose by 3%. (C1)

Total public expenditure in 2016 on primary to tertiary education as a percentage of total government expenditure for all services averaged 11% in OECD countries, ranging from 6.3% in Italy to 17% in Chile. (C4)

In the classroom

Students in OECD countries and economies receive an average of 7 590 hours of compulsory instruction during their primary and lower secondary education, ranging from 5 973 hours in Hungary to almost double that in Australia (11 000 hours) and Denmark (10 960 hours). (D1)

The proportion of the compulsory curriculum devoted to mathematics at the primary level ranges from 12% in Denmark to 27% in Mexico; at the lower secondary level, it ranges from about 11% in Hungary, Ireland and Korea to 16% in Chile, Latvia and the Russian Federation (and 20% in Italy, including natural sciences). (D1)

On average across OECD countries, there are 15 students for every teacher in primary education and 13 students per teacher in lower secondary education. The average school class has 21 students in primary education and 23 students in lower secondary education. (D2)

The teaching workforce is ageing: on average across OECD countries, 36% of primary to secondary teachers were at least 50­ years old in 2017, up 5 percentage points from 2005. Only 10% of teachers are aged under 30. The profession is also still largely dominated by women, who comprise seven out of ten teachers, on average, across OECD­ countries. (D5)