Increasing levels of education around the world

Within most OECD countries, the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with tertiary attainment is moderately to considerably higher than the percentage of 55- to 64-year-olds with tertiary attainment. Exceptions to this trend include Germany, Israel and the United States.

In 2010, 25 OECD countries had upper secondary attainment rates of 80% or more among 25- to 34-year-olds, according to the OECD 2012 Education at a Glance report. The following is an extract from the report.

Educational attainment is a commonly used proxy for the stock of human capital – that is, the skills available in the population and the labour force.

As globalisation and technology continue to reshape the needs of the global labour market, the demand for individuals who possess a broader knowledge base, more specialised skills, advanced analytical capacities, and complex communication skills continues to rise.

Shifts in attainment levels

As a result, more individuals are pursuing higher levels of education than in previous generations, leading to significant shifts in attainment levels over time within countries.

At the same time, the rise of new economic powers – and sustained efforts by some countries to build and invest in their tertiary education systems – has shifted the global landscape of educational attainment as well.

In recent years, countries with strong and long-held leads in attainment have seen their positions erode as individuals in other countries have increased their attainment at an extremely fast pace.

Over the past several years, the global economic crisis has likely affected educational attainment rates in two ways.

First, it has provided an additional incentive for people to build their skills and reduce the risk of being unable to secure or retain employment in difficult economic circumstances. Second, weaker employment prospects have lowered some of the costs of education, such as earnings foregone while studying, providing a different kind of incentive for individuals to pursue more education.

If current tertiary attainment rates among 25- to 34-year-olds are maintained, the proportion of adults in Ireland, Japan and Korea, among other countries, who have a tertiary education will grow to more than that of other OECD countries, while the proportion in Austria, Brazil and Germany (among others) will fall further behind other OECD countries.

Vocational education and training is a major factor in the educational attainment of people in many countries. A vocational upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education is the highest level of attainment for more than 50% of 25- to 64-year-olds in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia.

Despite notable strides, some countries remain far below the OECD average in terms of upper secondary attainment. For example, in Brazil, China, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey roughly half of all 25- to 34-year-olds – or far more – lack an upper secondary education.

Efforts to raise people’s level of education have led to significant changes in attainment, particularly at the top and bottom ends of the education spectrum.

In 1997, on average across OECD countries, 36% of 25- to 64-year-olds had not completed upper secondary education, 43% had completed upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education, and another 21% had completed tertiary education.

By 2010, the proportion of adults who had not attained an upper secondary education had fallen by 10 percentage points, the proportion with a tertiary degree had risen by 10 percentage points, and the proportion with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education had increased marginally, by one percentage point.

Finishing tertiary education

Based on current patterns of graduation, it is estimated that an average of 39% of today’s young adults in OECD countries will complete tertiary-type A (largely theory-based) education over their lifetimes, from 50% or more in Australia, Denmark, Iceland, Poland and the United Kingdom to less than 25% in Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

At the same time, it is expected that only a third of young adults will complete tertiary education before the age of 30, from a high of more than 40% in Australia, Denmark, Ireland, Poland and the United Kingdom to only 18% in Mexico.

In Iceland, 60 people out of every 100 will graduate from a university-level programme in their lifetimes but only 36 out of every 100 will do so before the age of 30.

In Poland, 55 out of every 100 people will graduate from a university-level programme in their lifetimes, and 47 out of every 100 will do so before the age of 30, while in Australia, Denmark and the UK about 50 out of every 100 people will graduate from a university-level programme, but just over 40 out of every 100 will do so before the age of 30. If international students are excluded, fewer than 30 Australians out of every 100 will graduate before the age of 30.

Tertiary graduation rates indicate a country’s capacity to produce workers with advanced, specialised knowledge and skills. In OECD countries, there are strong incentives – including higher salaries and better employment prospects – to obtain a tertiary qualification.

Tertiary education varies widely in structure and scope among countries, and graduation rates are influenced both by the degree of access to these programmes and the demand for higher skills in the labour market.

Expanding participation in tertiary education while maintaining quality is likely to create pressure for countries and tertiary institutions to maintain current levels of spending.

In recent years, the traditional notion of a tertiary student has changed with the influx of older students into tertiary education. In some countries, it is common for tertiary students to have professional experience and be older than 30.

Changes in the labour market have provided incentives for adults to study in order to adapt their skills to new labour-market needs. In addition, the global economic crisis has created incentives for students to enter or remain in tertiary education, instead of risking entry into an unstable labour market.

Based on current patterns of graduation, it is estimated that an average of 47% of today’s young women and 32% of today’s young men in OECD countries will complete tertiary education over their lifetimes. The majority of graduates at all levels of tertiary education are women, except at the doctoral level.

In spite of rapidly expanding demand for university programmes in recent decades, there is still a place for shorter, vocationally oriented programmes. These programmes respond to the need of individuals to pursue shorter programmes of study, as well as the needs of the labour market.

An average of 11% of today’s young adults in OECD countries are expected to complete tertiary-type B (practically oriented) education over their lifetimes (12% of young women, compared to 9% of young men).

In China, an estimated 14% of today’s young people will graduate from a tertiary-type A first degree programme, and 18% will graduate from a tertiary-type B first-degree programme, during their lifetimes.

International students make a significant contribution to tertiary graduation rates in a number of countries. For countries with a high proportion of international students, such as Australia, New Zealand and the UK, graduation rates are artificially inflated.

Over the past 15 years, tertiary-type A graduation rates have risen by 20 percentage points on average among OECD countries with available data, while rates for tertiary-type B programmes have been stable.

While doctorates represent only a small proportion of tertiary programmes, the graduation rate from these types of programmes has doubled over the past 15 years.