GLOBAL: Higher education expanding rapidly

The higher education sector has expanded rapidly worldwide over the past decade, says the latest annual report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Education at a Glance 2008 shows that 37% of school-leavers went to university in 1995 whereas 57% on average now do in the 30 member countries of the OECD. In Australia, Finland, Iceland, Poland and Sweden, three out of four school-leavers go on to a degree course. The 500-page report also shows that public expenditure on higher education has increased but private investment has risen even more.

"The challenge facing OECD countries now is to meet growing demand while increasing quality, and that will require not just increased resources but changes in the way money is spent," said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

The share of public funds spent on the sector has expanded from 11.9% in 1995 to 13.2% in 2005 while average private spending on higher education has nearly tripled in member countries over the past five years. However, there are wide variations with Denmark, Finland and Greece getting less than 5% of funds from the private sector while in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the US, the proportion is more than 40% and in Korea, 75%. In the UK, public spending on post-18 education rose by 48% between 2000 and 2005 but this was accompanied by a 53% increase in private spending.

Private funding can be influenced by the number of international students in the system. More than 2.9 million are enrolled in higher education institutions outside their own countries, double the number in 1996 and a 50% increase on 2000. In Australia, nearly one in five university students comes from abroad and in New Zealand one in four is foreign.

Tuition fees also vary among the 30 countries. In the five Nordic countries, the Czech Republic, Ireland and Poland, public institutions do not charge tuition fees. In contrast, one-third of member countries have annual fees in excess of US$1,500. In the US, fees for American students reach more than US$5,000. Among the 19 EU countries, only the Netherlands and the UK have annual tuition fees that exceed US$1,100 for a full time national student.

Social sciences, business and law are the most popular subjects in most countries as they constitute 28% of the overall intake to universities. Female students made up 54% of new entrants to OECD universities, but the breakdown of gender varies according to subjects. In health and welfare, the arts and humanities and education, between 68 and 75% of new students are women.

The proportion of women choosing science, maths, computing, engineering, manufacturing, construction and agriculture ranges from less than a quarter in Japan, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland to more than 35% in Denmark, Iceland, Italy and New Zealand.

The report notes that earnings increase with each level of qualification. On average across the 30 countries, a degree yields a 12% return for men and 11% for women in the 25 to 64 age range. In the Czech Republic, Poland and Portugal the returns are above 22%, while in the UK, the earning advantage is 59%.

Employment rates tend to drop long before the retirement age in most countries, but rates increase with educational attainment in most, and in all countries except Iceland, higher qualifications make an important difference at an older age. This advantage is particularly marked in the Czech Republic, Italy, Luxembourg and the Slovak Republic.

The report looks at resource and efficiency challenges, saying that high completion rates are an indicator of educational efficiency. In the UK and Denmark, around 80% of degree students successfully complete their courses and in Japan more than 90% achieve this goal, which is well above the OECD average of 69%.

Education at a glance 2008, OECD Indicators