Educational upward mobility slowing – OECD report

Educational upward mobility has started to slow in the industrialised world, according to the OECD’s new Education at a Glance 2014 report. The share of people with lower qualifications than their parents is rising – even though higher education pays off more than ever before – and “inequalities between tertiary-educated adults and the rest of society are growing”.

The report analyses the education systems of the 34 OECD countries as well as Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Latvia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

The number of people with lower qualifications than their parents is 9% among 55-64 year-olds and 12% among 35-44 year-olds, rising to 16% among 25-34 year-olds.

At the same time, 42% of 55-64 year-olds attained a higher level of education than their parents, but this figure was 38% of 35-44 year-olds and 32% of 25-34 year-olds.

Socio-economic divisions between adults with and without tertiary education are growing despite the fact that access to education is continuing to expand worldwide, says the report released on Tuesday 9 September.

Among its key findings are that around 84% of young people today will complete upper secondary education over their lifetimes, with more young women now likely to do so. Close to 40% of 25-34 year-olds have a university-level education.

People with tertiary education are likely to earn twice as much as the median worker. “In Chile, Brazil and Hungary, tertiary-educated people earn more than double the income of a person without upper secondary education,” says the OECD.

Growing disparities a major challenge

The tertiary attainment rate among 25-34 year-olds has risen to 43% across the wealthy nation members of the OECD – but 65% of adults with at least one tertiary-educated parent achieved a higher education against only 23% of adults with low-educated parents.

The relative income gap between mid-educated and high-educated adults grew twice as much as the gap between mid-educated and low-educated adults between 2000 and 2012, says the OECD.

“This means that, in relative terms, mid-educated adults have moved closer in income to those with low levels of education, suggesting that the middle-classes are falling further behind.”

“These data suggest that the expansion in education has not translated into a more inclusive society,” says the OECD. It calls on governments to do more to ensure that all citizens have “the same opportunity to a good education early in life”.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education, describes growing disparities as “one of the biggest challenges facing the industrialised world”.

“We see them in earnings. We see them in employment. We dream of education as the big equaliser, with opportunities for everyone to succeed. That’s not what the data are showing.

“In fact you can see in a few countries – if you are in Finland, if you are in Korea and to some extent in the Russian Federation – there is a lot of upward mobility. But if you look to much of Europe, North America, some people are moving up but a lot of people are actually moving backwards in education.

“The most worrying part is it’s the young people, the most recent graduates, that are seeing the least mobility in their life chances.”

Money, skills and jobs

The report shows that higher education and skills still pay handsomely, in employment and earnings as well as social outcomes such as health.

“On average across OECD countries, 5% of 25-64 year-olds with a tertiary degree are unemployed compared to 14% of those without an upper secondary education; in 2000, the gap between the two groups was four percentage points less,” says the organisation.

OECD countries spent on average 6.1% of gross domestic product on education in 2011, with public funding making up 84% of all spending on educational institutions. Six countries cut public spending in real terms between 2008 and 2011 – Hungary by 12%, Iceland and Italy by 11%, Estonia by 10%, the Russian Federation by 5% and United States by 3%.

According to the report, OECD countries spend on average US$9,487 per student per year from primary to tertiary education. The average spend per tertiary student is US$13,958.

The report confirms that the economic crisis kept more young people in education. The proportion of 15- to 29-year-olds no longer in education shrank from 54% in 2008 to 51% in 2012, on average across OECD countries.

“A typical 15-year-old in an OECD country could expect to spend about seven additional years in formal education over the next 15 years,” says the OECD. “Before turning 30, they could expect to hold a job for over five years, be unemployed for nearly one year and be neither in education nor seeking work for over one year.”

Andreas Schleicher points out that there has been huge expansion in education opportunities, but problems on the job front.

“Lots more people are going on to get better qualifications. At the very same time we have still a lot of unemployed graduates looking for a job, and at the very same time employers are saying they can’t find the people with the skills they need.

“Making education more relevant, bringing education to the people who need it most, who can make most of a difference. That remains the formidable challenge,” he says.

“Skills have become the biggest driver of inequalities in our societies, and the link between skills and earnings, between skills and employment, is very, very close. If we’re not building the foundations for an equitable society, we are going to see rising disparities also in future.”

* Information on Education at a Glance, including country notes, summaries and key data, is available here.