Young degree holders set to double to 300 million by 2030

In an extensive analysis, the OECD has examined the fast-changing global higher education landscape over the past 10 years and changes that can be expected in the coming decade. It forecasts that the number of young people with a degree will reach 300 million in OECD and G20 countries by 2030 and highlights challenges of access, cost, quality and relevance.

Among top trends revealed are persisting inequality in higher education attainment and low completion rates, notably for bachelor degrees, and less job security for doctorate holders. Time-to-completion has not been reduced for bachelor degrees and the percentage of students who drop out remains stubbornly resistant to decline, averaging 20%.

Diversity in higher education has increased, says the OECD report Benchmarking Higher Education System Performance, published last month.

In the decade to 2015 investment in the sector grew by 30% across OECD countries, while student numbers expanded by 10%. The report decries a lack of publications that check if performance in higher education has improved and whether increased investment has produced value-for-money.

Graduate numbers soar

The study says the number of young people aged 24 to 34 completing a tertiary degree across OECD and G20 countries is expected to increase to 300 million by 2030, up from 137 million in 2013, with the greatest growth in numbers in China and India.

Of the 137 million holding a degree in 2013, 17% were living in China, 14% were in the United States, 14% in India, 10% in the Russian Federation and 6% in Japan.

Of the 300 million 24- to 34-year-olds projected to have tertiary education in 2030, 27% are expected to live in China and 23% in India while the United States’ share of global tertiary degree holders will decline to 8%.

Thus, China and India together will have 150 million or half of the world’s tertiary degree holders in 2030 compared to 24 million in the US, 15 million each in Brazil and Indonesia, 12 million in Russia, six million in each of the UK and Germany, and three million in France.

Higher education pays off

Among the main findings is that higher education provides graduates with favourable economic and social outcomes. Even if these benefits vary considerably between nations, there is a pay-off across the OECD in economic life earnings for those with a tertiary education compared to those without.

However, the low basic skills of some graduates are a concern, the OECD says – in some countries up to 30% of the cohort graduating have low literacy and numerical proficiency.

Higher education investment per student is increasing rapidly. Between 2005 and 2015 the number of students grew by 10% while total spending rose by more than 30%.

Of great concern in the report is that only four in 10 bachelor degree students complete their degree on time – and 20% of those enrolled never complete the degree. Also, young doctoral degree holders have less job security compared to their predecessors and people in other sectors.

Mobility increases

The number of international students has soared from two million in 1999 to five million in 2016, a rise on average of 5% per year in OECD countries and 6% in non-OECD countries. In some countries one third of total enrolment is foreign students.

Internationalisation and international mobility are highest at the doctorate level, where across the OECD more than one out of four entrants to doctoral education is an international student, compared to one out of five at the masters level and one out of 10 at the bachelor level.

The number of full-time researchers in higher education grew from 1.2 million in 2006 to 2.3 million in 2016 in OECD countries, and the number of higher education institutions in the world expanded to 18,000.

Full-time researchers per 1,000 people in the labour force differs significantly across OECD nations. The highest levels in 2016 were in Denmark (15.5); Sweden (14); Iceland and Finland (13); South Korea and Norway (12). The lowest levels, at under five researchers per 1,000 people in the labour force, were found in Italy, Poland, Latvia and Turkey.

The report reveals that of all European Union countries, Belgium has been the most successful in attracting funding from the Horizon 2020 research and development programme, in terms of proportion of successful bids.

It achieved an 18% success rate out of 15,000 filed applications, followed by Austria, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands with a 17% success rate, non-EU member Norway together with Germany and Sweden at 16%, and the UK, Ireland and Denmark at 15%.

Attainment and migration

The number of global immigrants rose by 30% to 230 million people between 2000 and 2017, when on average 13% of the total population of OECD countries were immigrants, says the report. The OECD highlights that unequal access to higher education is a persistent challenge caused by socio-economic and migration background factors.

The children of parents who themselves have a degree have higher attainment levels in all OECD countries. Children of foreign-born parents are between 10% and 60% less likely to enter a bachelor degree programme.

The children of foreign-born parents (excluding international students) represent 15% of all 18- to 24-year-olds in the population average across OECD countries, based on available data. But they represent only 10% of new entrants to higher education in the same age group to study for bachelor and long-term first degrees in OECD nations.

One challenge in the coming years is to educate immigrant populations.

This challenge appears to have been overcome in Sweden, though. People not born in Sweden, or born in Sweden to two parents who were born outside the country, are now proportionally entering higher education to a greater degree than Swedes, the Swedish Education Authority UKÄ reported in its 2019 annual report.

The OECD report should be complemented with studies that can find out which factors might increase migrant entry into higher education.

Huge benchmarking exercise

The report’s 648 pages, including figures and illustrations across OECD countries, illustrate complex and increasingly diversified patterns emerging as higher education systems have not been converging over time. It represents “the first extensive examination of higher education systems undertaken by the OECD in more than a decade”.

A large number of OECD staff members participated in producing overviews comparing countries across numerous statistics, and hundreds of experts delivered data and monitored the interpretations, notably from ‘case studied’ benchmarking countries selected: Estonia, the Flemish community of Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway.

The volume deals with higher education in the wider social and economic context; the structure and governance of higher education; financial resources; human resources; access to higher education; investments in research and development; and higher education performance.

Shifts in global higher education

Mats Benner, professor of science policy at Lund University School of Economics and Management in Sweden, told University World News: “The OECD overview points at the shift in the global higher education and research system, with the continuous expansion of Asia and more modest growth in Europe and North America.

“The rise of Asia is not merely quantitative. Asia is leading the way in many areas of research and training, primarily in engineering.

“Europe, which possesses neither the globally leading universities of the United States nor the powerhouses of Asia, needs to capitalise on its strengths, inclusion, diversity and history. This calls for a continued increase in investments and widened recruitment and participation in education.”

Elena Denisova-Schmidt, a research associate at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland and a research fellow at Boston College Center for International Higher Education in the US, pointed out that the massification of higher education was a global trend that cannot be stopped – but it impacts significantly on the quality of higher education.

“The ‘low basic skills of some graduates, up to 30% of the cohort graduating with low literacy and numerical proficiency’ is one of the visible and measurable consequences. Some consequences might remain invisible so far – such as lack of academic integrity – and they might be much more worrying, I think.”

More responses

Professor Kjell G Salvanes of the Norwegian School of Economics told University World News: “The OECD report says Norway has slower growth than other OECD countries in the proportion of young people recruited to higher education. Since the report also states that in general higher education has positive returns both in terms of money and other outcomes, an interesting question is why this is the case.”

A second issue raised, he said, is that although on average the returns to higher education are positive, the report questions whether the knowledge gained matches the jobs graduates land.

“Both these questions are of great importance and Norway’s success post-oil will depend on good answers,” he said.

Salvanes’ research and that of other Norwegians shows there is a clear positive return from higher education, as well as positive effects of education on individuals and society. Research also shows that firms that are interested in these skills are willing to pay for them.

Dr Serhiy Kvit, who was minister of education and science in Ukraine from 2014-16 and is currently a professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy – where he was president from 2007-14 – commented to University World News: “In my opinion, the systems of higher education in the countries of Eastern and Western Europe will come closer to each other.

“We are also talking about wider regularities related to the processes of modernisation and global mutual understanding within the framework of a certain new system of international security. That's why the contemporary university's social role will increase in terms of political and cultural values of the West.

“According to such a trend, both East and West European understanding of higher education is relevant to our view on the task of the development of society: we all need to build a common language for a prosperous and safe future.”