Upward mobility not assured by rising HE participation

Higher education participation rates have increased across the world’s richest countries with some 57% of young adults within the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, expected to enter a bachelor degree or equivalent during their lifetime, according to the latest statistics in Education at a Glance 2015, just released by the OECD in Paris.

Around 22% are expected to enter a masters degree programme.

Despite rising participation, there are still troubling indications that family background can play a role in university access in many countries, with more children of highly educated parents likely to go on to higher education than the children of parents with only secondary education.

But more unusually, this year’s OECD indicators show for the first time that there is also a proportion of intergenerational ‘downward mobility’ or young people whose parents are university educated but who themselves do not themselves go beyond formal senior secondary qualifications.

Higher education participation rates are still growing, and in some countries such as South Korea participation has reached almost universal levels among young people.

“We are moving to a world where tertiary education is where secondary education was 100 years ago,” said Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills, referring to rising participation rates across the board.

Higher education entry rates provide some indication of the accessibility of tertiary education as well as the perceived value of higher education for employment. High university entry rates “imply that a highly educated labour force is being developed and maintained”, the OECD’s report on education indicators said.

Among 25 to 34 year-olds in OECD countries 41% now have university level education – a proportion that is 16% higher than the proportion of 55 to 64 year-olds with a similar level of education. In many OECD countries this generational difference in higher education attainment levels exceeds 20 percentage points.

The rise in young people with tertiary education is important economically, according to the OECD, as on average 83% of tertiary educated people are employed, compared with 74% of people with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education and 56% of people with below upper secondary education.

But in an indicator of upward mobility inaugurated in this year’s edition of the OECD’s annual report, parental education continues to influence children’s educational attainment. There is “still a clear sign of social background playing a role”, Schleicher said.

On average, across OECD countries, 22% of 25 to 34 year-old non-students (in Korea 47% of this group) have attained higher education even though their parents have not.

Nonetheless, while higher education attainment is positively associated with earnings, the OECD report also noted that parents’ education levels had less impact on individual earnings compared to the effect of one’s own level of education.

“When parents’ education is taken into account, adults with tertiary education are 23 percentage points more likely than those with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education as their highest level of education to be among the top 25% in monthly earnings on average,” the report said.

The opportunity for individuals to attain tertiary education and surpass their parents’ education has stayed the same or increased over time in most countries, the report notes. Levels of intergenerational upward mobility are high in South Korea, the Russian Federation, Poland, Finland, Ireland and Spain but low in countries such as Italy, Sweden the US, Germany and Austria.

But there is also a troubling evidence of downward mobility – lower educational attainment than the highest level reached by parents. This is particularly true in countries like Norway, Sweden, Canada, Japan and the UK.

In countries such as Germany and Austria there is as much downward mobility as upward, said Schleicher, adding this may be due to some young people preferring apprenticeships and vocational pathways during an economic downturn.

But he added that the reasons for ‘downward mobility’ and the groups of people affected had not yet been looked into at the OECD.

The 2015 report said in some countries it was “natural” that a large proportion of young adults appeared unlikely to surpass their parents in educational attainment because many parents had already attained tertiary education, so there was no measurable generational rise. The OECD regards this kind of intergenerational status quo in educational attainment as positive.

But the link to parental background in many countries was cause for concern. Because of its strong links to employment, earnings, overall wealth and the well-being of individuals, education can reduce inequalities in society – but it can also perpetuate them, the report said.

“It is critically important to address inequalities in education opportunities in order to maintain social mobility and broaden the pool of candidates for higher education in high skilled jobs,” it said.

But Schleicher said the socio-economic barriers to higher education stem from equity in school access. “Children from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t get the kind of schooling they need” to get into university, he said.