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

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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)

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COVID-19 could see over 200 million more pushed into extreme poverty

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Children play outside a metal polishing workshop in a slum in Uttar Pradesh, India. © UNICEF/Niklas Halle'n

An additional 207 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030, due to the severe longterm impact of the coronavirus pandemic, bringing the total number to more than a billion, a new study from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has found. 

According to the study, released on Thursday, such a “high damage” scenario would mean a protracted recovery from COVID-19, anticipating that 80 per cent of the pandemic-induced economic crisis would continue over a decade. 

Not a foregone conclusion 

The gloomy scenario, is however, “not a foregone conclusion”. 

A tight focus on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), could slow the rise of extreme poverty – lifting 146 million from its grip – and even exceed the development trajectory the world was on before the pandemic, UNDP said

Such an ambitious but feasible “SDG push” scenario would also narrow the gender poverty gap, and reduce the female poverty headcount, even taking into account the current impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency added. 

A “Baseline COVID” scenario, based on current mortality rates and the most recent growth projections by the International Monetary Fund, would result in 44 million more people living in extreme poverty by 2030 compared to the development trajectory the world was on before the pandemic. 

COVID-19 ‘a tipping point’ 

Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic is a “tipping point” and the future would depend on decisions made today. 

“As this new poverty research highlights, the COVID-19 pandemic is a tipping point, and the choices leaders take now could take the world in very different directions. We have an opportunity to invest in a decade of action that not only helps people recover from COVID-19, but that re-sets the development path of people and planet towards a fairer, resilient and green future.” 

The concerted SDG interventions suggested by the study combine behavioural changes through nudges for both governments and citizens, such as improved effectiveness and efficiency in governance and changes in consumption patterns of food, energy and water.  

The proposed interventions also focus on global collaboration for climate action, additional investments in COVID-19 recovery, and the need for improved broadband access and technology innovation. 

The study was jointly prepared by UNDP and the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver. It assesses the impact of different COVID-19 recovery scenarios on sustainable development, and evaluates multidimensional effects of the pandemic over the next ten years. 

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Cut fossil fuels production to ward off ‘catastrophic’ warming

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Countries must decrease production of fossil fuels by 6 per cent per year, between 2020 and 2030, if the world is to avert “catastrophic” global temperature rise, a new UN-backed report has found. 

Released, on Wednesday, in the shadows of the coronavirus pandemic, the Production Gap Report also revealed that while the pandemic and resulting lockdowns led to “short-term drops” in coal, oil and gas production, pre-COVID plans and post-COVID stimulus measures point to a continuation of increasing fossil fuel production. 

“As we seek to reboot economies following the COVID-19 pandemic, investing in low-carbon energy and infrastructure will be good for jobs, for economies, for health, and for clean air,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UN Environment Programme (UNEP).  

“Governments must seize the opportunity to direct their economies and energy systems away from fossil fuels, and build back better towards a more just, sustainable, and resilient future.” 

The Production Gap Report, produced jointly by research institutions – Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Overseas Development Institute, and E3G – and UNEP, measures the “gap” between the aspirations of the Paris Agreement on climate change and countries’ planned production of coal, oil, and gas. 

The report also comes at a potential turning point, according to the author organizations, as the global pandemic prompts unprecedented government action – and as major economies, including China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, have pledged to reach net-zero emissions. 

‘Recover better together’ 

The 2020 edition found that the “production gap” remains large: countries plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with a 1.5-degree Celsius temperature limit. 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the report showed “without a doubt” that the production and use of fossil needs to decrease quickly if the world is to achieve Paris Agreement goals. 

“This is vital to ensure both a climate-safe future and strong, sustainable economies for all countries – including those most affected by the shift from grey to green,” he said. 

“Governments must work on diversifying their economies and supporting workers, including through COVID-19 recovery plans that do not lock in unsustainable fossil fuel pathways but instead share the benefits of green and sustainable recoveries. We can and must recover better together.” 

Use COVID-19 recovery plans 

The report outlined key areas of action, providing policymakers with options to start winding down fossil fuels as they enact COVID-19 recovery plans. 

“Governments should direct recovery funds towards economic diversification and a transition to clean energy that offers better long-term economic and employment potential,” said Ivetta Gerasimchuk, report co-author and lead for sustainable energy supplies at IISD. 

She also highlighted that the pandemic-driven demand shock and the plunge of oil prices this year once again demonstrated the vulnerability of many fossil-fuel-dependent regions and communities. 

“The only way out of this trap is diversification of these economies beyond fossil fuels,” Ms. Gerasimchuk added. 

A ‘clear’ solution 

The report also urged reduction of existing government support for fossil fuels, introduction of restrictions on production, and stimulus funds for green investments. 

Michael Lazarus, report co-author and the head of SEI’s US Center, underscored “research is abundantly clear, we face severe climate disruption if countries continue to produce fossil fuels at current levels, let alone at their planned increases.” 

“The research is similarly clear on the solution: government policies that decrease both the demand and supply for fossil fuels and support communities currently dependent on them. This report offers steps that governments can take today for a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.”  

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COVID-19’s impact on wages is only just getting started

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Global pressure on wages from COVID-19 will not stop with the arrival of a vaccine, the head of the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned on Wednesday, coinciding with a major report showing how the pandemic had slowed or reversed a trend of rising wages across the world, hitting women workers and the low-paid hardest.

“It’s going to be a long road back and I think it’s going to be turbulent and it’s going to be hard”, said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, as he announced the findings of the ILO’s flagship Global Wage Report, which is published every two years.

‘Extraordinary blow’

Except for China, which was bouncing back remarkably quickly, most of the world would take a considerable period of time to get back to where it was before the pandemic, which had dealt an “extraordinary blow” to the world of work almost overnight.

“The aftermath is going to be long-lasting and there is a great deal, I think, of turbulence and uncertainty,” Mr. Ryder said. “We have to face up to the reality, at least a strong likelihood that… as wage subsidies and government interventions are reduced, as they will be over time, that we are likely to face continued downward pressure on wages.”

But he added that it was unlikely and in many ways undesirable that the world should simply try to return to how it was before the coronavirus struck.

Cruel revelation

“This pandemic has revealed in a very cruel way, I have to say, a lot of the structural vulnerabilities, precariousness, that is baked into the current world of work. And we need to take the opportunity – it’s almost indecent isn’t it, to speak of opportunity arising out of this mega global tragedy of the pandemic? – but we do have to extract from it, the types of opportunities that allow us to think about some of the fundamentals of the global economy and how we can, in the bounce back process, make it function better.”

The Global Wage Report showed how the pandemic has put pressure on wages, widening the gap between top earners and low-wage workers, with women and the low-paid bearing the brunt.

After four years when wages grew on average, by 0.4-0.9 per cent annually in advanced G20 economies and 3.5-4.5 per cent in emerging G20 economies, wage growth slowed or reversed in two-thirds of countries for which recent data was available.

Low-wage job disaster in the US

But the figures only reflect wages for those who have jobs, and in some countries, such as the United States, so many low-paid workers had lost their jobs that average wages appeared to have risen, a misleading picture.

The damage could have been worse if governments and central banks had not stepped in to dissuade companies from laying off workers during the pandemic lockdowns, the ILO report said. It said such measures had allowed millions of wage earners to retain all or part of their incomes, in contrast to the impact of the global financial crisis a decade ago.

‘Constructive social dialogue’

But for economies to start returning towards sustained and balanced growth, incomes and aggregate demand would need to be supported and enterprises would have to remain successful and sustainable.

“Constructive social dialogue will be key to success in achieving this goal”, the ILO report said.

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