Rich world attainment is rising fast but not for all

There has been a sharp rise in education attainment across the world’s wealthy nations, driven by young adults studying for longer. While at the turn of the century, tertiary qualifications were held by 26% of people aged 25-34 years living in OECD countries, the proportion had soared to 40% by 2013, according to an interim Education at a Glance report.

For 55-64 year-olds, the share with higher education rose from 15% in 2000 to 24% in 2013.

But at the same time, nearly one in six young adults in OECD nations does not have the skills essential to function in the modern world. There are 13 OECD countries with 15% or more unqualified youth – including France, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand and Italy. And there has been little change in the past decade.

Andreas Schleicher, director for educational and skills at the OECD, believes a substantial proportion of under-educated young people poses a “major risk for labour markets and societies. Progress has to be achieved across the educational ladder, with priority given to diminishing the share of the least educated among the young.”

The publication, Education at a Glance Interim Report: Update of employment and educational attainment indicators, was one of two released simultaneously by the OECD late last month that touched on education and employment.

It is a successor to Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators released last September and presents updated data on three major topics – educational attainment, labour market outcomes, and the transition from school to work. The other publication was Education Policy Outlook 2015: Making reforms happen.

The report has data on education from the 34 OECD member countries, and partner countries Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Latvia, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

Educational attainment

In recent decades, almost all OECD countries have seen 'significant increases' in education attainment, and in most countries more than four out of five young adults have attained at least an upper secondary education, says the report.

On average across the OECD, 40% of younger adults have a tertiary qualification, but there are wide national differences.

“In Canada, Ireland, Japan and Korea, the majority of young adults hold a tertiary qualification, while it is the case for less than 30% in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey and the partner countries Brazil and Colombia.”

Austria, Czech Republic, Germany and Slovak Republic have extensive upper secondary vocational systems, the report notes, resulting in 60% or more of young adults attaining upper secondary education and low proportions – 11%, 6%, 13% and 6% respectively – with less than upper secondary.

“Therefore, these countries belong to the group with low proportions of young adults with low skills, while Italy, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey have some of the highest proportions of younger adults with low qualifications.”

Trends in educational attainment

“Between 2000 and 2013, upper secondary (or post-secondary non-tertiary) and tertiary qualifications gained more and more terrain across OECD countries which means that the proportion of the population with only a below upper secondary education is shrinking” – from 35% to 23% for all adults.

The proportion of people with tertiary education grew to 33% of all adults in 2013.

The rise in attainment is being driven largely by younger generations studying for longer. In 2000, tertiary qualifications were held by 26% of 25-34 year-olds and this proportion soared to 40% by 2013.

While progress has been made across all countries, says the report, the five countries with the highest proportion of older adults with low qualifications are also those with the highest share of younger adults with low qualifications – Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Turkey.

“In Portugal and Spain, the proportion of young adults with low qualifications is more than 30%, and in Mexico and Turkey more than half of younger adults have not attained an upper secondary qualification. Among these five OECD countries, only in Italy is the proportion of younger adults without an upper secondary qualification below 30%.”

Overall, the proportion of younger adults with low qualifications dropped from 25% in 2000 to 17% in 2013 – it was 18% for younger men and 15% for younger women.

“Despite this dominant trend, in some OECD and partner countries, namely in Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Norway, there was an increase in the share of younger adults with low qualifications,” the report says.

Participation in the labour market

Since 2000 there has been a contraction of labour markets across most OECD countries. Employment rates have been decreasing and jobless rates growing among people with all levels of education.

In all OECD countries, people with high qualifications have the highest employment rates and in most countries, they also have the lowest risk of being unemployed.

Employment rates are 83% for people with tertiary education, 73% for those with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education, and 55% among people with qualifications below upper secondary education.

“Unemployment rates are 5.3% for individuals with tertiary education, 8% for those with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education and 13.7% for those with qualifications below upper secondary education,” the report says.

For adults with tertiary qualifications, the highest unemployment rates are found in Greece and Spain – 15% or more.

Employment rates vary to a degree by age group, but are consistently lower for older adults. However, joblessness “hits younger generations the hardest” for all levels of education, the report continues.

On average across the OECD, about 10% of older adults who do not have upper secondary education are unemployed, compared with about 21% of younger adults, and 11% of younger adults with an upper secondary education are jobless compared to 7% of older adults.

“The gap between the two age groups is the smallest among tertiary-educated adults: about 8% of younger adults in this group are unemployed compared to about 4% of older adults.”

Unemployment rates can be quite high among younger adults with a tertiary qualification in some countries such as Greece (33.1%), Italy (16%), Portugal (18.4%), Slovenia (10.8%), Spain (20.8%) and Turkey (11.1%).

And in a few countries, unemployment rates are higher among tertiary educated adults than among those with education below upper secondary.

In Mexico unemployment rates increase as education levels increase. This is the case among all adults – 5.2% and 3.8%, respectively. “In Mexico, the highest unemployment rates across all levels of education are those for the tertiary educated 25-34 year-old men (7.9%).”

Marked gender differences

A far higher proportion of 25-34 year-old women have tertiary education than men – 46% and 35% respectively – while the opposite is true for 55-64 year-old women and men – 24% and 26% respectively.

“In Australia, Estonia, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom, at least one in two young women (25-34 year-olds) has a tertiary education, and in Canada, Japan, Korea and the Russian Federation more than 60% have a tertiary education.”

“The picture is quite different among young men however: only in Japan and Korea have more than one in two men attained a tertiary education.”

Employment outcomes vary according to gender across all OECD countries and education levels, the reports find. “On average, only 66% of women are employed compared with 80% of men.” The gender gap is the biggest among adults with the lowest education levels.

“The gap between men’s and women’s employment rates narrows as educational attainment increases. Yet, employment rates among tertiary educated women across OECD countries are still considerably lower than those of men, even though a higher proportion of women hold tertiary education credentials."

On average, 8.3% of tertiary educated younger women are unemployed compared to 7.3% of younger men. “Gender differences in employment could be a result of more women being outside the labour force, probably due to traditional roles in regards to the family unit.”

Transitions from school to work

The ageing population in OECD countries should favour employment among young people, the report says. But during recessionary periods, people with more work experience are favoured over new labour market entrants, and most countries are adopting policies that raise the age of retirement, slowing job rotation.

In unfavourable market conditions, young people tend to stay in education longer. On average, since 2000 about one year had been added to the duration of formal education. “In the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey and the Slovak Republic, two years and more have been added.”

“In 2013, a typical 15 year-old in an OECD country could expect to spend about seven additional years in formal education during the next 15 years,” says the report.

Almost eight years would be spent not in education, in which the typical student would be employed for around five-and-a-half years, be unemployed for just over one year, and be out of the labour force – neither in education nor seeking work – for just over one year.

The report says that varying levels of employment among students of 15-29 years old can be explained by cultural, economic or social differences across countries. OECD students spend on average nearly two out of seven years in education working while studying.

Studies have shown that a combination of work and study can enable students to try different jobs before fully entering the world of work, and can help them gain financial independence, develop a sense of responsibility, enhance self-accomplishment and social integration, and develop knowledge and skills that help them find work after their studies.

It has been demonstrated that students who work between 10 and 19 hours a week have a stronger academic performance than other students – working or not – “showing that an optimal work-study balance provides structure and discipline that are harder to acquire if working too few or too many hours”.

In Latvia, Poland and Turkey, more than 60% of students who were employed worked 35 hours a week or more.

Countries in which a large share of 15-29 year-olds were employed and studied at the same time usually showed low proportions of students working 35 hours or more per week, the report says. “More than 25% of students were working in Denmark, Iceland and the Netherlands, but less than 20% of them worked 35 or more hours per week.”

Austria and Germany are different because of the prevalence of work-study programmes, which involve about half of all working students. About one in five young adults was both studying and working in the two countries in 2013, and about half of them were working 35 hours a week or more.

In the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden about half or more of the 15-29 year-olds working during their studies in 2013 worked nine hours or less per week.

In Canada, Iceland and the United States, more than half of employed students worked between 10 to 34 hours per week, while in Greece, Hungary and Italy the proportion of young people who were in education and in employment was below 5%.