OECD countries must expand and adapt higher education

Tertiary institutions in OECD countries will need to expand the number of student places they offer, according to a just-released report from the OECD. This year more than 23 million students across OECD and G20 countries will enter their first university-level course, with entry rates in OECD nations soaring from around 40% in 1995 to 60%.

“The new generation of students will be particularly diverse, with more adults and international students than ever,” according to Education Indicators in Focus. Universities would have to adapt programmes and teaching methods to respond to the changing student body.

This is number 15 in the Education Indicators in Focus series, titled “How are university students changing?”. The series draws on data from OECD publications such as Education at a Glance to provide short snapshots of aspects of education – the previous Focus looked at international student mobility.

Access to university has soared in recent decades, the new report pointed out.

In many countries this was because of growing demand, while in others it was driven by structural changes to education systems – such as implementation of the Bologna process. New courses had been created to meet changes in professions.

In Australia, the tertiary entry rate for 2011 was over 95%, up from just under 60% in 1995. In the United States the entry rate was 70% (up from around 58% in 1995), closely followed by South Korea at 69% (up from just over 40%). The European Union rate of 59% was up from around 35% in 1995.

New entrants

In many OECD countries, students enter universities straight after school. The average age of new students is 22 years across OECD and G20 countries, and the average time spent studying full-time is 4.4 years.

But age of entry differs between countries depending on when students graduate from school, the intake capacity of institutions and the opportunity cost of entering the labour market before tertiary education. So the entry age varies from 19 years in Belgium, Japan and Indonesia to over 25 years in countries like Iceland, New Zealand and Sweden.

In 2011, the report revealed, 52% of new entrants to universities were women. “Only in Indonesia, Japan, Mexico and Saudi Arabia are women outnumbered by their male counterparts. However, the higher the level of education, the narrower the gender gap: in advanced research programmes, the gap almost disappears.”

While access has expanded, “unequal access to university still persists, with entry rates reflecting the background of students”, the report stressed. Young people from highly educated families are nearly twice as likely to enter higher education as their peers.

“This effect is strongest in Portugal and Turkey, where young people from highly educated families are more than three times as likely to enter university.”

The rapid expansion of higher education in G20 countries had “caused a significant shift in the distribution of the global talent pool among countries”. China now had the biggest pool of new students, followed by India and the US, according to the report.

The number of international students had more than doubled in the past decade, and overall 4% of new entrants now studied abroad. In 2011, the largest numbers of foreign students were from China, India and Korea.

Across OECD and G20 countries, 53% of international students were from Asia in 2011 – with three out of four of them enrolled in an OECD country – followed by 23% from Europe, 12% from Africa, 6% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 3% from North America and 1% from Oceania, with the rest unspecified.

New students by field

The report also looked at the distribution of new students by field in 2011.

Nearly a third of students (32%) were in the social sciences, business and law, followed by 20% in the humanities, arts and education, 15% in engineering, manufacturing and construction, 14% in health and welfare fields, 10% in sciences, 6% in services and 2% in agriculture, with 1% not known or unspecified.

Popular fields also varied between countries. For example, in Finland engineering, manufacturing and construction absorbed the largest share of students, and for Korea and Saudi Arabia it was humanities, arts and education.

Overall, only a quarter of all students were in the sciences and engineering, with women particularly underrepresented – only 14% of new female students chose science-related fields against 39% of men. But there were considerable gender differences between countries:

“Among new entrants, the proportion of women choosing science-related fields ranged from 5% in Belgium and Japan to 19% in Greece, Indonesia, Italy and Mexico. Among men, the proportion in these fields ranged from 18% in Argentina to 58% in Finland.”

Graduation and jobs

The report revealed that around 70% of students who enter a first degree in OECD countries graduate, but completion rates “differ widely” between countries.

“In Hungary, Norway and Sweden less than 60% of those who enter university will graduate, in contrast with their counterparts in Australia, Denmark, Japan and Turkey where the completion rates are 80% or more.”

Women are considerably more likely to graduate, with completion rates that average 74% compared to 65% among men.

“Only in Austria, Germany, Sweden and the United States is the difference between women’s and men’s completion rates below five percentage points,” according to the report.

It said that not graduating did not mean that skills and knowledge were lost. In Sweden and the US, it was more common than elsewhere for students to leave higher education to work, and then resume study later.