Ireland has the most higher education graduates per head of population of all 27 countries of the European Union, a report from EU statistical agency Eurostat has revealed.
Looking at the proportion of people aged 30-34 who had completed tertiary education, Eurostat said that in 2012, 51.1% of Ireland’s residents had degrees. This was followed by Cyprus (49.9%), Luxembourg (49.6%) and Lithuania (48.7%).
Meanwhile, the lowest proportion of higher education graduates was found in Italy (21.7%), Romania (21.8%) and Malta (22.4%).
Regarding Europe’s other large countries, the proportions were 47.1% for Britain, 31.9% in Germany (which retains a strong tradition of technical education), 43.6% in France, 40.1% in Spain and 39.1% in Poland.
EU member states all have national targets for expanding the number of citizens undertaking higher education, and the Eurostat report said that eight had already met or exceeded their 2020 national targets: Denmark, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Finland and Sweden.
EU Education Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said: "The progress in achieving our education targets is a positive message in a time of economic uncertainty.
“The jobs of the future will demand higher qualifications, and these figures show that more young people are determined to achieve their full potential. I encourage all member states to sustain their efforts so that we reach our 2020 targets.”
She noted that not all countries were making progress, with Eurostat registering a decline in the number of higher education graduates as a proportion of the general population for 2012, compared to 2010. These included Belgium (down from 44.4% to 43.9%), Bulgaria (from 27.7% to 26.9%), Estonia (from 40% to 39.1%) and Spain (from 40.6% to 40.1%).
Vassiliou called on these countries to “increase their efforts and follow the many examples of good practices”.
The longer-term picture is rosier, with the proportion in 2012 of people aged 30-34 who had completed tertiary education increasing in all member states from 2005. This figure almost doubled in Latvia (from 18.5% in 2005 to 37% in 2012), the Czech Republic (13% to 25.6%) and Romania (11.4% to 21.8%).
Meanwhile, Eurostat said that on average a higher proportion of women aged 30-34 had completed tertiary education than men in the EU: 40.0% compared to 31.6%. And this was the case for almost all member states, with the largest gender gaps occurring in Estonia, Latvia and Slovenia.
For women, the percentage completing tertiary education ranged from 23.2% in Romania to 57.9% in Ireland. For men, it ranged from 17.2% in Italy to 50.4% in Luxembourg.
The European Commission will this autumn release a report on the latest developments regarding the growth of student numbers within EU higher education institutions.
Eurostat compiled its figures within its EU Labour Force Survey, which provides data on EU labour market and trends, including education attainment.
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