Thirty-four countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or the OECD, are in the process of boosting higher education reforms in order to reduce the proportion of young people who are neither in employment nor in education or training.
According to a key report, Education Policy Outlook 2015: Making reforms happen, the common objective is to implement 450 education reforms that were adopted between 2008 and 2014 across the OECD countries, and the 29% of policies that aim to improve the quality and equity of tertiary education to prepare students for the future.
“The issue is that higher levels of educational attainment are associated with positive individual and social outcomes,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria when releasing the report in Paris. Gurria cited higher employment rates, relatively higher earnings and better health as some of the benefits of higher educational attainment.
Although the share of younger adults with tertiary qualifications is higher than that of older people, the report says there are concerns about the need to increase the number of young people graduating from universities and other tertiary institutions.
The need to increase graduates
Andreas Schleicher, director of the OECD’s department of education and skills, said 39% of young adults graduate with bachelor degrees and another 18% with masters degrees.
“This year, 1.6% of young people are also expected to complete advanced research degree programmes,” Schleicher said.
Even then, though, there are worries in that, on average, one in five young people in OECD countries does not acquire the minimum skills necessary to participate fully in today’s society.
The report also raises concern at the low graduation rates in some countries, especially in Argentina, Chile, Estonia, Greece, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
But despite such setbacks, OECD education officials are optimistic that since 2000, the proportion of the world population with only a secondary education has been shrinking.
Young people studying longer
Richard Yelland, head of the policy advice and implementation division, and principal author of the report, attributed expansion of tertiary education attainment largely to younger people studying for longer than their parents.
Between 2000 and 2013, the proportion of young adults aged 25-34 years with tertiary qualifications was consistently higher than that of older adults aged 55-64. “On average, across OECD countries, the younger adults kept increasing their attainment levels throughout this period,” said Yelland.
The crux of the matter is that, whereas in 2000 tertiary qualifications in OECD countries on average were held by 26% of those aged 25-34 and 15% by those aged 55-64, by 2013, the proportion of older adults with tertiary qualifications had increased to 24% compared with 40% for younger adults.
Nonetheless, some of those gains were not reflected in some countries, especially in Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Norway, where researchers noted an increase in the share of younger adults with low qualifications during the same period.
On average, according to the OECD, a reverse gender gap in education has occurred at the tertiary level, a situation in which more women than men attend and graduate from universities.
The report says gender differences in educational attainment rates were inverted in 2012 with 34% of women attaining tertiary education compared to 31% of men.
Currently, 46% of women aged between 25 and 34 have attained tertiary education as compared with 35% for men of the same age. “But this is in sharp contrast with the older generation, where 24% of women aged 55-64 have higher education qualifications, compared with 26% for men of the same age bracket,” says the report.
Schleicher said younger adults had spurred the growth in higher educational attainment and, with the suggested reforms, the change was expected to become even larger in subsequent years, especially among young women.
“In all OECD countries, younger women have achieved higher tertiary attainment rates than older women by an average of more than 20 percentage points,” he said.
But amid efforts to prepare students for the future, OECD officials are concerned that, whereas 25-34 year old women have higher attainment rates at the tertiary level compared with men of the same age, they have lower employment rates, except in the Netherlands.
The report notes that employment rates for tertiary educated women can be more than 10 percentage points lower than men with the same level of education in Australia, Colombia, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Mexico, Slovakia, Russia and the United States, and up to 20 percentage points in Turkey.
Pathways to the labour market
To improve the transition from school to work, regardless of the economic climate or gender orientation, universities and other tertiary institutions are expected to provide more professional pathways into the labour market.
“Degree programmes should also have strong links to the labour market and low dropout rates,” said Gurria.
Towards this goal, countries are being urged to establish comprehensive secondary schools that would merge academic and vocational pathways, and become competitive nurturing grounds for higher education.
Already some countries have introduced new degrees and diplomas in their universities and other tertiary institutions to offer more students greater access to higher education.
In Belgium and Hungary, new short-degree cycles have been introduced, while in Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal and the Netherlands, among other countries, new policies have been adopted to support effective student transition across education or into the labour market.
Commenting on the need for expansion of higher education, Gurria said that access to quality tertiary education has become more important than ever before because of the competitive nature of knowledge-driven economies.
“Rapid technological development has changed the way we interact with each other and our communities and there is no alternative but to embrace working relationships and new tools that enrich our environments,” he said.
But in the emerging cut-throat competition for jobs, it seems only the high-performing education systems will enable their graduates to find avenues into the labour market.
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